Hey Lobdell! We say, “Amen”

REM tableau 2 01Faithful GetReligion readers will remember the story of William Lobdell, the Los Angeles Times scribe whose first-person account of how covering the religion beat cost him his faith ran on the front page of that newspaper.

That was strong stuff and it will, I am sure, surprise few readers to know that Lobdell has now turned that spiritual journey into a book entitled “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America,” which is due out in early 2009.

It is also interesting to read his new account of how he lost his faith in the Los Angeles Times and the modern newspaper, in general. But that’s another issue.

However, while visiting his new online home — he is doing alternative journalism in Orange County — I noticed his very blunt, very GetReligion-esque take on a recent Associated Press story. The headline: “Media bias against religion.”

Take it away, Mr. Lobdell:

In the media, I always thought open and honest debate about religion is healthy for everyone. What I hate is the natural media bias that seeps into news story. Below is a little feature on some parents who were rushing to catch a plane and left one of their five children behind (“Home Alone 6″?). The story gives the basics and then adds, “Israeli media said the parents were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple but did not give their names.”

Why is it newsworthy to tell the reader that the parents were ultra-Orthodox? Is there a practice within ultra-Orthodox wing of Judaism that orders parents to leave their children behind? What if they were Catholic? Would that make it in the story?

Nope. There’s a perception by many that the orthodox branches of any religion are filled with wingnuts. This may or may not be true, but tackle the issue head-on instead of slipping it cynically into news stories.

All I can add is, “Amen.” Of course, you see slanted reports about liberal forms of religion in, well, conservative media. Lobdell is right. It’s nasty to see that sort of thing in a basic wire-service report. Amazing.

Photo: Well, obviously.

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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.

  • Darel

    Actually, I think Lobdell grazes the truth but doesn’t nail it. The AP reporter included the line about ultra-Orthodox Jews not because he thinks (and thinks his readers will agree) that they are “wingnuts” in a generic sense. He included it because they are “wingnuts” in a very specific sense — they have “too many” children.

    Lobdell asks “What if they were Catholic? Would that make it in the story?” If they were easily identified by sight as such — i.e. the “wrong kind” of Catholic, i.e. the kind that has a lot of children — then I think it very well might have appeared. We all know (or should) the high statistical correlation between family size and religiosity (religious people have lots of kids, atheists have few).

    There is a pretty clear subtext to the story — that this couple had so many children that they couldn’t keep track of them all. “Too many children” is part of the standard repertoire of the secular left, and we shouldn’t be surprised at all to see it in the elite print media.

  • Michael

    Here’s a more complex question about “getting religion.” The AP story has a Jerusalem dateline. In Israel, the fact the couple is ultra-Orthodox has greater news value than in the U.S. and ultra-Orthodox are often identified in news stories. You see this in Haraatz and the Jerusalem Post.

    I don’t know if this changes the ethical question, but it does put context on the knee-jerk reaction that they were identified to create the subtext they have too many children.

  • Anne Sclater

    I think there are two questions here, perhaps with different answers: Why did “Israeli media” (maddeningly imprecise) include the fact to begin with, and why did AP repeat it in their version of the story? I wonder if there aren’t two different answers.

    For what it’s worth, I took the reference to the fact that they were Orthodox as an explanation of the number of children, but not as any judgment on that fact. (The “judgment” here that I see is not that they are freaky parents for having six kids, but that they are careless parents for leaving one of them in the airport. That has nothing to do with their religion.)

    But I’m not Israeli and have no idea about the way the Ultra-Orthodox are thought of or portrayed in the news media and in society there, so it’s hard for me to say what the connotations of that statement would be in an Israeli societal context.

    Maybe “Israeli media” was taking a shot at the family and the AP was just trying to offer an elaborating detail.

  • Jerry

    Michael and Anne make very good points. Media bias can creep in from unexamined foreign sources. I suspect the AP stories are not edited by people knowledgeable enough to spot bias if they are edited at all.

    I also agree with Michael that we don’t know how the ultra-Orthodox are seen in Israel.

    And, for what it’s worth, the comments here helped me to remember to avoid what a friend once referred to as “leaping to contusions”:-)

  • Darel

    So the “Israeli media” identified the couple as ultra-Orthodox. But it was the AP reporter’s decision to put that in his story.

    The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz reported this story on August 3 and neither mentioned the family’s religion. Yedioth Ahronoth reported the story on August 4, and again no mention of the family’s religion. Ha’aretz ran a commentary on the story on August 6 and guess what? No mention of the family’s religion.

    According to the AP story, somebody in Israel noted that the family is ultra-Orthodox, but the three major English-language newspapers in Israel certainly didn’t see such information as relevant to the story. Why did AP?

  • Dave

    Perhaps the implication was that the parents were rushing to meet some religious deadline on the actions they could take — ie, if this happened on a Friday with sundown closing in — and got so distracted with that concern that they lost track of a kid. The prejudices of the secular left would be irrelevant.

  • Michael

    According to the AP story, somebody in Israel noted that the family is ultra-Orthodox, but the three major English-language newspapers in Israel certainly didn’t see such information as relevant to the story. Why did AP?

    But Ha’aretz signaled to its readers that they were ultra-Orthodox in the least sentence by noting the child required Badatz kashrut-approved food.

    It appears the British press and UPI also described the family as ultra-Orthodox.

  • http://www.scienceorloneliness.com Kit

    Churches are really successful in addressing unmet needs to “belong to something greater than ourselves.”

    Based upon years of pioneering research on Loneliness by J. Cacioppo, the most striking finding about health and religion is that regular church attendance is associated with a huge improvement in morbidity, mortality stats. It isn’t pray, it isn’t faith….it’s showing up once a week with like minded people and “sharing the feeling” of togetherness. There’s even a dose effect. Those who do church more than once a week have even better health than the once a week people.

    Science validates the “love one another”, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” message. It’s not just idealism–it’s hard science. That kind of altruism and other-directed behavior is physically good for you…not just morally good for you.