Got news? The hidden mystery of 60K Christians

Of all the interesting things to consider as a media critic, the most important is probably story choice. We frequently look at individual stories and praise them or criticize them or point out interesting errors or omissions. But such an approach misses that big initial question of how story selection colors our understanding of the world more than anything else.

I’m reminded of the G.K. Chesterton quote about the matter:

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

And this is, typically, how it should be — for the obvious reasons stated above. I might say to myself every time I take a flight, “I’m hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour in a steel tube with wings!” — but I prefer my newspapers to report on crashes as opposed to safe landings. Journalism doesn’t paint anything close to an accurate picture of our modern existence but much obligation is with the reader/viewer to understand why that is.

And yet sometimes this minority view is taken to an extreme. We see failures (of imagination or otherwise) when it comes to covering the holidays religious adherents celebrate. We see that conservative and traditional people are ignored even more than they’re dismissed. Every trend, no matter how weakly substantiated, is feted — for a few months at least — while the consistent practices are hidden.

I think that is part of the explanation for why most mainstream media failed to even notice that some 60,000 young Christians were gathered in Atlanta in recent days for a large evangelical conference called Passion 2013.

It was trending on Twitter every time I checked (also, Carrie Underwood and other celebrities were tweeting about it) and we had more than a few readers ask us to critique the coverage of the event. For instance, here’s reader Joshua Little calling us out on Twitter:

It would be awesome to see a GR piece about the nonexistent coverage of #passion2013 in Atl. Just sayin’

Quite a few evangelical people noticed the absence of any coverage — including prominent folks who emailed us to note it. We discussed this weekend Dan Gilgoff’s view that conservatives are wrong to say that there is an anti-religion bias in the media. I encouraged journalists to think about why people might sense a hostility or ambivalence toward religious adherents. This might be a good example.

OK, with the caveat that it wasn’t entirely nonexistent — WSB Radio, WXIA-TV, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN (blog) joined Christianity Today, Christian Post and Christian Broadcasting Network in noticing the conference — it was remarkably undercovered. You can see the whole gamut of coverage here was limited to Christian and local press.

Surely we can find stories in a crowd of 60,000 college students and young adults. Surely there’s something interesting about what they heard or saw, what they discussed. Surely it would be interesting to look at who critiqued the conference. Surely there’s something worth just noticing about evangelical young adults gathered at this moment.

If this had been 60,000 people gathered under a different banner, we would have coverage, right? Heck, if this had been even close to 60 emergent Christians, or feminist Mormons or LGBQT Methodist clergy we would have seen quite a bit of coverage — if the past is any indication. Now, obviously this all relates back to the Chesterton quote — some things are more newsworthy than others. But just how many evangelicals do you have to get together for it to be worth covering?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    It might have been trending for me since I was there, but Urbana 12 (https://urbana.org) was also held recently. While smaller (16K vs. 60K), Urbana has a longer history (meeting since 1946) and an arguably greater impact on global Christianity.

  • Hemant Mehta

    But what would the story here be? That young Christians exist? That they gather at conferences? That’s hardly newsworthy. Did they do anything at the event that was different from what Christians typically do? (I’m asking that seriously.)

    • Frank

      What Christians typically do is newsworthy and world changing.

    • deiseach

      I have to agree with Hemant here; the story that “Group of young Christians not looking to change denominational rules arriving in town today; all agree that Jesus is Lord and Saviour; large gathering passes off without personal or property damage” or “Frenzy of anticipation for new praise and worship set; wild scenes of mass hand-raising and unconfirmed reports of minor outbreaks of glossolalia at conference” is not news.

      Since you started with the Chesterton quote, Mollie, I have to contribute one I saw today; from “Fairy Tales”, an essay published in the 1908 collection “All Things Considered”:

      “But suppose a man were born in a modern prison, and grew accustomed to the deadly silence and the disgusting indifference; and suppose he were then suddenly turned loose upon the life and laughter of Fleet Street. He would, of course, think that the literary men in Fleet Street were a free and happy race; yet how sadly, how ironically, is this the reverse of the case! And so again these toiling serfs in Fleet Street, when they catch a glimpse of the fairies, think the fairies are utterly free. But fairies are like journalists in this and many other respects. Fairies and journalists have an apparent gaiety and a delusive beauty. Fairies and journalists seem to be lovely and lawless; they seem to be both of them too exquisite to descend to the ugliness of everyday duty. But it is an illusion created by the sudden sweetness of their presence. Journalists live under law; and so in fact does fairyland.”

      • sari

        I agree . It received local and niche coverage, entirely appropriate for a movement that’s been around for close to twenty years. Anything of interest to Christians would have been reported in Christian venues.

        mollie, in light of your comment (“…other than some rather serious criticisms I saw of it from the more confessional Protestant stripe”), do you really want reporters reporting on Christians dissing other Christians? It seems like that’s what coverage would devolve to, because that’s what would be interesting to general readership -and- that’s what would stand out to all but the reporters most knowledgeable about the many different types of Christianity.

        Also, I’m not sure why so many here believe religion competes with gender issues for media attention. Is it because some religious groups object to or feel threatened by those issues(feminism, LGBTQ)? Whatever bad is said about feminism, for instance, feminists paved the way for the integration of women into all areas of life and opened avenues to women, even traditional women, that were unimaginable in the past. To ignore it is to ignore a seismic cultural shift, one which affects nearly every citizen of this country.

    • mollie

      Well, in this time and place, yes, that evangelicals still exist is actually a pretty big story. I mean, if we see reporters writing about little other than the ubiquity and dominance of the nones, yes, their mere existence is news.

