Stereotypes and backwoods religion

At first glance, I had high hopes for a CNN story out today with the headline “Pastor fights HIV stigma in Southern town.”

I printed out a hard copy, ready to enjoy the kind of precise details and behind-the-scenes insight that make for compelling, praiseworthy journalism.

Instead, I settled for an avalanche of stereotypes and vague references to backwoods religion.

According to an editor’s note, CNN’s Health team is taking a close look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southeastern United States with a series leading up to World AIDS Day on Wednesday. Perhaps the Health team should have enlisted the help of CNN’s Godbeat pros on this particular story. The top of the piece:

Dorchester, South Carolina (CNN) – The fan by the window pushed humid air uselessly against the church pews.

Diana Martinez made small talk as Tommy Terry shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The man sitting next to Martinez cracked a joke. Nobody laughed.

A clock on the back wall ticked minutes away in a mocking cliché.

Only three people had shown up for this month’s HIV/AIDS awareness meeting. Usually, there are 10 to 12 — a surprisingly good turnout for a congregation of 25, which just goes to show how many people the disease affects in this small Southern town.

It’s a problem all across the Bible Belt. In 2007 — the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the rate of diagnosed AIDS cases in the Southeastern United States was much higher than in other regions of the country: 9.2 per 100,000 people, versus 2.5 in the Midwest, 3.9 in the West and 5.6 in the Northeast.

Now, the numerical references immediately confused me: Are the 10 to 12 who usually show up part of the church’s 25 members? That’s unclear to me. (Not religion-related per se, but I also did not find the lede all that compelling: What is “small talk?” Why not be more specific about what the woman actually said? The same with the joke … why not tell what he’s joking about? But I digress …)

As the story moves on, readers learn that the Bible Belt’s high prevalence of AIDS cases can be attributed to “stigma, poor education and a lack of funding.” By stigma, the connotation is obvious: These Bible Belt folks have a problem with homosexuality. But the story takes a long, weaving path to get there, and even then only vaguely. For example, there’s this reference to a man who died of AIDS:

Instead, his death was simply another symbol of the fear surrounding HIV/AIDS in rural South Carolina.

Fear? I’m supposing that has something to do with the vague religious stigma. Eventually, there’s this note:

Many socially conservative residents of the Deep South have a hard time talking about sex with their children, never mind discussions about condoms with complete strangers.

And this note as that vague religion pops into the conversation:

The second barrier is religion. Some in the South believe they could go to hell because of their actions, he says, be they drug use, premarital sex or homosexuality.

Later, there’s an anecdote indicting all the pastors in town except for the one featured in the story:

Tommy Terry has a love/hate relationship with religion and the pastors who preach it in Dorchester County. A faithful man, he attends Byrth’s HIV/AIDS meetings as a tribute to his partner, Michael, who died in 2005.

The couple spent 10 years together. Terry could do nothing as he watched Michael fade away, losing weight and friends at an equal rate.

Sitting on the concrete porch outside the Bibleway Holiness Church, Terry struggles to keep tears from falling as he talks about the last few months of Michael’s life. Terry called pastors from around the county to come pray at Michael’s side in the hospital. They all refused.

What does the writer mean by “a faithful man” as it relates to Terry? No idea. The story does not provide any more detail or insight.

What do the pastors all over the county who refused to come pray at Michael’s side say about their alleged unwillingness to minister to someone in his time of crisis? No idea. The story doesn’t bother to quote any pastors, or anyone else in town, for that matter, who might shed light on what this community thinks about the AIDS epidemic.

This piece had such potential to be relevant and important. It’s an excellent angle, but unfortunately, CNN failed to develop it fully. Ghosts, anyone?

Image via Shutterstock

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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.

  • TacomaRoamer

    Don’t forget to cue up the slow twangy guitar and banjo music….also the accompanying video with the camera view moving along a one lane rural road thru light/shadows of the trees (…old pickup trucks with gun racks optional)

  • Brett

    “Many socially conservative residents of the Deep South have a hard time talking about sex with their children, never mind discussions about condoms with complete strangers.”

    The way this sentence is written, the residents appear to be reluctant to talk about sex with children, although I’m sure Ms. Wilson was referring to “the talk” parents have with their children that informs the children about sex. As a bonus, the sentence could also be seen to say these same residents were reluctant to talk about how they use condoms with strangers, rather than being reulctant to talk with strangers about the use of condoms.

    This is not even an issue of style or of fairness; it’s one of being unable to properly communicate information. Were I an editor at CNN — and the way this sentence slid into print makes the existence of editors at CNN a matter of conviction of things not seen — I would probably fire Ms. Wilson, unless I was having a very good day. Then I might only make her submit her work to no fewer than four copy editors before filing it for publication.

  • sari

    Actually, coming from the South, I think the reporter had a pretty good feel for the rural South but did a poor job of conveying what she saw. Absent from the article, for instance, was any mention of race. S. Carolina has a higher incidence of infection than most states, but the race breakdown is startling.

    According to the table above, an African-American in South Carolina is almost nine times more likely to be HIV-positive than a non-Hispanic white and about three times as likely as person who is Hispanic. Is this a function of different cultures’ approaches to sex ed, socioeconomic levels, education, religious background, access to health care, or some combination of the above? Can it be attributed mainly to closet homosexuality, drug use, or prostitution?

    Likewise, I’d like to know the demographics of the profiled pastor’s church, particularly the composition of the HIV support group and the community at large. As to the “faithful” Terry, I’m more interested in who the pastors were, their denominations, and why they refused. Whether Terry is faithful to a church or to the support group, nothing excuses lack of compassion towards a dying person.

  • Martha

    “A clock on the back wall ticked minutes away in a mocking cliché.”

    Oh, good grief. Are all American journalists frustrated novelists? I know there’s human interest and local colour, but when you start attributing emotions and motivations to machinery – !

  • Bobby

    Are all American journalists frustrated novelists?

    Probably not all. But I’m not certain of that. :-)

  • Mari

    “Terry called pastors from around the county to come pray at Michael’s side in the hospital. They all refused.”

    Yeah, I would wonder about who these guys (I’m going to assume they were male) were. But really, did any of these pastors have any relationship with the dying man or his family prior to this crisis? It’s nice to think that pastors are just sitting around waiting for phone calls from people who may have never stepped inside their church to serve during a crisis. Maybe if your church is the size of a book club…. I think the expectations on the part of Terry and the reporter are unrealistic.

  • dalea

    I found this a difficult article to read as it brought up many memories. My late partner and I lived in northwest Arkansas in the late 80′s and early to mid 90′s. He died there of HIV related causes. Before he died, we started an AIDS support group in a town of 6,000 people. There is a lot here that I recognize, but feel it is poorly discussed.

    One issue we kept encountering was very isolated cases of HIV, people who had no real opportunity to contract from anyone nearby. It was very strange, at least half of the people in our group were not gay, yet the general discussion revolved around M2M transmission. I think of the 16 year old girl who had advanced HIV but her two children were negative. She was from back in the hills, so far back that there was no real way for her to contract HIV. She was the only PWA in a large area, which made no sense. But we kept having cases like this.

    And the churches by and large just avoided the topic. No clergy person would participate in any anti-HIV efforts. The only consistent help we had came from Benedictine monks at a nearby monostary, very odd in a place with virtually no Catholics. Just a huge monostary surrounded by Pentacostal and Baptist churches.

    In a sad way, I recognize the story and can relate.