BBC misses religious-liberty ghost in St. Francisville, La.

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Through the years, your GetReligionistas have gone out of our way to note that it’s a good thing, every now and then, for journalists to end up on the other side of a reporter’s notebook or camera lens.

This can be a sobering experience, in large part because it helps us realize the kinds of decisions that journalists get to make when editing the statements and information offered by other people. It is hard for working journalists to realize what it is like to be, using that crucial Poynter.org term, the “stakeholders” whose lives have to some degree been changed by the publication of a story.

There are, of course, sins of commission committed against stakeholders. Journalists may get facts wrong, mangle quotes or pull a person’s words completely out of context in a way that changes their meaning.

Then there are the more frequent sins of omission. One of the most common is when a journalist interviews someone for an hour or so and, in the end, uses one or two sentences from an interview without any consideration for whether those remarks have anything to do with the central argument being made by the person being interviewed.

Recently, a BBC crew came to visit Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher at his home in St. Francisville, La., for a piece that focused on the degree to which Americans out in flyover territory, out in the red zip codes (click here, please, for an amazing graphic), feel disconnected from the values and agenda of their national government.

The video piece itself appears at the top of this post. The short note that accompanied the feature states, in part:

Rod Dreher lives 1,000 miles – and a world away — from the partisan politics that have paralyzed Washington DC in recent years. After living in big US cities for several years, the writer and editor for the American Conservative magazine moved back with his wife and children to the small Louisiana town where his family had lived for five generations.

In St Francisville, his family sought — and found — the support that comes from living in a tight-knit community. The desire of local people to come together to talk and solve problems, he says, is in stark contrast to the behaviour of politicians at the national level.

Dreher says America is making the same mistakes that led to the end of the Roman Empire: the capital is too far removed from the real needs of the people in the provinces who feel ever more alienated from their rulers.

And what is the ultimate point of the video, which is to say what was the ultimate point of the Dreher interview?

I cut off that part of the BBC explanatory note. View the piece for yourself and ask this basic question: “What is the thesis statement of this piece, especially it’s thesis about what needs to happen in American politics?”

Did you watch the piece?

Now, when I watched it more than once, and read Rod’s own blog short blog item about it, I had a kind of nagging feeling that something important was missing. I’m a culturally conservative Democrat and everything Dreher said about the power of community and the need for the principalities and powers in Washington to work together and to compromise, when possible, rang bells for me.

But something was missing. So I wrote Rod and asked him if he thought this piece was a fair representation of what he had to say. This is what he said in response, and I share it with his permission:

I was pleased with the BBC piece, though I really regretted that they weren’t able to include the commentary of my friend James, who was at the coffee shop table with me, but whose fascinating, substantive remarks about American politics and localism didn’t make the cut. But the producer told us from the outset that this was going to be a three-and-a-half-minute feature, so it would have been unreasonable to have expected too much from it.

The producer and her cameraman were very professional, and a pleasure to work with. However, I did wonder when I saw the final product about one thing.

They asked me what would be the one thing I would tell President Obama, if I could have a word with him. I said, “Respect religious liberty,” and then talked about the HHS mandate, the clash with gay civil rights and the autonomy of churches. Mind you, I said this in context of a discourse about how I thought building up local institutions, such as the church, was for me more of a priority than national politics.

The producer didn’t understand what I was talking about. She’s Italian, and New York-based. She apparently had never heard of what I was talking about — religious liberty concerns, I mean. I think she really listened to me, and tried to understand it, but it was so foreign to her experience and understanding that all that was left on the cutting room floor. Obviously I really did say those things about Obama and the Republicans working together for the common good outside the narrow confines of self-regarding partisanship, and I meant it. But the most important thing (to me) that I said didn’t make the cut, because, I think, it didn’t fit the narrative that the producer understood.

To be clear, I’m not saying at all that she biased the piece on purpose. Again, the team was thoroughly professional, and did a great job, even though they were only in town for about three hours. I only want to say that I found it really interesting that this talented journalist didn’t seem to, well, get religion, or at least the American religious landscape, and missed the significance of what I had to say.

Precisely. As Bill Moyers once said, in a quote often noted here, many mainstream journalists are simply tone-deaf to the music of religion in the news. They do not know what they are missing because they cannot hear it. This reality, in the end, all too often influences the content far more than negative prejudices.

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.

  • Rod Dreher

    I want to underscore your final point, Terry, to make sure that nobody thinks that this was a case of anti-religious bias. It wasn’t, and it would be wrong for readers to conclude this. I think it was genuinely a case of the producer not understanding what I was talking about. And you know, I can’t blame her insofar as she gets her news from The New York Times and other mainstream US media outlets. Our media have done a terrible job of covering this angle of the story. I talk to conservative Christians all the time who have no idea about the existence of these questions arising from the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights.

  • Jonathan

    Terry & Rod, I appreciated the tone of the story that they produced. I also appreciate your gracious coverage of the shortcomings of this piece in how it was constructed. Rod, I especially appreciate you giving us a lot of context to understand what went on in the production of this piece and how something might happen that disappoints religious consumers of news that has nothing to do with animus against believers.

  • James

    Was she Italian or Italian-American? I can understand her confusion is she is the former, as the Italian media just ignores the whole religious liberty issue in its coverage of Obama and American politics. There just isn’t that kind of culture-war battle in Italy, where “freedom of religion” has no connotation of “freedom from religion” in public life. Consider that recent years, the government fought the EU to keep crucifixes in classrooms of its state schools (it won in the European Court of Human Rights in 2011).


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