Reporting stuff we already know

duh duhThe Detroit News and Baltimore Sun recently produced two shockingly non-news worthy articles about the role or religion in this 2008 presidential election.

First, the Sun‘s effort to explain that once again Catholics are swing voters in this election treads close to sounding like an opinion piece at times. Catholics concerned with issues such as abortion and pre-martial sex are said to adhere to “pelvic theology” while Catholics who do not make those issues as significant follow the more acceptable “social theology.” Aside from the slanted terminology, which I should note are put-forth in quotes by the president of a Catholic Democratic group, the article just doesn’t say anything new that couldn’t have been said in any given election cycle:

Just a day after he was announced as Barack Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden was back in Delaware, taking his usual seat in the pews of St. Joseph on the Brandywine in the small community of Greenville.

That he would participate in a Roman Catholic Mass so soon after being added to the Democratic ticket was of little surprise. Biden once vowed that “the next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary down their throat.”

Similar passions lie behind the efforts of the Obama campaign and Democratic strategists this year to win over Catholic voters, considered by many to be a crucial constituency that could determine the next president. Emotions have grown heated, with Biden under attack from national Catholic groups for his views on abortion, and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin energizing many socially conservative voters.

The article’s facts are frequently lack citations. For instance, when, where and to whom did Biden promise to impale someone’s throat with a rosary? The article states without any support that part of the reason Biden was chosen was because of his Catholic faith. The article uses qualifiers “could” and “can” four times each. In other words, the Catholic vote is up for grabs once again and could determine the outcome of the election. The same could have been said about the 2004 and 2000 elections. Catholics could have voted Democratically in large numbers for the president. But they didn’t.

The article frustrated me most in the following paragraph:

Social issues of concern to many religious voters had taken a back seat this year until McCain selected Palin, the governor of Alaska and a staunch abortion opponent, as his running mate. As the public learned biographical details, such as how Palin continued a pregnancy after learning the baby would be born with Down syndrome, the abortion issue has grown in prominence.

The author assumes that readers know that most Down syndrome babies are aborted. The implication is that abortion only became a big issue when the public found out that Palin did not abort her Down syndrome child. That’s certainly true but by failing to highlight the fact that 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted the eradication of Down syndrome children in this country goes unsaid. Why should readers be allowed to assume the fact that when people find out they have Down syndrome children they are aborted? Is the statistic too shocking to be repeated to many times? Readers deserve a more thorough explanation for why allowing a Down syndrome child to come to term raises the issue of abortion.

The Detroit News takes a slightly different approach in writing about how “social issues may become secondary at” the polls. Yes, the word “may” is used in the headline. Would you ever see in the paper’s sports section that the Indiana Pacers may finish ahead of the Detroit Pistons this year? I doubt it. That’s too speculative. Why should matters of public policy and voter preferences be any different?

See this paragraph for an example of speculative news writing:

Values voters, whose religious beliefs often dictate socially conservative electoral decisions, have been especially prized by candidates since the votes were counted in 2004. But a week before the election, some of the assumptions about how they will vote in 2008 have changed, values voters and observers say. While evangelical Christians are committed to their values, they are unlikely to drive McCain into the Oval Office in the same way that they propelled President Bush, based on issues like gay marriage, abortion and nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Aren’t there better things to put in news stories than speculative feelings that reflect the popular consensus (or the often-wrong “conventional wisdom”)?

For some hard religion-political news from my neck of the woods, check out Spiritual Politics and its highlighting of the fact that polls show that evangelicals are supporting McCain 57-33 as opposed to the 77-22 support they threw Bush in 2004. With evangelicals accounting for 35% of my state’s electorate, that vote could be critical in determining the state’s outcome which is tied according to the most recent polls. Or maybe not. Polls are just a bit ahead of the popular consensus that reporters sometimes and unfortunately rely upon, but at least there is some hard data that can be tracked from poll to poll.

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  • Dara

    I think the issue here is that we overestimate the media. It’s absurd to think that at this state in the election, reporters will think of anything 1) new, 2) interesting, or 3) clever to add to the months and months of political banter.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    “Would you ever see in the paper’s sports section that the Indiana Pacers may finish ahead of the Detroit Pistons this year?”

    Um. Daniel, do you ever actually read the sports section? If you removed all such headlines and their associated stories, some days there would be nothing but white space around the lonely, remaining ads.

    As for whether the political analysis you criticize is on target or not. Just as the endless sports predictions can be evaluated at the end of every season, so too can the political predictions be evaluated next Wednesday. I look forward to your post that day explaining whether these folks got it right or not.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Nowhere in the MSM have I seen any mention or awareness of the fact that many Catholics (including myself)- who actually pray the rosary daily- are disgusted and revolted by Biden’s “Macho” comment about shoving his rosary down the throat of anyone who comments negatively on his supposed Catholic values.
    Or maybe that is the problem–there are no devout Catholics in most of the MSM who pray the rosary. So there is noone in their stable of writers or editors to even be sensitive to the fact that such a comment is totally out of place and virtually insulting to our Blessed Mother in whose honor we pray the rosary and meditate on the life of Her Son and Our Lord and Saviour.
    Just because Biden is a Catholic shouldn’t give him a “pass” to use Our Lady’s Rosary to trash talk and not be called on it.

