Pod people: Endorsing the chosen one

My father — a newspaper professional adapting to the digital age — considers his kids his personal information technology help desk, so we’re regularly helping him update his iPhone apps or showing him a new trick.

So my parents laughed when I asked them if I could use their land line for our weekly “Crossroads” podcast interview. It felt like asking if I could use a typewriter, but I suppose many people still use telephones that are attached to the wall, every now and then.

In this week’s podcast discussion, we talk about evangelical endorsements ahead of the GOP primaries. Todd asked me whether a reporter might stand outside of a church in South Carolina after a Sunday morning service and do some interviews to gauge reactions of how evangelicals might vote. That’s fine, I suggested, if the reporter has never been to a church, and it might provide a little color.

Still, going to one church in South Carolina will certainly not be representative. It’s probably better to look to a leaders of a larger organization that represents many different denominations, rather than one specific church on a random Sunday. You need to look at a forest, not just one tree.

As the results from Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina show, at least 40 percent of evangelical voters backed the former Speaker of the House. In a state where 60 percent of voters identify themselves as evangelicals, that’s a nice slice of the state for Gingrich.

We also saw that, despite endorsements for Rick Santorum by 150 conservative religious leaders in Texas last week, he received about the same amount of support as Mitt Romney received.

So what’s going on? Did this major endorsement come too late? Do evangelicals and other conservative religious folks fail to follow so-called leaders? Should reporters even bother looking to endorsements from religious leaders as indicators of how those within their movement might vote?

By its very nature, the Protestant movement called “evangelicalism” is pretty diverse with no official hierarchy, so it’s difficult to pinpoint who leads whom. In some of the stories that covered endorsements leading up to the primary, few reporters acknowledged in the piece that endorsements are only one part of the puzzle in politics.

Using data from polls and talking with researchers who have studied the area can help bolster a reporter’s thesis for why something is significant. In other words, reporters need to build a case for why someone is significant, showing who they represent and why their endorsement could matter. A story that focuses only on endorsements is too simplistic.

As you listen to the podcast, give us some feedback on what kind of coverage you’re seeing coming out of the primaries. Are reporters fleshing out the complexities, or do you feel more confused than ever before?

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