Meanwhile, back at AP’s sausage factory

On Thursday, I highlighted a fine piece of journalism produced by The Associated Press’ filet mignon department — where reporter chefs with unlimited time, space and resources whip up the kind of delectable stories that win big prizes.

However, most AP journalists perform grueling labor in a different department — let’s call it the, uh, Sausage Factory.

In most cases, grinding up press releases, chucking the uncooked meat immediately onto the wire and begging readers to devour the incomplete product — NOW! — does not make for the most quality or compelling journalism.

Take, for example, this tweet with which AP teased its 1.2 million Twitter followers about the same time my previous post was going up at GetReligion:

As an Oklahoma resident whose wife and 13-year-old daughter have been known to invest more of our family’s funds than I’d like in Hobby Lobby — except on Sundays, when the company’s stores are closed — I was intrigued by AP’s tweet.

For one thing, this is Oklahoma, after all, and we tend to lean rather conservative politically and religiously. For another, I had read in The Oklahoman about the strong support for the Hobby Lobby lawsuit from the state’s faith community — from the president of a Nazarene university to the Roman Catholic archbishop to the executive director of the Southern Baptists’ Oklahoma state convention. (I may have missed it, but I don’t recall an AP story or tweet on that support for Hobby Lobby. AP did, however, produce a fair report on the initial lawsuit filing.)

So I was curious to learn more about this “coalition of Oklahoma pastors” who were protesting the lawsuit. I clicked on the link and read this report:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A coalition of Christian pastors in Oklahoma is opposing Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit challenging federal health care guidelines that require the arts and crafts chain to provide insurance coverage for the morning-after pill.

The Rev. Lance Schmitz says more than 80,000 people signed petitions opposing the Oklahoma-based company’s lawsuit. Schmitz tried to deliver the petitions Thursday to Hobby Lobby headquarters but was ordered to leave the property. The pastor says he will mail the petitions instead.

The company had no immediate comment.

Hobby Lobby, which operates more than 500 stores in 41 states, argues in its lawsuit that providing coverage for the morning-after pill violates its owners’ “deeply held religious beliefs.”

The petitions say Hobby Lobby should not use its Christian beliefs to deny women access to birth control.

That. Is. It. The entire report. Enjoy your sausage, 1.2 million people who follow AP on Twitter.

Who exactly are the pastors who comprise the reported coalition? Except for “the Rev. Lance Schmitz,” who isn’t exactly a household name, AP gives no clue.

Generally, AP’s practice is to get the basic facts onto the wire quickly, then update with more detail and insight. So I clicked the link again three or four hours later to see if the story had improved. The only change that I recognized was that someone had introduced a “liberal” into the lede, a label intended, I guess, to differentiate these pastors from the Christian leaders quoted by The Oklahoman a week ago. The pastors later evolved into a “coalition of liberal Christian groups.”

Eventually, a longer AP report made it onto the wire with this lede:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Christian activists attempted Thursday to deliver a petition to Hobby Lobby criticizing its challenge to a portion of the new federal health care law, but guards at the company’s headquarters turned them away.

“I thought they’d let me drop off the package,” said the Rev. Lance Schmitz, pastor of the Capitol Hill Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City.

Schmitz said more than 80,000 people had signed copies of a petition circulated nationwide by Faithful America, an online Christian group, and UltraViolet, which promotes women’s rights. Schmitz said he intends to mail the petition to the company.

To its credit, the final story gives a Hobby Lobby spokesman an opportunity to respond to the concerns expressed by the vague activists:

An attorney for the company, Kyle Duncan, said the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, respects the religious convictions of others, “including those who do not agree with them.”

“All they are asking is for the government to give them the same respect by not forcing them to violate their religious beliefs,” Duncan said.

Lest I leave the impression that AP is the only news organization that produces sausage, feel free to take a big bite of this nasty concoction.

Your turn, faithful GR readers: What do you think of “breaking news” sausage? Please focus on the journalistic issues.

Sausage factory 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.

  • Darren Blair

    I actually work for a local newspaper, and so I’ve seen some things in my time.

    For example, a local bank was robbed yesterday. The headline properly stated “Bank Robbed Thursday”.

    The first line in the article said “On *Monday*, _______________ was robbed…”.

    That’s right: the article disagreed with the headline.

    Oh, and it was the head editor himself who wrote it. Yeah.

  • sari

    I had similar thoughts while following the Minnesota shooting yesterday. The now deceased owner’s name sounded Jewish, but it took a bit of sleuthing to determine his religion and history. And, lots of print with very little substance, presumably to sate the demand for news.

    Speaking of which, should we be concerned that the Oklahoman article you cited dwelt on only one side of the story to the exclusion of the other? Not a dissenting voice to be heard.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Speaking of which, should we be concerned that the Oklahoman article you cited dwelt on only one side of the story to the exclusion of the other? Not a dissenting voice to be heard.

    Yes, I think that is a problem. The Baptists, Catholics and Assemblies of God do represent a large chunk of the state’s religious population. But the lack of voices of any mainline Protestants — specifically United Methodists — seemed pretty glaring.

  • sari

    “But the lack of voices of any mainline Protestants — specifically United Methodists — seemed pretty glaring.”

    So are you saying that the concerns of non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, non-specified) are of no import, because they are not members of the majority? Should interviews be apportioned according to demographics? Does this mean that when the majority engages in immoral conduct (which I am not suggesting is the case here), the minority’s possibly more moral voice does not deserve to be heard, it having been determined that it is of no consequence?

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      I am saying that if I were a religion reporter wanting to gauge the religion community’s position on a particular issue, I would want to include all the major faith groups in that state. As I understand it, Methodists are the second-largest group behind the Baptists, so it’s curious that no Methodists were quoted, particularly when they might have given a dissenting viewpoint in a rather one-sided story.

      This would be similar to starting with Republicans and Democrats on a political story.

      Would I object to quoting any of the folks you mentioned? Not at all, and I think the story would be improved with a few of those minority voices. But that’s not where I would start, particularly on a deadline daily news report.

    • deiseach

      If the story is telling us a “coalition of Christian pastors” is doing all this activity, then it would be nice to know what churches or denominations are involved, and is this a majority of all the churches in the area? From the story as given, I have no idea if there are three, seventy or anywhere in-between involved.

      And yes, the opinions of other faith leaders would be good to know, as well. But first, clarify who these Christians are – I was surprised that it’s a Nazarene church pastor, since my impression of that denomination was that it was a very Biblically conservative one. Is this representative of changes within the Nazarene churches, or is this pastor a singular case? No idea, if I go by the main news sources.

      When I’m stuck either looking up Wikipedia or trawling through my bloglist for filling in the details that the media should be giving readers in these stories, why on earth would I subscribe to a newspaper (either dead-tree or digital edition) any longer?

  • sari

    Fair enough. Still, it seems that the reporter who wrote the article leaned ve-e-e-ry far in one direction, kind of the same way that others have been excoriated for leaning very far to the other–also on deadline daily duty. In fact, it looks very much like an instance of a reporter and/or editor using the media to promote his or her viewpoint.

  • Brett

    The main story on the matter from the “Oklahoman” is better written; Carla Hinton used info from the AP report but did a little more digging. She still lacks comment from some other religious leaders, but her story doesn’t mislead by insinuating that Rev. Schmitz is a part of a coalition and notes that he says he is acting on his own.