How to write a bad story

Every reporter has his off days. I have to think that’s what happened with this story, which ran on page 1 of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union. Written by an award-winning religion reporter, Jeff Brumley, the piece seems to take an almost personal interest in disparaging evangelicals. It’s kind of odd. Here’s the headline:

Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt
In fact, observers of Southern politics can’t even remember a candidate.

Well, yes, it is very difficult to elect people to office before they become candidates for office. Now, I have a horrible memory so if you asked me to name a candidate in the most recent election, I’d have trouble. I think you want to have better data than “observer recall,” particularly when there’s actually only one observer in the story even asked to recall the data. Just give us some facts and figures. How many Muslims are there in the so-called “Bible Belt”? One recent religious self-identification survey says that there were 1.3 million Muslims throughout the country, or about .6% of the population. How many are in the South? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups throughout time? Give us some data.

Or, if you don’t have data, how about you just paint all evangelicals as sub-literate yokels with irrational hatred in their heart? Oh you can do that? Great:

The smart money says a snowball has a better chance you-know-where than a Muslim has being elected to statewide or national office from Northeast Florida – or anywhere else in the Bible Belt.

If the recent hullabaloo surrounding Parvez Ahmed’s appointment to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission didn’t confirm that, maybe this does: Observers of Southern politics and religion can’t recall a single Muslim candidate running for major office.

“I thought about it, and I couldn’t come up with any names,” said Ken Wald, a political science professor and expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida.

“Of all the places, the South is the least likely for that to happen,” Wald said.

The reason: The region is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, “a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity.”

That’s how the story began. Yes, that was the lede. No, I don’t know how the “smart money” or the “snowball” made it into the first sentence. Perhaps they give copyeditors, or editors in general, the weekends off at the Florida Times-Union. I don’t know. But this was not written by a high school student. Brumley is actually a good reporter whose work we’ve praised before.

So why did he think painting evangelicals as members of a religion with “intellectual difficulties” was in any way okay? I do not know.

And just a small point of logic. That there has never been a Muslim candidate running for major office doesn’t speak in any meaningful sense to the probability that one will be elected in the future. If thousands of Muslims had run for office and been defeated, that would be different.

The piece then goes on to say that the election of two Muslim representatives caused consternation among “conservatives nationwide.” But the only substantiation of that claim is a Glenn Beck quote.

It’s sort of a good primer in how not to write a religion story. It’s all over the map, relies on too few actual conservative evangelicals, precisely no liberal evangelicals, and almost all the context is given by this Wald fellow, the one who believes evangelicals have intellectual problems. Another expert says that political opposition to the appointment of Parvez Ahmed, the man named in the lede, was nothing more than racism. Ahmed was the former chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR has its fans. It was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial involving Hamas funding.

The reporter allowed various sources to trash evangelicals but never found less biased sources or gave the smeared an opportunity to respond. It makes for a really bad story. I know this reporter can do better and I hope he does so in the future.

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  • Stoo

    Could “intellectual difficulties” mean “difficulties on an intellectual level” (ie theological problems or something) as opposed to “lacking intellectualism”?

    Also the snowballs chance bit seems fair enough. Seems to me candidates who don’t wave their christian credentials have quite an uphill battle over there.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Trash evangelicals?
    Not really. Jeff didn’t say that evangelicals have intellectual difficulties.
    The source said that evangelical protestantism is “a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity.”
    Big difference.
    It’s not a great quote– it appears that Mr. Wold means “philosophical” difficulties, which makes more sense.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BOB:

    The word you are looking for is DOCTRINAL.

    Note, however, that the American tradition of tolerance — with doctrinal differences acknowledged — has no stock in this article.

    As Stephen Bates noted in his great book “Battleground,” focusing on education wars in NE Tennessee, American elites seem to be confused on this point.

    They think the goal is to advocate the belief that all religious are equal in the eyes OF GOD, whereas the American tradition is to advocate that all religions are equal in the eyes of THE STATE.

    Huge difference. One that few journalists grasp.

  • http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/06/lesbian-elected-episcopal-bishop-in-los-angeles/ Julia Duin

    I did a story about Muslims running for office in 2000; at the time there were 700 Muslims running for some sort of office – from school boards on up, including a man who was running for mayor of Selma, Ala., and a Muslim city councilwoman running for mayor in Tuskegee. My source was the American Muslim Alliance in Freemont, Calif., a great source on Muslims running for public office. The bulk of the candidates are black although a few are immigrants from the Middle East.
    Obviously the events of 2001 set things back quite a bit but since then 2 Muslims have been elected to Congress, both from midwestern states. The south – and maybe the Rocky Mountain states – have the least amount of Muslims in the country. One could also ask how good a chance an evangelical Christian has of being elected in Muslim-friendly Detroit.

  • Jerry

    The honest question is to compare the level of prejudice amongst southern evangelicals against every other region and religious group.

  • Peter

    I see what the writer was trying to do and I actually like the breezy lead. The quote isn’t the best, but he has plenty of supporting quotes to back up the basic argument.

    I’m actually interested in the need to trash CAIR everytime they are mentioned. The unindicted coconspirator smear is handy, but a little dishonest without context. Worse in some ways, then the clumsy quote here.

  • Jeff H

    If Muslims make up just 0.6 percent of the population, pure mathematics would say that only 1 in every 166 candidates would be a Muslim. Of course, we then have to factor in the fact that candidates normally are people who think they have a chance of winning. Starting from such a population disadvantage, that chance would be very slim at first-glance, certainly enough to keep plenty of worthy candidates from running. In light of this, what we seem to have here is not just a bad story, but a non-story.

