Oh, that Damascus road!

caravaggio conversion of paul on road to damascus wAs the masthead of this weblog says, we all know that there are times when reporters just don’t “get” religion. And then there are times when it seems that copy editors just don’t “get” what some religious terms mean or do not mean. It’s a puzzle.

But reader Herb Ely sent the GetReligionistas a note this morning that, if you stop and think about it, seems to break totally new territory. What if the computers at a major newspaper have been programmed in such a way that they don’t “get” religion? How’s that for confusing?

I think I had better unpack that a bit.

One of the things that major newspapers have started doing in the digital age is adding content to traditional print stories through URLs that zip readers away, via search engines, to collections of background information about subjects included in the story. You know, weblog style.

Take, for example, the Washington Post story by reporter Michael D. Shear about the debate (“Republicans Debate Their Conservative Bona Fides”) in Columbia, S.C., between all the GOP White House candidates. To no one’s surprise, some of the candidates — think James S. Gilmore III, Sen. John McCain, Rudolph W. Giuliani, etc. — began jabbing at each other about various flip flops or non-flip flops on sexy social issues dear to the hearts of cultural conservatives.

In that context, we find this paragraph:

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado also referred to his rivals’ sometimes changing positions, saying, “I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus, not on the road to Des Moines.”

Well, someone, somewhere in the Post news operation decided to highlight the word “Damascus” and link to a page of resources to help the reader understand the reference. Click here to see the somewhat comical results yielded by the computer search. Meanwhile, if your Google both “Damascus” and “road” you get this more accurate result.

The bottom line: I am 99.99 percent sure that the actual “road to Damascus” being referenced by Tancredo is the one described in the Book of Acts, chapter nine, where the man named Saul/Paul gets zapped in one of the most famous conversion experiences of all time.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

However, there may not be very many references to this Damascus road in the Washington Post digital archives. So perhaps we should resist from teasing the computer that did the search or the journalist who defined the borders of its search. You think?

Art: Caravaggio, St. Paul on the Road to Damascus

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    Speaking of religious terms, the other day CanWest News Service, via the National Post, referred to the Jordan River as the place “where John the Baptist was said to have christened Jesus”. Was John the Baptist really “christening” people before Christ came along? Especially given that the word “Christ” means “anointed one”, and the Baptist never anointed anybody — not even Christ himself?

  • ira rifkin

    great post! sums up the problem with editors most succinctly. am i correct to venture that the problem is even worse with website editors, who are typically less seasoned rim shots than those back in the dead pulp newsroom? if so, what’s this say about the immediate future of religion coverage on the web?

  • http://altreligion.about.com Jennifer Emick

    This one seems a definite non-starter. Are we really going to pick apart a randomly inserted Google link?!

  • http://altreligion.about.com Jennifer Emick

    Should say archive, not “google.”

  • Jerry

    Hmm, even that more accurate link turned up:

    DAMASCUS ROAD
    Click to Enter · Purchase Discounted Tickets with our code! SF07Band 26.

    as the first reference. I expect decent web sites to do better than even that perhaps like a search for “road to Damascus”.

    Sigh

    PS: ‘google’ has now become a regular noun and verb like “xerox” did many years ago. For example, if you can believe the web site: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/google

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/wp/ holmegm

    Are we really going to pick apart a randomly inserted [archive] link?!

    Well, a newspaper thought that it would be helpful to link a Damascus Road reference to a generic search link for modern day news stories that mention Damascus. We’re not talking about some blog here.

    That they “thought” this without actually thinking, and that we are being conditioned to think that this is an acceptable excuse, is sad.

    So much wasted potential … it would take five minutes for a reporter to identify terms in the story that would actually benefit from intelligent links (or even intelligent search links, like tmatt whipped up). You would never do a sidebar on the Damascus Road experience in a print edition of this story, but you could easily and unobtrusively provide the equivalent on the web. But instead we get stuff like this.

  • http://www.herbely.com/ Herb Ely

    Thanks, Terry. holmegm is correct. It points to a systematic error on the part of writers and copy editors. The practice of inserting links to search statements without considering context is not helpful and fails to provide context for secular as well as religious references.

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  • Liz B.

    As someone who works in a field related to the technology that provides these kind of links– I’d be shocked if the process weren’t totally automatic, i.e. no human (editor or writer) involved at all…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    LIZ

    So you are saying that the computer just picks out nouns willy-nilly? That people do not at least HIGHLIGHT the key words and then the computer does the searches?

    I anticipated this question, as you can see in the top few paragraphs of the post.

    It’s clear that someone DID NOT know to associate Damascus, road and conversion in the search. In other words, the desk did not GET the religious reference. Perhaps the reporter did not, as well.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Resist teasing? You’re asking too much of my sinful flesh. I especially liked the link on that search page to “You Too Can Ask the Ayatollah.” That could lead to some entertaining comments from Tancredo, I’m sure.

    My question would be, why would editors just insert a link to some search results? Do they not want to send anyone offsite? The most logical link in this case would simply have been to the Bible verse at BibleGateway or a similar site.

  • Stephen A.

    Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the media and this is yet another example. Whether they are Christian or not, reporters need to have a smidgen of Biblical knowledge, even if it’s on a literary level.

    I can’t see how a reporter can even write intelligencly about Shakespeare without knowing a bit about the Bible, considering his many Biblical allusions.

    Of course the intended audience of Tancredo’s comment knew exactly what he meant. It was actually quite brilliant, because those who would be most offended by the liberal social views of Tancredo’s opponents on that stage were the ones who can most relate to, and perfectly understand, the allusion of Paul’s conversion.

  • http://altreligion.about.com Jennifer Emick

    “Well, a newspaper thought that it would be helpful to link a Damascus Road reference to a generic search link for modern day news stories that mention Damascus. We’re not talking about some blog here.”

    No, I seriously doubt it- in almost every case, these keywords are linked fromn a keyword list by a computer. It’s automated and does not involve a copyeditor or any other human. I find it silly and distracting myself, but it helps with SEO and for that reason thney’re unlikely to abandon it.

  • Liz B

    tmatt,

    Yes, actually, that is what I mean. It’s not willy-nilly, naturally, they’d use some sort of keyword list, as Jennifer said. Of course I could be wrong. But what I do know is that the technology to do it automatically is available, and I’d just be shocked (personally and professionally!) if the Post were generated these links manually.

  • Liz B

    For the curious:

    It looks like Inform.com is the content provider for the Washington Post’s external/internal links on their stories (and Inform is very proud of this, according to their website). I won’t bore you with their sales pitch, but they describe their service as an “automated system for finding, editing and inserting related content links” and boast that there is “no more manual searching and inserting of links”. :)

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/wp/ holmegm

    Jennifer Emick: No, I seriously doubt it- in almost every case, these keywords are linked from a keyword list by a computer. It’s automated and does not involve a copyeditor or any other human.

    Sure, but as I said …

    holmegm: That they “thought” this without actually thinking, and that we are being conditioned to think that this is an acceptable excuse, is sad.

    It would probably be better not to link at all than to save on having a competent person take five minutes to insert *good* links (in fact, they probably pay more for this nifty automated service than they would pay interns to make good links).


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