Pod people: Not all ‘big’ stories are created equal

I think that I have made the following point in previous GetReligion posts, but it must be made again. One of the hardest concepts for journalists to explain to non-journalists is the concept of “what a story is.”

Some events are stories and some are not. Some events and trends are stories for specific audiences and not for others. Some events are stories on some days and not on others.

Then there is this fact: Some events and trends are stories, but they are not “big” stories.

So what turns a “story” into a “big” story?

I’m glad you asked. Like it or not, a “big” story is a story that lots of journalism editors think is a “big story.” They know one when they see one, you see. It’s a kind of instinct that comes from working in newsrooms and reading newspapers for years and years. Does this mean that the logic is somewhat circular? You betcha.

Is this fair? Not really.

For one thing, when asked about these journalistic mysteries, most editors will say that these “big story” decisions are rooted in (a) a sense of what the public wants to know and (b) what the public needs to know. Of course, it’s hard for the public to respond to certain kinds of stories — religion stories leap to mind — if these stories are either ignored or buried several clicks inside the publication. Am I the only person who cannot find the “On Faith” section in the iPad version of The Washington Post?

Moving on. Is it harder for a story to become a “big story” if editors are not interested in it? You betcha.

Is it harder for a story to become a “big story” if editors do not know anything about the groups and people that are involved? You betcha.

Some GetReligion readers may recall this anecdote from my days at the late, beloved Rocky Mountain News:

There was a stretch in the 1980s when Colorado Springs — really quick — turned into “Wheaton of the West,” a phrase I used in a column early on that I really wish I had copyrighted. Every month or so, some new group arrived at the base of Pikes Peak. …

Anyway, I’m sitting at my desk one day and a member of the business-page staff walked up and asked: “Hey, there’s some organization moving to Colorado Springs called Focus on the Family. Is that worth a brief?”

I almost fell out of my chair. I told her that this might be one of the biggest Colorado news stories of the late 20th century.

The response: No way. You see, none of the editors had ever heard of Focus on the Family. That was a niche radio show and publishing empire that was not on their radar screen.

Truth be told, the Focus on the Family move to Colorado Springs was not a “big” story. It was a “huge” story. The problem was that the people sitting in the daily news-budget meeting, the meeting in which they decided what stories went where, didn’t know that they were dealing with a national story that would send tremors through Colorado politics, culture and religion for decades to come.

I was able to convince the editors this story was bigger than a news brief, but barely. In a matter of months, they all knew who Dr. James Dobson was and they knew that Focus on the Family mattered.

I bring this up because of some interesting reactions in the comment boxes about my post the other day on the 10 biggest religion-beat stories of 2011, according to the pros at the Religion Newswriters Association. In turn, this discussion became the hook for this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to it).

The key came at this point in the RNA results list:

6. Pope John Paul II is beatified — the last step before sainthood — in a May ceremony attended by more than million people in Rome.

7. California evangelist Harold Camping attracts attention with his predictions that the world would end in May and again in October.

Say what? The Camping story was almost as “big” as the Pope John Paul II story? And it was more important than, let’s say, the following (just to pick a few choice numbers)?

12. Majority-Christian Southern Sudan achieves its independence from Northern Sudan after years of trying. Worldwide church leaders, especially in Africa, receive some credit for the outcome and they pledge continued support to the new nation. …

14. The irreverent satire “The Book of Mormon,” about a pair of non-traditional missionaries to Uganda, wins nine Tony awards on Broadway, including best musical. …

16. Hopes for an end to Pakistan’s blasphemy law are dashed when two leading advocates of religious conciliation, Salman Taseer and Shahbazz Bhatti, are assassinated two months apart.

That’s right. “The Book of Mormon” was a “bigger” story than the publicly popular assassinations of one of Pakistan’s most important Muslim progressives and the nation’s only Christian member of the cabinet.

But back to the Harold “End of the World” Camping story. In the comments pages, there was this interesting dialogue:

carl jacobs says:
January 4, 2012, at 12:24 am

Harold Camping wasn’t a big story. He was never big enough or representative enough or important enough to warrant the coverage he received. He was just a vehicle that allowed institutional mockery of the Christian faith to be passed off as a story. The collective laughter was the whole point from beginning to end. … I’m not surprised to see it on the list. A good time was had by all.

