Pod people: Faith language and death penalty

Last week I highlighted some of the coverage of the jury that deliberated the death penalty for convicted murderer Steven Hayes. Many media reports did a good job quoting the jurors and affected family members even when those quotes included religious language.

Take, for instance, this Associated Press bit:

Dr. William Petit, the husband and father of the victims, said the verdict was not about revenge.

“Vengeance belongs to the Lord,” Petit said. “This is about justice. We need to have some rules in a civilized society.”

It seems weird to praise such a basic thing, but sometimes reporters — particularly those outside the religion beat — are uncomfortable pursuing lines of inquiry following discussions of religion. Or they strip quotes that use religious language. That became the topic of discussion for this week’s Crossroads podcast, which you can listen to here. Host Todd Wilken asked why reporters struggle in this particular way and I threw out some ideas. The fact is that I’m not altogether certain. I grew up in a household where religion was discussed by the hour and so I almost feel more comfortable when people include religion in their discussions. Not always, but frequently. I’m curious what your ideas are for why religious language gets sanitized from many stories.

Another point I raised in the podcast arose out of the death penalty coverage. One of the things I did find interesting, although I thought it might be a bit inappropriate to spend too much time on it last week, was how little coverage of the death penalty case reflected on the larger moral questions. Usually whenever a capital case comes to trial, the media devote more stories about how religious views shape people’s ideas of justice. But I didn’t see too much coverage on that front, which I found disappointing. I think that’s most likely because of the unbelievable barbarism involved in the particular crime. But tough cases still call for such discussions, in my view. What do you think about the lack of discussion about this particular death penalty?

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There are a number of aspects of capital punishment virtually never discussed in the mass media–one that strikes home in my state– where there is absolutely no capital punishment– is what to do with people already sentenced to life in prison when they murder in prison.
    A young store clerk from our city was brutally, needlessly murdered during a hold up. In many states the murderer would have been executed–end of story.
    But here the murderer got life, murdered a guard to escape, was caught 10 or so years later, and is back in for life (or is it double life now-Will he go for triple life?)
    But not only guards are the victim of prison murders by lifers, prisoners (sometimes who have brief sentences) are frequently killed by lifers who have nothing to lose in a non-cap state.
    Consequently it is us who do not want the state executing people who bear the responsibility of coming up with solutions–but noone wants to bring up the murders in prison issue. It’s just –end capital punishment–as if that solves all life and death issues.
    By the way, I had a very difficult time even finding the statistics on Google for guards murdered in prison–apparently the average is 7-10 annually.

  • Dave

    Deacon, a lifer who offends in prison can be put in solitary. Just because one is in prison doesn’t mean one cannot be punished further.

    I’m curious what your ideas are for why religious language gets sanitized from many stories.

    I suspect it’s because most reporters see it as opening a new aspect which they would have to fill out, and they’re not sure how, but which also can be omitted and the reporter still has a complete story without it. Time and space constraint may pull toward the latter.

  • http://www.jochopra.blogspot.com Jo McGowan

    One of the interesting things about living in India is how commonly religion and belief shows up in journalism. Journalists seem to be more like ordinary people here – most of whom are deeply religious and have no qualms about saying so. Religious practice is so much a part of everyday life in India it can’t help but be part of reporting and informs so much of what we read and see on television here. It is refreshing how much it is taken for granted. It seems to have the effect of allowing the reader to reflect more deeply on the true meaning of what is being reported on.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So–Dave–your solution to lifers murdering in prison is to put lifers in solitary confinement. Should that automatically be done??? Or should it only happen after a lifer murders a guard (or other prisoner) –as in the case that has repeatedly come up in our area. So murderers get two bites of the apple so to speak.
    There is a super-max federal prison somewhere in the midwest. Virtually none of the prisoners are allowed to have any human contact because of their vicious records. But, as I recall, those who are super-max’s strongest opponents are also anti-cap punishment. They call super-max “cruel and unusual punishment” as I suppose they would call permanent solitary confinement in a regular state prison.
    The issue should be debated so possibly a solution truly respecting the lives of the guards and other prisoners could be found. But the issue is almost never covered or debated (Except for a day or two’s headlines after a prison murder hits the headlines in sensational cases.

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    I find the comment odd — that a verdict is not about revenge. How could a verdict be about revenge? The verdict is surely about truth — did the accused do what he or she was charged with or not? Yes, it’s about justice, too. Finding an innocent person guilty would be manifestly unjust. But it couldn’t be about revenge.

  • Dave

    Deacon, you have leaped to a conclusion about my ideas in penology from my simple corrective remark to your earlier posting. Please don’t do that.