The good book of smut?

On the surface, a recent report by the San Antonio Express-News on an atheist student organization urging classmates to trade in religious texts for pornography seems harmless enough.

The newspaper provides a concise account of the effort and includes nice sound bites from an atheist student and a Bible-believing student:

“It’s a First Amendment right,” said Bradley Lewis, 18, a freshman from Pear-land who said he plans to join the Atheist Agenda. “If religious groups can put out missionaries and go knock on my door and wake me up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I can put a table outside of the college.”

Robin Lorkovic, 18, a freshman from Houston, disagreed. Lorkovic stood near the “Smut for Smut” table holding a cardboard sign that said “God Loves You! Keep your Bible and learn from it!”

“I don’t really feel like that is appropriate at all,” Lorkovic said. “I am a Christian. I believe in God’s love, and I am here to stand my ground and stand up for what I believe in.”

And maybe that would be enough if we were talking about the student newspaper.

But we’re not.

Shouldn’t we expect a bit more context and analysis from a major metropolitan daily?

The gist of the story is contained up high:

Tired of that old Bible or Quran?

Members of the Atheist Agenda, a student organization at the University of Texas at San Antonio, are encouraging students to trade in religious texts for pornography this week with their “Smut for Smut” campaign.

In the view of club members, religious texts are as smutty as pornography because they contain violence and torture and spark religious wars. But mostly, it’s a public relations stunt meant to ignite debate and attract new members to the club.

As in the past, this year’s campaign did not disappoint, drawing hundreds to UTSA’s Sombrilla Plaza on Monday to either cheer, protest or inquire about the event and to debate the role of religion in society.

For starters, the lede strikes me as too cutesy — irreverent even — when referring to the holy books of three major world religions.

But my bigger problem is how easily the story compares the religious texts to pornography without any sort of expert analysis to back up or refute that claim.

Are there no seminary professors in San Antonio who might weigh in on the atheist group’s accusations — regardless of whether they agree or disagree?

Are there no abused women’s groups that might discuss the damage done by pornography — and perhaps even question the wisdom of a gimmick giving it away on campus?

I don’t have a problem at all with covering this story, assuming the Express-News gives equal treatment to events of a similar scale by religious students. The subject matter certainly piqued my interest, as it did Religion News Service, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media that relayed it nationally (with little original reporting of their own, unfortunately).

But rather than a “gee whiz” piece, I’d welcome legitimate journalistic treatment of the subject matter.

Porn sells. Does news?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Martha

    Why is my first reaction to this story to think that this campaign might actually mean students for the first time ever in their lives looking to acquire Bibles so that they can trade them in for free porn?

    “Hey, Mom, whatever happened to that prayerbook I got for my Confirmation? Could you look for it and post it on to me? Thanks!”

  • michael

    “But my bigger problem is how easily the story compares the religious texts to pornography without any sort of expert analysis to back up or refute that claim.”

    For the life of me I can’t figure out what this means. What sort of expertise is needed to defuse a comparison between the Bible and pornography? If we need an expert to delineate the difference it’s probably too late for an expert to help.

    Complaining that there is a lack of balance and expertise on display in this story only further dignifies this stunt as news. The only reason this stunt is newsworthy in the first place is because it is a sick joke calculated to offend and to attract publicity. Obviously it worked. But in a soeciety which likes to flaunt its vulgarity and where there are precious few sensibilities left to shock, these sorts of exagerrated displays have frankly become predictable and boring, with each performance striving to be more barbaric than its predecessor. I would suggest that devoting attention to these stunts at a site like this only underscores the prevailing impression that ‘religion news’, when it is not about the illegimitate intrusion of religion into the political sphere or the scandals and misdeeds of religious leaders, is really just about eccentric concerns at the margins of what ‘really matters’.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I don’t have a problem at all with covering this story, assuming the Express-News gives equal treatment to events of a similar scale by religious students.

    What if atheist events, as opposed to religious events, were rather unusual? Would that justify coverage that would otherwise be ‘out of proportion’ to its scale?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Michael, I understand your perspective. As a Christian, I certainly don’t need an expert to delineate the difference between the Bible and pornography. But from a journalistic perspective, my point was that if a newspaper is going to report on a group making such claims, then the paper needs to make some attempt to contact sources who might address the subject more authoritatively. Certainly, journalists will often be called upon to report on viewpoints or perspectives that they don’t personally share. As far as the newsworthiness of the “stunt,” as you called it, I think you would find differing opinions among newspaper reporters and editors.

    Ray, I agree that “unusual” is one news value. After all, the dog biting the mailman is not news, but the mailman biting the dog would be news, as the old adage goes. But I think the case can be made that a newspaper should not only report at the fringes (read: unusual) but also attempt to reflect its community in its news coverage (read: usual). Does that make any sense?


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