Mike O. says:
January 4, 2012, at 12:57 am

Carl, Harold Camping wasn’t just a big story, it was a huge story. Both religious and non-religious were absolutley fascinated by it. The story had legs despite your personal feelings about Family Radio’s religious interpetations. A story can’t get that much extended attention and not be called a big story — unless the adjective “big” has suddenly lost all meaning. …

carl jacobs says:
January 4, 2012, at 8:28 am

… I didn’t say it wasn’t Big and Huge. I said it wasn’t a story. There was no ‘there’ there. Or perhaps I should put it this way. The reason for the Hugeness of the Media event had nothing to do with the story as told. It wasn’t “Harold Camping has declared a date. Let’s wait for his prophesy to fail.” If it was only Harold Camping, no one would have cared. “Unknown radio personality predicts end of world” isn’t a story. How many reporters had even heard of Harold Camping before last Spring? …

Midst all the laughter, do you think there was any real concern for the people who believed Camping, and suffered genuine harm as a result? They were straight men in a comedy sketch. They were the people who made the mocking crowd think well of themselves. “Look at those fools! We aren’t fools like them!” isn’t much of a story. But it was the sum total of that event in May. When it was over, the crowd went home to seek for a different source of amusement.

The whole thing was despicable.

Now, on one level this argument was another round in the debates about whether mainstream journalists deliberately — key word there is “deliberately” — promote stories that make traditional religious believers look stupid. On another level, however, this offered a window into the mystery of why some “stories” become “big stories.”

Yes, yes, yes, I am well aware that Camping is not exactly a traditional believer and it’s insulting that many editors seemed to think that he was a crucial, representative mainstream Christian voice. On the positive side, I also know that some journalists turned this oddball story hook into a chance to explore the actual “end times” teachings of various Christian traditions. You can look at this from two different directions.

At the same time, as you’ll hear in the podcast, I freely admit that before this story broke I had never heard of Camping. Yes, he was that obscure. Please remember that I was on the religion beat in Charlotte, N.C., during the start of the whole “Pearlygate” scandal era in which just about every major religious broadcaster on Planet Earth was dissected, to varying degrees, in the mainstream press.

Thus, we must conclude that it was the subject — Flash! Another stupid end of the world prophecy! — that hooked editors. Something had to yank this obscure story out to page one, where it became a juggernaut. That’s what made this strange little story more important than (insert a truly important issue or event here).

So, I’ll conclude with a question and a lesson:

(1) GetReligion readers, come clean. How many of you had heard of Camping before this story broke?

(2) Clearly, religious leaders can learn an important lesson from this poll. If you want mainstream press coverage, buy space on billboards and ask yourself this question: “What shocking statement can I print here that will make people laugh in newsrooms?”

Enjoy the podcast.

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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.

  • Darren Jones

    I had never heard of Camping before the story broke. I tend to frequent Catholic sites rather than fringe charismatic.

  • Jerry

    1. No. I’d also ask a followup question: “How many really cared what he had to say outside of being upset about how the media was treating religion”?

    3. I’d amend “laugh in the newsrooms” to “sneer or laugh in newsrooms”.

  • Julia

    I’d add the number of hits the story got and how viral it went fuelled by all those “friends” who send around links to silly stories when they are bored at work.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I am pretty sure that I had not heard of Harold Camping before this year, but I worked for a newspaper in the late 1980s and we received a number of mailings from people who believed and taught a rapture was imminent. Since Camping was making those kinds of predictions in 1988 I might have read one of his mailings but I’m not sure.

    His 1994 prediction coincided with my 30th birthday and I’m sure some part of my twenty-something mind must have felt the world was ending, but I made no connections.

  • Dale

    Never heard of him before his name appeared in the media. Never heard his radio program. Never saw his billboards.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I had never heard of him, but it seemed that as the juggernaut got going *everyone* I knew in the UK or Oz had heard of him. America sneezes, everyone else gets influenza.

  • carl jacobs

    I knew who Harold Camping was, but only because I am plugged into the world of Christian Apologetics.

    I believe the Harold Camping story was an example of the media following the crowd. It was the crowd that hooked onto the story, and the media chose to give the crowd what it wanted. But the crowd didn’t want to hear about Harold Camping. The story it wanted to hear was its own story. The crowd wanted to bask in the glory of its own reaction. Of course the media couldn’t justify any such thing. So it pretended to talk about Harold Camping while in fact it indulged the vanity of the crowd. It didn’t help much that the media identified with the crowd. That’s why I said it wasn’t a story. The vanity of the crowd is not a story.

