Jennings, the Times and tornadoes

The tornadoes ripped through the heart of the Bible belt, so you knew what was coming in the mainstream coverage — Godtalk. There simply isn’t a way for reporters, even elite reporters, to talk to ordinary Americans under tragic circumstances without eternal issues coming up.

You could see a hint of that in the headline that topped the A1 story, with lead color art, at the New York Times. It proclaimed, with just a touch of omnipotence: “Tornado Swarm Deals Death, but Also Miracles.”

The miracles were, of course, performed by the tornadoes themselves.

However, I must admit that the story captures some classic examples of the tragic, bizarre and touching events that take place inside the zones shaped by the physics of tornadoes (it helps to know that I grew up in the tornado alley near the Red River in North Texas). Here’s a sample of material from the top of this very well-written report:

There was Glen White, 24, who found the strength to push up a wall that had fallen on five residents of a group home. There was the married couple who were thrown into their backyard as the storm exploded their home. They landed close enough, battered and bruised, to hold hands. And there was Molly, a graying donkey who for years has starred in the town Christmas pageant. People say they saw her lifted into the funnel cloud when the storm hit Saturday night. They thought she was a goner. …

Yes, 11 people died in those dark and deafening 10 minutes. Dozens were hurt and homes were destroyed.

As people picked through the mess and showed up with water and fried chicken at temporary shelters Monday, everyone seemed to mix their grief and shock with a sense of marvel that a mile-wide tornado that blew through this land of peanut fields and chicken houses with 165-mile-an-hour winds didn’t do worse.

There’s much more where that came from. However, as I read through the story I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean, I’ve been visiting rural North Carolina for decades and spent six years just on the other side of the mountains from Asheville. You can’t go a mile in that corner of the world (OK, maybe five miles) without hitting a Baptist or Methodist church. I know how these folks talk.

So, I wondered, where was God in all of this?

Sure enough, God made the cut in this story — but barely. This is how the piece ends.

There will be cleaning up to do and funerals to plan. People will wait to see if insurance will help them rebuild. They will count their blessings as they mourn their losses, and talk of God’s plan and God’s work. And they will cheer the resilience of the town’s most famous donkey.

“Molly’s going to make it to one more Christmas play,” said Tiffany Everett, 44, who had driven to the destroyed group home to lend a hand.

So the faith-friendly voices were there, their quotes just weren’t good enough to make it into print.

All this reminds me of that encounter I had long ago with the late Peter Jennings of ABC News. I have quoted this here before at GetReligion, but it precisely describes what I think is going on in this Times report.

Jennings and I were discussing this question: Why do so many mainstream reporters have trouble handling religion news? What is the heart of this problem?

Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. “Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’ “

For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry — with good cause — about the future of the news.

What he said.

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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.

  • Harold

    I also wonder whether reporters hear it so often, in some settings, that it is fair to wonder whether it has meaning. I think we see that in sports stories. Athletes use God-talk all the time, but it often seems more colloquial than faith-based. I remember seeing an HBO show about Miss Nude Black America. Before the women went on stage in all their nakedness to bump and grind on a pole, they stood together and prayed. Was that a sincere sense of faith or just a cultural artifact of urban Black life?

    So when someone, after a storm, says this is “God’s plan” as they survey their destroyed house, is that a statement of faith or a cultural phrase without larger meaning?

    Now, I’d love to read a story about the faith live of contestants who swing on a pole in the Miss Nude Black America contest, but you can understand why a journalist would discount tossed off lines like “Have a Blessed Day” which seem more cultural than religious.

  • Brett

    I agree with Harold that I could see repetition of the phrase leaving journalists wondering whether or not it has meaning — but that leaves me wondering why their wonder doesn’t prompt them to ask some more questions.

  • Mike

    Out of all the disaster stories I’ve read over the years about “God’s help” or “God’s plans” or “God’s work,” I’ve never once read where a journalist asked: “How did God help you?” “How did prayer help you?” “How does this fit into God’s plan?” I would be very interested to see how different people and people of different faiths responded.

  • Jay Steele

    I am a pastor – yes, liberal – and have experienced the same kind of seemingly awkward silence upon hearing these ‘after a disaster’ faith statements. It isn’t because I don’t get religion. It is because I don’t share the same kind of religious experience. It is also because despite the fact I don’t share their religious experience I respect it and would never think of challenging it in that moment; I might in some other context though.

    What would be an appropriate follow-up question: “So God saved you and the donkey. But not your neighbor’s 5 year old child who was crushed beneath the ruble? Could you explain what kind of God that is?”

    I know perfectly well that within the faith perspective of that person there is an answer to that kind of question. It isn’t one that satisfies me, but that isn’t my point. My point is that in that moment what is a reporter supposed to say in response, even a reporter who gets religion?

  • Jon in the Nati

    My point is that in that moment what is a reporter supposed to say in response, even a reporter who gets religion?

    I’d suggest that most journalists, even ones that ‘get religion’, would feel that it is not their place (nor is it the appropriate situation) to question people about the particulars of their religious beliefs or philosophy in the wake of a major disaster. Even if they were curious (and I think Harold makes a good case as to why they might not be) they’d probably feel it is just not the proper time and place to go there.

