Too little news, too much analysis?

A flurry of e-mailed links to religion news stories flies back and forth each day among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas.

If a contributor wants to take a crack at a particular story, that person calls “Dibs!”

We review many more stories than we have time or space to critique, evidenced by the 3,798 items in my “GR story possibilities” folder. In the case of the story I’m about to highlight, the e-mailed link drew an immediate question from one member of our team, who asked:

Is this a news story?

I replied to the question by attaching an image of the Sunday front page of The Tennessean, where Godbeat pro Bob Smietana’s story on the Christian right received prominent play.

But the connotation of my colleague’s question was clear.  And in the case of this particular report, it’s a fair question, I believe.

As is typically true, Smietana quotes excellent sources who provide interesting insight. But in a number of places, this story reads more like an editorial than a news account, starting at the very top:

Since the day Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, white Christians have considered themselves the home team in American politics.

As the dominant social group, they’ve shaped the country’s moral and political culture for nearly 400 years.

But the recent presidential election is a sign that those days may be over, a prospect that’s encouraging or terrifying, depending on which side people are on.

For some, the change leads to fear that America is no longer a Christian nation. For others, it’s an opportunity to separate faith from the quest for political power.

What’s missing? Specific attribution (named sources) certainly would help back up the claims stated as facts.

Perhaps labeling such a piece a “News Analysis” would alert readers that they’re in for a heavy dose of the reporter’s perspective and opinions, but that did not occur in this case.

The writer’s choice of Bible teachings to reference provides additional hints of editorialization. For example, there’s this:

Mansfield points out that conservative politics and the Bible don’t always match up. Take immigration. The Bible teaches believers to welcome strangers and immigrants and not to mistreat them, he said, but conservative politics dictates illegal immigrants be deported and a wall built to keep them out.

I wrote a story myself this year in which I noted that Leviticus 19:33 declares, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.” On the flip side, however, Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Also in The Tennessean’s story:

The Bible tells believers to care for the poor. Religious conservatives often put a priority on personal responsibility.

Again, I would expect that an objective news story would allow the religious conservatives, too, to offer a biblical perspective. For example, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’”

Before closing, I should remind GetReligion readers that I am a fan of Smietana’s generally first-class work on the religion beat, evidenced by my previous posts praising his stories. That’s probably why I did not immediately call “Dibs!” on this latest story but rather was encouraged to take it.

But in this single case, a talented and competent journalist (and his newspaper) fell short of the mark, in my humble opinion. As always, I welcome opposing viewpoints in the comments section. However, please take a moment and read the whole story before weighing in.

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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.

  • Jerry

    Ok. I read the story two times. You appear to be asking for a level of attribution I would expect in an encyclopedia article not a news story. The story has quote after quote and after quote and as far as I can see from a broad spectrum of Christianity. For example, surely Al Mohler is a voice from a conservative Christian perspective.

    But there’s one significant section where I see and agree with your point. The Mansfield section, especially

    The Bible tells believers to care for the poor. Religious conservatives often put a priority on personal responsibility.

    troubles me. That one could be interpreted as saying that Religious conservatives ignore what the Bible says.

    So there I think the Mansfield section should have been shrunk or another voice added especially since it was not central to the story.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks for the feedback, Jerry. You get extra credit for reading the story twice.

    • Jerry

      Bobby, this story touched a nerve because it touches upon what appears to me to be part of a seismic shift in Religion in America. It used to be that doctrinal differences between protestant denominations was considered important. Today I’d bet that few could explicate the differences between, say, lutherans and baptists. It used to be that which church someone attended had quite a bit to do with social status exemplified by where someone lived. Then it became about the mega church versus traditional churches and religious “right” versus “left”. I don’t think the evolution has ended yet. So this story was of particular interest to me as a example of how religious expression is changing in America.

  • FW Ken

    Of course, a fair few folks do believe that unless you support large government programs, you don’t care about the poor. Witness the voices calling Paul Ryan a bad Catholic. The actual beliefs and practices of conservative Christians is a more complex story Bob Smetiana tells.

    But my real complaint is that the context needs work: the Religious Right (RR) emerged partly in response to a Religious Left (RL)and can’t be understood apart from that fact. I would argue that it isn’t secularism that’s purportedly replacing the RR as a political powerhouse, but a resurgent RL. You can make the case that the current secularists are just religious lefties who got tired of playing church, but when the president of the United States justifies his support for same-sex marriage with scriptural references, Mainline Protestantism is still alive. It is a religious conflict. Understanding the Right in context of the Left explains a lot more than this article manages.

  • sari

    I wish he had specified which Bible said what: Hebrew Scripture or New Testament. Very few Christians of my acquaintance have more than a passing familiarity with Tanakh (usually Noah and the relevant verses in Isaiah), excepting some who are CoC. Clarification or attributions would have been helpful.

  • Chris

    Journalists continue to struggle with boundaries between Christian faith and political allegiance. The biblical reference to caring for the poor is a case in point. The message is to a local church and not a local or national government. “What about the poor?” is a far different question when asked of a believer as opposed to a voter. Journalist can’t help but hear it as a political question.

    • Dan Arnold

      Chris,

      See sari’s comment above. The commands in the Tanakh are for the nation and its rulers (e.g., Deut 15:7-11, Pr 28:1-3). It seems to me that journalists struggle with the boundaries because Christians struggle with them.

      Shalom uvrecha,

  • Kristen inDallas

    I think you’ve given this article more credit than it deserves. It goes afoul of good journalism far before simply leaving out bible references that might support or clarify the religious right position. The entire premise of the article is warped by this narrative that Christian=White=Right and Left=Secular=Minorities. And while there is some truth to certain demographic groups favoring a particular party, it’s by no means a perfect 2-box system. The way he uses the terms “White Christians” and “Religious Right” interchangeably and almost synonymously from paragraph to paragraph shows a huge bias. For example, this line:
    “White Christians are simply too old and too few in number to control the outcome of a nationwide election”
    Hmmm… or perhaps it’s that white Christians, even though they constitute a rather large percentage of the population in many age groups, have different opinions on politics and don’t vote as a solid block….???

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      I agree that the term “white Christians” is troublesome. In the context of this story, it seems to be an editorially loaded word, particularly without any sources to explain how these “white Christians” have considered themselves the home team since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Jerry suggested that I was looking for encyclopedia-style sourcing. I think the bigger issue is needing some attributed sourcing on claims such as that one.

    • Chris Bolinger

      Kristen hit the nail on the head. The “analysis” never recovers from its fatal first two sentences.

  • Julia

    “The way he uses the terms “White Christians” and “Religious Right” interchangeably and almost synonymously from paragraph to paragraph shows a huge bias”
    Perhaps he is using “Christian” in that specialized way that some Evangelicals use the term.