    Subtract one fact from this story – the date – and the whole thing disappears from public view. Without the specific date, there would have been no legs. Two things about the date triggered its explosion:

    1. The date was very close. People didn’t have to wait a long time, and so it would be forgotten.

    2. The date allowed for falsifiability.

    That’s why the crowd grabbed on. Without the date, there would have been no crowd. Without the crowd, there would have been no media circus. There might have been a small story about a curious billboard. Otherwise, there would have been the statement of a small time unknown radio preacher with limited reach that disappears into the cacaphony that makes up the communications spectrum.

    carl

  • http://presbyterianblues.wordpress.com/ “Michael Mann”

    Harold Camping started as a member of a Dutch Reformed (confessional Calvinistic) denomination who made his name with a radio show that featured Bible readings, traditional hymns, and sermons by others within the Reformed perspective. The most prominent part of his station was a call-in show in which Mr. Camping answered questions from callers. Most of what he said was within the Reformed tradition, albeit with a few quirks here and there. An engineer by training, he used a highly mathematical and, to say the least, idiosyncratic method of interpreting the scriptures. Using that hermeneutic, he began making predictions about end-times.
    The church of which he was a member told him his teaching was unsound and he left the church to begin his own church. When – using the same faulty hermeneutic – he declared that there was no more true church, the non-Camping programming withdrew from his Family Radio network.
    So he got the attention of Calvinistic confessional denominations and some of broader Evangelicalism as well. A professor at Westminster Seminary in California did on series on him: http://wscal.edu/blog/entry/the-end-of-the-world-according-to-harold-camping-part-1.
    “The story” from this perspective includes:
    1) the perils of a flawed hermeneutic;
    2) the perils of following celebrity pastors; and
    3) the perils of unaccountability.
    BTW, he was not at all charismatic.

  • Kate

    I had heard of Camping before, but only because I live nearby.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I never heard of Camping before the story broke. But for me, it broke in LIBERTY, a libertarian (not “Libertarian”!) magazine where a writer got hold of it before the MSM did — and gave space to the background and to what Camping and Family Radio were actually saying, not, like most of the media coverage, to what someone said someone said they said.

  • Mike O.

    Tmatt, in your lead up above you use “big” and “important” interchangably. As I said to Carl in our discussion in the original post, they are not synonymous. I agree that stories like what’s going on in the Sudan (or anywhere else where life and liberty are threatened) are far more important than Harold Camping or John Paul’s beatification. But big stories aren’t always important ones. Jessica McClure getting rescued from a well was a very big story but not important in the grand scheme of things.

    In your podcast you called it a “non-story” and Carl has stated this isn’t a story. But again I have to stress that despite attitudes towards Harold Camping or the media’s reaction towards him we still hold more than enough elements of an interesting story (its size and importance being debatable). Let me throw out this analogy: Lady Gaga sold a bunch of albums in 2011. It’s undeniable that her album was “big”. Many people, including myself, would not put it as one of the best albums of the year or most “important” of the year. But it would be absurd to try and undercut it by saying it’s not even music.

    That’s why I said it wasn’t a story. The vanity of the crowd is not a story.

    But Carl, that’s not the entirety of the story. There are whos, whats, wheres, whens, whys, and hows. As I’ve said several times now in different ways, attitudes and feelings do not negate it as a story. I’ll ask you straight out: Do you think that the mainstream media should have taken a different or quieter tack on the story, or just outright completely ignored it? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems like it’s the latter. If it is the latter, what is the dividing line between when a reporter should and should not report something happening in the world?

    Subtract one fact from this story – the date – and the whole thing disappears from public view. Without the specific date, there would have been no legs.

    On this point you and I agree, Carl. If you take the crux of the story away then there is no story, just as if you have a story about a warehouse fire and you take away the fire there is no story.

    Without the specific date you don’t have all of the newsworthy points that follow. No billboards. You don’t have people quitting their jobs and leaving their homes. It’s the difference between a political pundit going on “Meet the Press” saying that at some point the United States will elect a female president and saying he guarantees a woman will be elected president in 2016.

  • Mike O.

    I forgot to add, I first heard Harold Camping about two years ago scanning the radio during my nightly 50 minute commute home. I was captivated by his Herman Munster-esque tones and the way he would interrupt people like a grandfatherly religious Mike Francesa.

    I’m somewhat fascinated by biblical disagreements between various Christian denominations, so I would give him a listen most nights unless a game was on.