  • Harold

    But then just jotting it down and transcribing it makes it a meaningless quote that will end up criticized on GR because the reporter didn’t ask more. I guess the reporter could ask about their church or something, but it’s hard to know what to do with that God-talk in that situation.

  • Brett

    I think you do the same kind of exploration with this you do with any kind of talk. When I interviewed people, one of my main purposes was to find stuff out. Only in certain circumstances did that mean challenging them on what they said, and that was mostly with elected officials performing their usual snowjobs.

    Sharing their worldview or not didn’t really affect the desire to find stuff out, unless it made me more curious.

    I wouldn’t want to see someone in the aftermath of a tragedy or disaster challenged, of course, but I think those kinds of statements can certainly be explored a little with follow-up questions: Did you feel something with you when it was all going on? Was there a kind of presence with you? Did it feel protective or did it feel comforting or something else? Were you praying when it was all happening? What kinds of things were you praying?

  • Dale

    I agree with Brett. People who claim that God helped them through a crisis usually have a narrative within which such help makes sense to them. A reporter can ask questions that help to fill in that narrative for his or her readers without theological critique or interrogation. An assumption that such comments are meaningless, or not worthy of explanation, expresses the reporter’s values and judgments, rather than the subject’s thought processes.

  • Julia

    “How are you?” “Fine.”

    SNEEZE “God bless you.”

    That’s how I see most of this God talk. If people want to elaborate, they will do so on their own.

    Besides, stunned people aren’t in a position to give eloquent answers and you’re likely to get “uh, uh, uh; I don’t know”, unless they are burning to tell you about some memorable thing that happened.

    The Founding Fathers spoke of “Providence”, but we don’t know exactly what each man meant by that. I don’t think they expected questioning and reporters didn’t dig into it.
    They might not have been able to articulate it. These kinds of statements are often purposely vague in a multi-faith milieu.

  • tmatt

    Harold says:
    April 20, 2011, at 11:42 am

    But then just jotting it down and transcribing it makes it a meaningless quote that will end up criticized on GR because the reporter didn’t ask more. ….


    Well, that’s a total misunderstanding of what we have said here in the past. I guess you are referring to our posts in which major newspapers put a glancing Godtalk reference in the lede of a feature story about a famous or interesting person — the person the whole story focuses on — and then leaves the God question hanging for the rest of the story without elaboration.

    Classic example: An athlete that plays the God card as part of his redemption after some scandal and the story never gives any FACTUAL, journalistic evidence that this faith is playing any real role in his or her life.

    Thus, this snarky comment has little or nothing to do with this post.

  • tmatt

    To various others.

    In that talk with Jennings, we discussed the fact that most people have quite logical, sane answers if you ask a follow up question of some kind. They know that, essentially, you are probing a great mystery. No one is going to say, “God wanted me to live and my neighbor to die.” What you get, instead, is insights to what they are thinking about the wonder of life and the need to help others recover — the religious duties that come next.

  • Chris

    Re: #1: I think “cultural phrases” always have a larger meaning, however, in the stunned silence after a natural disaster, the victims aren’t going to be equal to defining it. It might be a good thing if journalists went back to the site of a natural disaster weeks later, and asked those kinds of follow-on questions then. I suspect, even, that the theology may be more subtle than the words suggest.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    tmatt. DID the Times link pull a fast one??? The headline on the story I saw credited “luck” not “miracles.” Or did I misunderstand something???

  • Bill P.

    What he said.


    This post is timely for me. I had lunch today with a young professional coworker who (I think) initially took for granted that I wasn’t a person of faith. He was uncomfortable when my corrections and comments to his critiques of the Catholic faith became a discussion that had awkward pauses. But pausing is a natural response when one is confronted—when challenged. And isn’t that how God works?

    I’d say that He’s there in that moment of a pause when a reporter stumbles and wonders if they could ever respond the same way. Maybe there’s a millisecond in that pause when that member of the press gets religion.

  • Dave

    Terry @10, I think you are whitewashing GR in your response. GR usually wants a little more than the reporter gives. You should not be so quick to rebut, but ponder the comment as a reflection of how GR’s criticism is absorbed by journalists. Enough journalists comment on GR to make it clear that GR commentary is noted in the profession. You could do well to reflect on how seriously it is taken.

  • tmatt

    Sorry, Harold’s remark was pure snark and did not refer to any consistent GR theme or critique.

    BTW, you may have noticed that GR very, very rarely criticizes a REPORTER by name, but we limit ourselves — about 90 percent of the time — to comments about the news organization or the “team” that produced the story.

    The reason we do that is simple: We’ve all been there.

    We’ve had stories where we wanted to add more or we wrote the story one way (accurate) and it was changed in a way that created an error. Many journalists want the space or the time to get things right, but that is no longer in the books. It’s a tough time to write accurately and completely, while space is down and readers have the attention spans of hummingbirds on cocaine.

  • Harris

    Slightly off topic, but the painting on the post is well-known in these parts: it is in the collection of the Muskegon Museum of Art. Coming from the marketing side, I get cranky when we don’t respect intellectual property.

  • tmatt


    Thank you for that info.

    I have known of this work for year, but in a Google Images search I only saw it on several websites, never with information about a location for the work.