  • John D

    There’s a statistical ghost in this story. I remember in prior reporting that there’s a frequent poll in which they ask people “would you vote for an X candidate?” In one of the recent polls, “gay” edged out “Muslim.” Although this report was done on a national basis, I suspect the data can be broken down by region and get to the needed piece of data: what percentage of people in the South would vote for a Muslim candidate, and how does that compare to the national average?

  • Passing By

    Texas had a Palestinian-American running for governor this year, but he denied ties to any specific religion, so I don’t think that counts. Given some of his gaffs on the campaign trail (not dissimilar to those of the Republican Debra Medina), there really isn’t a need to tie his loss to race or religion.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farouk_Shami

    As to these “intellectual difficulties with religious diversity”, how much religious diversity does one find at The New York Times? Yet no one speaks of them being stupid. Telling the truth, as a Catholic I’ll take the Bob Jones crowd, who, in the first place, seem like nice people (check their website) and second, seem to care about saving my soul. That’s touching and my intelligence isn’t in question.

    The issue, of course, is in the nature of religious belief, which is a complex function of the whole person and his/her heritage – biology, psycho-social factors, and personal history. A reporter (or any person) will not know all of the factors, but should, at a minimum, show respect for the humanity of the person or group of persons about whom they write.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Is North Carolina still in the Bible Belt (maybe we should ask the Graham family?), ’cause the chair of CAIR, Larry Shaw, is a long time elected member of the NC State General Assembly.

    Julia: Sure about the relatively low number of Muslims in the South? What about the large Muslim populations in south Florida, northern Virginia (still technically the South) and east Texas (Houston in particular)?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Is Connecticut in the Bible Belt? Because that’s where Glenn Beck lives. :)

  • Suzanne

    @passing by

    As another Catholic,I have to say I find the Bob Jones crowd less warm and fuzzy. When I was a reporter in Georgia back in the late ’80s, I still remember the fax they sent out to newspapers when Pope John Paul II arrived in Columbia, S.C. for a visit: “The Anti-Christ has entered the state.”

  • str

    Stoo and Bob,

    the sentence indeed was trashing evangelicals – and it doesn’t really matter which way they meant as IMHO it doesn’t apply to evangelicals either, or at least not more to human beings in general.

    Despite all rhetoric, those shouting loudest about “tolerance” (i.e. acceptance of everything as valid) do have problems with diversity as well or rather even more so, because they cannot bring themselves to apply their principles universally. Because they have thrown out actual tolerance (i.e. bearing with things you don’t like) they then turn intolerant and issue bigoted statements like the one quoted from the article.

    Could “intellectual difficulties” mean “difficulties on an intellectual level” (ie theological problems or something) as opposed to “lacking intellectualism”?

    Also the snowballs chance bit seems fair enough. Seems to me candidates who don’t wave their christian credentials have quite an uphill battle over there.
    # Bob Smietana says:
    May 3, 2010, at 10:46 am

    Trash evangelicals?
    Not really. Jeff didn’t say that evangelicals have intellectual difficulties.
    The source said that evangelical protestantism is “a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity.”
    Big difference.
    It’s not a great quote— it appears that Mr. Wold means “philosophical” difficulties, which makes more sense.

  • Stoo

    So those supporting diversity have a problem with faiths that have a problem with diversity.

    Ok got that. That’s bad?

  • str

    No, Stoo, those proclaiming their support for diversity often have a problem with diversity because they only think of things they like.

    And yes, if those apostles of diversity then behave like bigots, that is indeed bad.

  • Dale

    Julia wrote:

    One could also ask how good a chance an evangelical Christian has of being elected in Muslim-friendly Detroit.

    You’re thinking of Dearborn, or more specifically, the eastern part of that Detroit suburb, where Muslim and Christian Arabs are a large majority. In Detroit, a politician must be African-American to stand a chance of election; even the most cynical Detroit politicians (read: the Kilpatrick family) will give lip service to Christianity. If I remember correctly, Kwame Kilpatrick did his media mea culpa from his COGIC church building, with the minister beside him.

    However, the racially-driven voting behavior of Detroiters doesn’t fit into Brumley’s meta-narrative of intellectually challenged evangelicals, and I can imagine the uproar if someone made a remark that African-American voters have “intellectual difficulties” with racial diversity. Apparently voting for representatives that share your worldview is problematic only if that worldview is perceived to be a “conservative” one.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    I would actually to some extent suspect that there are a lot of Muslims in parts of the south. At least some African-American Muslims live there. Houston has many Indian and Pakistani Muslims.

    Even if we got the figures, we would need to consider other factors. What percentage of these Muslims would be students studying at Georgia Tech, Duke and so on? What percentage would be US Citizens? You can not run if you are not?

    Realistically, this is a non-story. It is almost as bad as claims Mormons can not be elected in the South, when a member of the South Carolina is a Mormon, when a member of Congress from Oklahoma for about a decade (until his unsuccessful run for governor) was a Mormon, and when the first senator who had a living husband (and the first female senator who did not have a spouse or parent who had been in political office) was a Mormon elected from Florida. Of course, Florida is often excluded from the South.

    The bible Belt generally includes Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. Texas is often put in, but I am not sure if it all counts. Louisiana is sometimes counted, but Southern Louisiana is so Catholic, and also so inhabited by South Asian and South-East Asian people (at least it must be if the Governor is the son of South-Asian immigrants and the Representative from the district including New Orleans is a native of Vietnam) that it is hard to call Bible belt.

    Virginia might be included. It is the location of Liberty University and Regent University. It also includes areas within the Beltway, and the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia have for at least 20 years been the home to not only many Muslims, but immigrants from Latina America, Africa and all parts of Asia. Virginia is even the home to a private school aimed at Mormon students. Althugh Southern Virginia University is located very close to VMI, it was concieved and largely brought into existence by people of the DC suburbs who had largely come to Virginia either to work for the government or the Marriotts.


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