  • carl jacobs

    Mike O

    tmatt listed above two criteria.

    [W]hen asked about these journalistic mysteries, most editors will say that these “big story” decisions are rooted in (a) a sense of what the public wants to know and (b) what the public needs to know.

    I would assert that any subject involving that which the public either 1) doesn’t want to know or 2) doesn’t need to know is not a story by definition. If I evaluate the Harold Camping story by these criteria, what conclusions can I make?

    1. Need to Know There was absolutely nothing in Harold Camping’s announcement that editors could have thought the public needed to know. In the first place, they rejected the truth of his prophesy. Plus, they had no idea who he was. Unknown people make dramatic public statements all the time. The press takes no notice. Why would the public need to know about this statement from an unknown radio preacher? Third, the press was not required to find out who put up this billboard since the URL was helpfully included. Finally, they did not publish for the sake of those who might believe Camping. The media was too busy mocking them to care about their fate. This last is the one credible hook upon which the story might have turned. But the media didn’t pursue it.

    2. Want to Know Everything the public wanted to know, it already knew. It knew Harold Camping was a Christian preacher – and they are all the same as far as it knew or cared. The public knew Camping predicted the end of the world. It knew the date. Everything else was anticipation of the moment when the date would pass without Judgment. The crowd could hardly wait for the existential joy of watching failure dawn on these people. It was relishing the idea of experiencing other peoples’ metaphysical pain. Any detail the press published in the interim was absolutely irrelevant to the central focus. They didn’t care about Amilenialism vs Premilenialism, or Matthew 25 or any of that. It was the promise of watching a prophesy falsified in real time that glued them to the event.

    to be continued…

  • carl jacobs

    continued…

    Of course, the press had to keep publishing stories in the interim but it was all a blind to indulge the crowd’s desire to relish the experience of its metaphysical triumph. I am not surprised they did it. The crowd wanted the story, and they gave it to them. Besides, they agreed with the crowd. They even said so – over and over again.

    I’ll ask you straight out: Do you think that the mainstream media should have taken a different or quieter tack on the story, or just outright completely ignored it?

    I think they should have ignored it, but that really isn’t a complete answer. My actual objection centers on the way the media facilitated and encouraged the virtual mob that grew up around this story. If the press had noted the billboard and let it drop, we wouldn’t be talking about this subject. But the press became a participant in the Great Mockery. It became a part of the crowd and gave back what the crowd wanted. They took a story and morphed it into the “Glory of the Vanity of the Crowd.” And what was that vanity? What was it that the crowd wanted the press to repeat back to them? “What we believe is true. What they believe is false.”

    carl

  • MJBubba

    I had actually heard of Harold Camping, because I have a co-worker who likes to listen to late-night radio preachers and then tweak me with the wierdest stuff he hears.
    I am generally in agreement with carl jacobs.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

    I had never heard of Camping, but I tend to agree with Carl Jacobs’ take on the coverage. When I used to sit in news-budget meetings, the editor always asked for a “read me,” something quirky for the front page to go with the “serious” news stories. Camping’s predictions filled that slot very well.

  • Julia

    The End of the World story reminds me of the news frenzy over the lightning strike and burning of what was known as The King of Kings statute in Ohio. Also known as Big Butter Jesus and Touchdown Jesus. YouTube is full of the coverage and even a song was written about it. I happened to be in Cincinnati at the time and the laughing over it, abetted by the news media, was just over the top.

    http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20100615/NEWS01/306150004/-Touchdown-Jesus-statue-Solid-Rock-Church-75-destroyed-by-lightning-fire

    At this link, you can listen to the 9-1-1 calls that the press and dispatchers thought were funny.

    ” I don’t think the person meant any disrespect by it,” he said. “But I am sure it caught everyone’ s amusement that the statue was on fire. Obvioiusly it is amusing to some people that the statue caught on fire because obviously the news media has picked it up all over the country. It is a shame it caught on fire. We are just glad nobody got hurt.”

    http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20100615/NEWS01/306150003/First-911-calls-to-Jesus-statue

  • Daniel

    This story reminds me of the Paul Simon song, “Save The Life Of My Child,” from the Simon and Garfunkel album, Book Ends. As you may remember, it contrasts, in Simon’s usually quirky take on journalism, the reaction or lack thereof of the New York Times with that of the Daily World. “the atmosphere of freaky holiday.”


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