Peter Jennings would be proud

As regular GetReligion readers know, in my day job I am the director of the Washington Journalism Center, which is one of the semester-length student programs associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. One of the schools that has been most active in our journalism-education work here has been Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

That name should be familiar, if you have been following the story of the tornadoes that swept through the South on the night of Super Tuesday.

We have a Union student in the program right now, in fact, and an alum who was on the campus during the storm. Another alum is the university’s press spokesman. This was one of those rare times when I was glad that someone had created text-messaging software, which allowed many people to contact loved ones very quickly amid the chaos.

The campus looks like a war zone and in the middle of the devastation stands the university’s signature clock tower, frozen at the time the horror struck.

People here at the CCCU have been reading everything we can get our hands on and watching the cable-news reports. I have to admit that, as the interviews aired, I was thinking of an anecdote that the late Peter Jennings used to to use as an illustration of why many journalists don’t get religion. Here’s a bite of that, from one of several columns I wrote about Jennings and his arguments in favor of more religion-news coverage in mainstream news:

Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. “Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’ ”

For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry — with good cause — about the future of the news.

Well, this disaster struck right in the heart of the Bible Belt and it appears that some journalists have decided to just let the locals open up and talk.

There have been some close calls, however. Consider this report from the Washington Post, which ran with the headline, ” ‘It’s Not a Baby Doll — It’s Alive.’ ” The story focused on what observers have called the miraculous discovery of an 11-month-old baby in a field, not far from the demolished house where his mother died.

The 11-month-old, dressed in a T-shirt and diaper, was lying as silently as any piece of debris in a field of tall grass about 100 yards from the now-leveled duplex where he once lived. He was face down in the mud, covered in bits of grass like many of those who had been cast about by the dozens of tornadoes that had careened across the South.

“It’s not a baby doll — it’s alive,” called out David Harmon, 31, an emergency worker from nearby Wilson County. He had first thought the boy was made of plastic.

At the very end, we hear this from the stricken grandparents who will now raise the child, after losing their own daughter:

“He has no broken bones — he’s doing great,” Doug Stowell said, though he was already wondering about medical costs and insurance coverage. He said he and his wife will now raise Kyson.

“We’ll get by best we can,” he said. “We’ve had some divine intervention.”

2247746303 3b4a5b2fe8Yes, that’s the way people talk about their beliefs, in that part of the world and in many other parts of the world, as well. That’s part of this story in a broken and mysterious creation.

To no one’s surprise, students at a Southern Baptist university also used faith-soaked language while telling this story. Here is a prime example from the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, which I should mention is a Scripps Howard newspaper. This is the top of reporter Clay Bailey’s story:

JACKSON, Tenn. – In the darkness, Kevin Furniss of Bartlett reached through an opening of the rubble and felt a firefighter’s hand grab his.

Courtney Wade is reunited with her father, James, after he arrived at the Union University campus Wednesday. Students were left homeless after a tornado ripped through dorms and overturned cars Tuesday night. “My first thought was: ‘Well, I’m just going to die here,’” said Heather Martin, 21, who had been trapped in a women’s dorm bathroom with five of her friends.

“It felt like when I received salvation, when I became a believer in Christ,” Furniss said Wednesday afternoon. “That’s what it felt like.”

Read it all. Here is one more quote and, gentle readers, this is the precise quote that Jennings was talking about. This. Is. It.

Sometimes you have to let people wrestle with the big questions in life right out there in the open — even in newsprint.

Heather Martin and five of her friends lay in a tangled mess in a dorm bathtub where they had sought shelter. And Martin, a 21-year-old junior from Erin, Tenn., was trying to come to grips with her fate. With winds swirling and ear-popping pressure changes, she was scared.

“My first thought was: ‘Well, I’m just going to die here.’ There was no way we were going to get out,” the nursing student said Wednesday afternoon. “I didn’t want to panic. I fought through what (death) was going to be like.

“I’m a Christian, and I talked to the Lord a lot (Tuesday) night. He gave me a real sense of peace. Whether I got out of there or whether I was going to be in there when I died, that sense of peace was really what kept me from panicking.”

PHOTO: From www.UUemergency.com

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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.

  • paul carden

    “the miraculous discovery of an 11-year-old baby in a field”

    Please change to “11-month-old baby”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DUH

    Thanks for the correction. Fixed.

  • http://tennessean.com Bob Smietana

    One of my colleagues at the Tennessean was out at Union as well and filed this story

  • Jerry

    Add NPR to the list who allowed people to tell their story. While I was driving in to work this morning, I heard a short segment about the death of a family where the father had avoided an IED in Iraq. One of the people searching through the rubble found the Bible of the son with the son’s name written in the hand of youth inside the front cover. The searcher’s emotional reaction was allowed to speak for itself. Part of that segment was a woman saying how much she had prayed during the storm and that too spoke for itself.

    Maybe this is not the start of a trend, but it’s certainly nice to see.

  • http://www.pastorbrett.com Brett Maragni

    Thanks, Terry, for this excellent post. As a proud Union alum (’92), I’m thankful and a little surprised by how the national media has seemed to let the students share how their faith carried them through Tuesday night’s events.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Thanks for linking to the Memphis Commercial Appeal article. It was fantastic, and gave a great sense of the way people use religious frameworks to address times of hardship. I’m passing that article along to my own class. :)


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