Mixed bag of atheism coverage

I want to get a couple atheist stories out of my guilt file before it’s too late. Ignore this YouTube here for a second and let’s look at the good media coverage. Here’s the Associated Press report on a recent atheist event:

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (AP) — For the first time in history, the U.S. military hosted an event expressly for soldiers and others who don’t believe in God, with a county fair-like gathering Saturday on the main parade ground at one of the world’s largest Army posts.

The Rock Beyond Belief event at Fort Bragg, organized by soldiers here two years after an evangelical Christian event at the eastern North Carolina post, is the most visible sign so far of a growing desire by military personnel with atheist or other secular beliefs to get the same recognition as their religious counterparts.

The purpose was not to make the Army look bad, organizers said, but to show that atheists and other secular believers have a place in institutions like the military.

“I love the military,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists. He added, “This is not meant to be a black eye.”

Even though the event ended up being smaller than organizers had hoped for, reporter Tom Breen got enough facts, color and analysis to fill a nice long report. Griffith talks about life at the post and the challenges that atheists face there. We learn not just that the turnout, at several hundred people, was lower than the 5,000 hoped for but that rainy weather may have been a contributing factor. Specifics are given about the festive atmosphere. We get quotes from the speakers and artists who performed at the event.

Since some soldiers from the base had expressed concern that the event would disparage soldiers with religious beliefs, that topic is addressed head on, with quotes. Rather than telling readers what to think, we’re just told what was said at the event.

Finally, the story gives some history, explaining why the event took place and what atheists at the facility are trying to accomplish. And we learn that the same foundation (Stiefel Freethought Foundation) that gave Religion News Service money for coverage of atheism also sponsored this concert. I didn’t find RNS coverage of the concert, but that could indicate my own trouble navigating search engines.

Reuters also had a pretty good story (although I could do without the “atheists in foxholes” reference in the headline and copy). It included some helpful data, too:

Christianity also dominates the religious makeup of the military. Only about 8,000 out of 1.4 million active duty members in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force identify themselves as atheists, and another 1,800 say they are agnostic, according to the Defense Department.

OK. Let’s go back up to that YouTube for the bad. Via The Friendly Atheist, a reader found this Dallas-Forth Worth-area Fox treatment of an atheist ad campaign. A group there was planning on running a campaign with billboard ads and ads in theaters before movies. But for some reason the reporter and anchor were obsessed with painting it as a campaign targeting children. Nowhere are these claims backed up by actual quotes from the atheist group or the sources for the story. I mean, it’s not like the ad campaign avoids children, just that it’s a bizarre focus for the piece considering they target folks of all ages.

Now, the same station did a later report where a couple from the campaign came in for a longer interview in-studio. And that interview is actually very nice. The questions are fine and the couple is given the opportunity to respond fully. A different station did another segment on the ad campaign — which was a positive campaign in favor of atheism — as “anti-religious.”

So a mixed bag in some recent coverage of atheists.

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  • BC

    I question the number of “several hundred” at the Fort Bragg event. The local newspaper said “a couple hundred.” And how many of them were soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg? How many were soldiers from other posts? How many of them were civilians? These are important questions that go unanswered. In any event, there are tens of thousands of soldiers on Fort Bragg who are used to inclement weather. More of them were likely in the post movie theater.This was a media circus, but a non-event as far as the lives of soldiers go, that is clear, and should have been underscored in any article.

  • BC

    Here’s a link to the local coverage in the Fayettevilla Observer: http://fayobserver.com/articles/2012/03/31/1168154?sac=fo.local

  • Dave

    Mollie, I appreciate you keeping tabs on atheism coverage. I was a Humanist for 30 years before I became Pagan.

  • http://www.friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    I was at the Fort Bragg event. There were several hundred people there. I would say closer to a thousand after the rain went away. Most were not soldiers — they were atheists from within an hour or two drive of the area.

  • Matt

    I have two thoughts on the video. One – isn’t this the norm for a Fox affiliate? Fear-based reporting? Two – could it be they are saying “targeting children” because they perceive Easter to be a child’s holiday?

  • KJS

    Interesting analysis, thank you.

  • Jofro

    I hope these brave atheists decide to come out with some great coverage during Eid and Yom Kippur too.

  • Margaret Whitestone

    “But for some reason the reporter and anchor were obsessed with painting it as a campaign targeting children. ”

    Considering all of the “youth pastors”, vacation Bible schools, youth/teen bus ministries and grade-school Bible distributions, Christians have no business whining about anybody else allegedly “targeting children”.

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    The links to the RNS articles can be found here. Interestingly, the source RNS article failed to disclose they were being paid to cover atheist events.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I was surprised when I learned that RNS had taken money for coverage of atheism. I can imagine all sorts of ethical problems that might raise. On the other hand, I imagine RNS has thought about these, too, and has systems in place to avoid problems. This would actually be a great topic for the RNA conference in October. Now that traditional media is having a difficult time making money, we’ll probably see more of these types of arrangements. How much disclosure is appropriate? What other pitfalls are there?