Time does not have layers

The other day, I praised the “Shrek-like” nature of a CNN story exploring what religious leaders planned to say on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:

You know what I mean if you’ve seen the movie (“Onions have layers. Ogres have layers.”). This story has layers. The writer talked to religious leaders all over the nation. He quotes a United Church of Christ pastor, Catholic priests, a Southern Baptist chaplain, a Jewish rabbi, a daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham and a spectrum of other voices.

I thought of that description as I read a Time magazine story, ostensibly on the same topic, passed along by a GetReligion reader. Unfortunately, I came to this conclusion: Time does not have layers. At least this particular piece does not.

The Time lede is not terrible:

On the 10th anniversary of September 11 Sunday morning, some 120 million Americans will be sitting in church pews.

Waiting nearby in half a million pulpits will be much of the nation’s clergy, sermons in hand.

The question is, What will they preach?

But after referencing 500,000 pulpits, Time proceeds to quote only three clergy members by name. Guess how many of them are Episcopalians?

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! If you guessed “all three,” you win the prize.

More from the story:

This Sunday’s sermon has been a hot topic for pastors across the country for months. Barbara Brown Taylor, a critically-acclaimed Episcopal preacher and Islam professor at Piedmont College, has become a go-to for sermon counsel. “I would focus on wisdom gained. I would try to think about what we have learned over these 10 years,” she says of the anniversary Sunday. “What we have learned about our religious neighbors, what we have learned about ourselves, and what does our tradition teach us about how to go forward?”

Now, I have no reason to doubt that Taylor is “critically acclaimed” (without the hyphen, please!). But way back in Journalism 101, they teach reporters (and future editors) to give the source’s credentials and let readers decide if she’s “acclaimed.” Or at the very least, quote someone describing her as such. That’s called attribution, which, come to think of it, isn’t exactly a strong point of this report.

I also praised CNN for not being afraid of religious words. For instance, the CNN report made reference to “the lectionary, a standardized collection of scripture readings.” We get this from Time:

This week’s lectionary lineup offers powerful passages for reflection along these lines.

Notice the difference? CNN used five words to explain what “lectionary” means. Time did not. Thus, you get a word in the middle of the story that not every reader is going to understand.

Speaking of layers, I guess the opposite of peeling back journalistic onions would be making broad statements with no attribution or effort to provide context or deeper understanding. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! More from Time:

In the back of many preachers’ minds lingers the painful reality that a tiny minority of Christians proclaimed not reconciliation but planned Quran burnings and mosque relocation wars.

And this:

On the whole, this decade has brought Christian efforts to better understand other religions, especially Islam.

Basically, what we have here is one journalistic organization that devoted real reporting and resources to telling a story. And another that phoned it in. The difference between the two pieces could not be more stark.

Sorry, Shrek.

P.S. I’d be curious to know how your local paper handled the religious angle on 9/11. Please provide links and let us know whether you were impressed with the caliber of journalism.

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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.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org/ Ivan Wolfe
    This week’s lectionary lineup offers powerful passages for reflection along these lines.

    Notice the difference? CNN used five words to explain what “lectionary” means. Time did not. Thus, you get a word in the middle of the story that not every reader is going to understand.

    Yes, but explaining “lectionary” would ruin the alliteration in that sentence. Note: “lectionary lineup” and “powerful passages.”

    After looking at the article, I came away with the idea the reporter was more concerned with cool stylistic devices like alliteration (and others – there’s lots of parallelism and other rhetorical devices in there) than with the substance of the article.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Excellent observations, Ivan.

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

    Two quibbles on titles: 1) Since when are Episcopal ministers called “preachers”? They are priests, as Taylor’s biography clearly states. 2) What is an “Islam professor”? Not only is that a horrible construction (wouldn’t it be “professor of Islam studies” or something along those lines?), but that’s NOT what Taylor is – she is a professor of religion who writes about much more than just Islam. If she has become a “go-to for sermon counsel,” maybe it’s because she co-edited a 12-volume commentary series on preparing sermons from the Revised Common Lectionary.

    Barbara Brown Taylor has received no shortage of acclaim for her writing and preaching. There’s so little background about her in the Time article, though, and what is there is poorly sourced and terribly worded. At this point, I have to wonder if the Time reporter even knows who Barbara Brown Taylor is. From a reader’s perspective, why should we even care about the opinion of some random preacher/professor? Considering Taylor’s accomplishments, the reporter lost a major opportunity to give substance to this story.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Preach it, Mike!

  • Hector

    Re: They are priests, as Taylor’s biography clearly states

    Well, to be fair, some conservative Episcopalians don’t acknowledge the existence of women priests, so even within her own denomination some would refuse her the title.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    And some low-church Episcopalians use the term “minister” instead of priests. One of my rectors was a “minister”, another a “priest”.

    Jerry noted on another thread that it’s helpful to us non-pros when you have discuss good and bad examples of reporting the same subject. I second that.

    And for those who might not know, the Catholic lectionary readings for last Sunday were

    Sir 27:30-28:7
    Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
    Rom 14:7-9
    Matt 18:21-35

    The Gospel reading from Matthew (used by most Protestant denominations, I think) is the one that begins

    21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
    22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

    Cool, huh!

    Local coverage:

    http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/09/10/3357034/dfw-clergy-seeking-fitting-words.html

    Pretty good article, a little heavy on the Methodists. A Catholic or Orthodox voice might have been helpful. Avoid the comments.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Just to be pedantic, Episcopal preachers do not have to be priests. Deacons can preach, and laypeople can also be licensed to preach by the bishop.

    I do give Time points for at least giving some idea of what passages are up on the lectionary, which the CNN article doesn’t do. And there’s a vast size discrepancy between the two: the CNN article has three times the words.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Well, a closer read of the article would have shown me they did reference the lectionary readings, although it was the Protestant (at least Episcopalian) lectionary. No surprise, since we (Catholics) used a deutero-canonical (that’s “apocrypha” to the Protestants) Old Testament reading. :-)

    The important reading, of course, is the Gospel, which we all heard.

    I went looking for what the other local paper – that would be The Dallas Morning News – might have printed about sermons on 9/11. Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall.

  • Hector

    Passing By,

    The Revised Common Lectionary does use deutero-canonical readings on occasion (though there are usually optional substitutions).

    My church last weekend actually did a Requiem Mass for the victims of 9/11, so we skipped the lectionary entirely and used the typical funeral readings (about resurrection and heaven).

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Hector -

    That’s really cool!

    Although I think I wouldn’t want to lose the Gospel from Matthew, which is significant for the day.

    Hector’s parish experience makes the point I think Bobby is going after: what real people do (even within the same denomination) is so much more complex (“layered”) than the Time article reflects.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Hector -

    That’s really cool!

    Although I think I wouldn’t want to lose the Gospel from Matthew, which is significant for the day.

    Hector’s parish experience makes the point I think Bobby is going after: what real people do (even within the same denomination) is so much more complex (“layered”) than the Time article reflects.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Passing By,

    Fortunately, that’s one “paywall” I can see behind. I pay $9.99 a month for the privilege. (But please don’t tell them I’ll cancel during the Rangers’ offseason and restart in April. :-) )

  • Julia

    I thought Requiem Masses were not supposed to be celebrated on Sundays, no?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Your secret is safe with me, Bobby. I used to have a free login with the DMN, and am disappointed at their switch. Not surprised, of course, given the economics, but disappointed.

    I’m considering an Ipad, and they have an app being advertised around here. They have an eEdition with apps for Ipad and Android.

    Is that enough journalism? Then:

    GO RANGERS! How about that Josh Hamilton grand slam!