      But how do we know if anything interesting happened at the conference? I mean, I have no idea (other than some rather serious criticisms I saw of it from the more confessional Protestant stripe) and I could have no idea because … it wasn’t covered.

      Almost every conference is rather predictable, whether it’s emergent, LBQGT or feminist or not — but that doesn’t keep most reporters from covering them.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Did anything newsworthy happen at the two national conventions of the political parties??? Everything had been settled beforehand including the platform and the candidates (convention news stories that used to drive coverage). Even most reporters described the conventions as nothing but meaningless rallies . And yet endless hours were spent on coverage. Rah, Rah, Rah on bended knee for Obama and Romney.

  • Daniel

    Being new on the political scene doesn’t seem to really be a standard used by journalists. If something has been going on for more than twenty years it still gets covered. What gets covered is what reporters advocate, and that’s about as far as we can get from fairminded. Lets use words like cool, trendy, unique! They sell.

    • sari

      Daniel, deviation from the norm is news by definition. An annual conference that says nothing new merits local coverage, since it affects the local community. An analogous convention would be that held annually for Chabad shluchim and their families in NYC (since 1983). It’s huge and has ramifications for international Jewry, since Chabad families are often the sole providers of Jewish services in many parts of the world, but the only coverage outside the Jewish press will be found in the NYT. Following the logic that any religious groups to survive (or flourish) is newsworthy with the rise of the nones, this should be big news, but it’s not.

      FWKen, my local paper carried news of the Dallas Promise Keepers. Not page one, but in the around Texas section. I would imagine that quite a few Austin men attended, which made the event relevant to the Austin community. That the DMN failed to report a major event in its *own* community shows poor judgment on the part of its staff. Would you have expected coverage by the NYT of anything other than the national event in DC?

  • FW Ken

    A few years back, the Dallas Morning News ran a long article on a PFLAG meeting. No contrary voices, no criticism – it might have been a press release. About that same time, 60,000 men gathered for the first Promise Keepers meeting here. It got a small bit in the second section because the wind blew down some speakers.

    it’s not “competition”, it’s bigotry. It’s advocacy.

  • mollie

    Well this is funny. Today we learn that the White House has announced invitations to two speakers to offer prayers at the inauguration. I’d never heard of one of them — turns out he runs a little old thing called Passion …

  • Clement Williams

    Perhaps it is a good thing that the MSM/Lamestream media ignore us evangelicals. The surprise that they will have on their faces when a Million young men and women praising The Lord on the streets of the bastions of Secularism would be a wonderful thing to see! I, for one, am certain that this is going to happen, and soon. In Physics, which is Natural Law as well, the 3rd. Law of motion is “Action and Reaction are equal and opposite” and in God’s Law, the Action begets a far greater reaction. Perhaps, I am being perverse in believing that the Lord has allowed the current state of affairs to happen, to open our eyes to the spiritual drought that we are in, while He has unleashed a storm in the ocean of humanity gathering strength to pour down the rain of His grace on us. I am picturing in my mind the story of Isaiah telling his servant to watch the east and to report to him any change. Then, the servant, after several inquiries, reporting the small cloud, the size of a fist. This 60,000 gathering is that small cloud!

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    Years back, I *was* the Dallas Morning News reporter who wrote long and hard about the Promise Keepers rallies hereabouts. Finding news in the events was always something of a challenge. The question I always asked — there and at other such events — was: How will the world be different because this event happened? Whatever answer I got was a perfectly acceptable answer. But to the extent that the answer was specific, verifiable, and not limited to inside the head of the person offering the answer, that made it more newsworthy. If it turns out that this 60k can, a year from now, point to specific differences in the world as a direct result of this event, that would make for a pretty good news story. (I will bet that such evidence will be hard to come by, based on my experience with such, but I’ve been surprised before.)

    The one exception to that question/rule had to do with how unusual the event was, how unfamiliar to readers. So an akhand path, a routine event for Sikhs, became a way for me to introduce Dallas readers to an unfamiliar faith. This meeting is not in that category.

    Numbers don’t mean news, either. Here in Dallas we have a couple of churches that pull together more than 10,000 people *every* blamed Sunday. And tens of thousands every Christmas. That’s not news, either

    Having said all that, I betcha a good reporter could have found a story there. But the reality is that the weekend crews for many newspapers are down to less than a skeleton. So there’s a practical question to be addressed here, too.

    And finally, about the modern national political conventions. Nope. Not news. Performance, more like. And the number of non-broadcast journalists attending this year was a tiny fraction of what it once was.

    • mollie

      I just want to add onto these excellent comments — I heard from a handful of reporters that they hadn’t even been notified of Passion2013. Hard to cover an event when you haven’t even been told it’s going to happen.

  • The Old Bill

    Maybe if the Nuns On a Bus had been the opening act…

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Love it!

  • FW Ken

    I’m not sure the point about the New York Times, but I would think that the first such event would be worth national attention. Of course, we were talking local attention to a local event. For the reasons Jeffrey Weiss mentions, a second (certainly a third) similar event would not be news, certainly not in Dallas, where (also noted), large scale evangelicalism is a regular event.

    Jeffrey Weiss, I’m not a journalist, but I can see your problem. I do believe it say something about our culture that 10-15 people gathered to discuss their children being gay is somehow big news that will somehow change the world, but 60,000 men gathered to try and be better husbands and fathers is, by your definition, not news. It won’t have an effect on the world. I think that speaks to different sets of values.

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