  • dpulliam

    Jeff, I’ll readily acknowledge that my analogy isn’t perfect, but yes I do read the sports pages and if the IndyStar wrote a headline saying that the Indiana Pacers would win the Central Division over the Detroit Pistons that headline would be laughed out of town.

    The problem with my analogy is that in politics there are only two teams while in sports there are several. But my point is that writing stories that declare the fact that one party has significantly elevated itself in a certain category of voters when there is not much hard evidence to support that assertion would be like declaring a team with little chance at doing better than a big rival (despite improvements in certain areas like point guard and a couple of rookies) shouldn’t justify articles saying that the face of the league has changed.

    I’ll more than readily grant that certain swings in voters like we see perhaps in Indiana based on the polls may indicate that the Democrats could beat the Republicans for the first time in a long time, but there are a number of other factors playing into those polling numbers.

    So I will apologize for my bad analogy and for making anyone suffer through this explanation. It’s like a joke gone bad: if you have to explain it ain’t funny. As for the political analysis in these particular stories, my main problem was that none of it was original and it was all fairly obvious.

  • Anoetos

    Pacers ahead of the Pistons?

    I think not

  • Chris Bolinger

    If you removed all such headlines and their associated stories, some days there would be nothing but white space around the lonely, remaining ads.

    Jeffrey (#2), you need to give your associates who cover sports just a little more credit. Frankly, the most inept sports reporter at the typical newspaper is more knowledgeable about sports than the “best” reporters are knowledgeable about religion or, for that matter, conservatives. If articles on sports covered the events and participants as if they were from some odd, faraway land never before visited or viewed by those in the West, then those articles would approach what passes for religion coverage in most MSM pubs.

  • Dale

    Dara wrote:

    It’s absurd to think that at this state in the election, reporters will think of anything 1) new, 2) interesting, or 3) clever to add to the months and months of political banter.

    Au contraire; The Detroit Free Press and AP have taken creative reporting on the election to extreme heights (or is that lows?) It’s hard to believe this isn’t from The Onion:

    By ANDREW WHALEN • Associated Press • October 29, 2008

    LIMA, Peru — The 11 shamans in a Peruvian faith-healing organization said today that they have foreseen victory in the U.S. presidential race: nine for Democrat Barack Obama and two for his Republican rival John McCain.

    Blowing incense over a sacred llama fetus perched on a bed of coca leaves next to posters of the leading candidates, the shamans shook rattles, chanted “Up, Obama, up!” and threw flowers at their images.

    . . .

    The shamans whistled, chanted and rubbed both posters with Andean spirit-totems, crucifixes, a statue of a dark-skinned Jesus and other idols to scare away bad spirits and negative energies they said might prevent a fair and democratic election.

    It’s good to know that AP will go as far as the high Andes in search of newsworthy, hardhitting stories about Senator Obama. The Inca shaman demographic may be a crucial factor in this election.

  • Harris

    The 57-33 split seems more in line with that odd AP poll last week (the one with 47% Evangelicals — it had a tight race where no others did).

  • Dan LaHood

    This is some spam I’ve been seeding around the Internet hoping it lands infront of a Co-Religionist, I thank God I was able to see it and have lost any sense that it might be coincidence. I boil it down to this being a contest between Obama and the little boy in question here.

    I wrote this after attending Pope Benedicts Mass at Nats Stadium in Washington. My wife and I are Lay Missionaries of Charity in Forest Glen Maryland.

    Before Pope Benedict came to America to celebrate Mass in New York and Washington, it was revealed that as a young boy in Germany he had had a cousin with Down Syndrome. One day a Nazi doctor came and claimed his cousin for the Third Reich. Taken to be “cared for” at the “hospital” young Joseph Ratzinger never saw his cousin again: one of the host of “useless eaters” marked for extermination by that brutal regime.

    My wife and I operate St. Joseph’s House, a daycare and respite care home for handicapped children. As it happened one of the children we care for, a wheelchair bound young lady, was chosen along with three other handicapped folks to carry the gifts up to the altar before the consecration at the Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington D.C. on April 17, 2008. One of these was James, a 30ish man who works in the Officer’s Club at Andrews AFB. James has Down Syndrome. He was chosen to carry the large host which would become the Body of Christ lifted up before the assembled. As James with great ceremony advanced toward the Pope, his native enthusi­asm overcame his reserve and he started to run. Simultaneously the Holy Father leapt from his chair and walked towards James with his arms out­stretched. We have a picture of this moment which I cannot look at without tearing up. What did he see as he gazed so lovingly at James? I believe he saw his cousin. I believe he saw the face of Jesus. And I believe that his great prayer as he elevated that host on that impossibly beautiful day was “As long as you did to these the least of my brethren, you did it to Me.”

    The next day April 18th, a boy was born to of all people, the Gover­nor of Alaska. They named him Trig.