762 Messiahs or Why Slow News is good news

You’ve probably heard of some variation of the Slow Movement, a trend which advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. There are subcultures devoted to Slow Food, Slow Gardening, Slow Travel — even Slow Church. But what we really need, especially in religion reporting, is Slow News.

While “slow news” day is generally something to be dreaded by news junkies, I think Slow News could help solve one of the media’s biggest problems: the diminishment of context. As the historian C. John Sommerville wrote in an article titled, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution.

In many ways, information technology has made it faster and easier for reporters put news story into a broader context. Yet the speed at which news is published by most media outlets makes it nearly impossible for journalists to do even the most basic of contextual research. Take, for example, the “Messiah” born in Tennessee story that Bobby Ross mentioned last week.

A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.” The AP was among the first to report on the story on August 12. That article was rather bare-boned, but later that day they put out a more in-depth feature.

A more detailed version, as Bobby pointed out, was produced by Godbeat pro Bob Smietana, who explained that baby Martin is just one of hundreds of Messiahs: 762 were born in 2012. Admittedly, the first AP story noted that “Messiah was No. 4 among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012.” But taking the time, as Smietana did, to actually nail down a number (762!) helps to put the story in a broader context. It also helps to show that the real story is not about unusual religion-themed baby names but about the religious freedom to give your baby such a name.

The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer took an additional four days to weigh-in — an extensive delay in our second-by-second news culture — which seems to have given him the time not only to explore the religious freedom angle in more depth, but to provide some cultural context:

Last year, there were 762 American baby boys given the name Messiah, putting it right between old standbys Scott and Jay for popularity, according the Social Security Administration database. As currently formulated, the magistrate’s reasoning would be a problem not only for all of them, but also for all the Americans, primarily of Hispanic ancestry, who have named their sons Jesus. There were 3,758 Americans given the name Jesus last year, putting it way ahead of Messiah.

Now, one could argue that Jesus does not necessarily refer to Jesus Christ, the one believed to be the Messiah (“Christ” is one Greek-derived translation for “messiah”). But surely that’s whom most parents have in mind. Jesus finds particular favor among Roman Catholics in Mexico and Central America, where so many recent immigrants come from. It is less popular in Spain. . . .

“Adonai is also a common name among Latinos, especially Mexicans,” Mr. Stavans said. “And so is Elohim.” Those are both Hebrew versions of the word for the deity. “But neither of them,” he added, “matches the ubiquity of Jesus, closely followed by Maria, Jose and Guadalupe.”
Hebrew-derived names are particularly popular among Latinos who have become Pentecostal Protestants, according to Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, a historian at Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, Calif. As Pentecostalism has spread in Latin America, new adherents have a “desire to connect to Old Testament prophets, Jewish dietary laws, and sometimes Sabbath keeping,” Ms. Sánchez-Walsh said. It “gives Latino Pentecostals a stake in their religious heritage as non-Catholics — which is what a lot of this is about.”

When I first heard about the story (the original AP version), my take was that the judge was basically right to want to spare the child from a lifetime of mockery. It wasn’t until I read Oppenheimer’s piece that I fully understood the significance of the ruling — and why I (now) disagree with it. From the first story to the fourth, my mind was completely changed. That’s why context matters.

How many people, though, are likely to have read beyond the initial reporting? I wouldn’t have done so myself if my role as a GetReligionista scribe didn’t require it. Most people will assume they “know that story” and move on to something else, not realizing that there is more to it than they may have assumed.

If the job of journalists is to inform the public, perhaps we should take more time to actually provide relevant information rather than rushing, like some YouTube commenter, to be able to claim “First!” Providing additional context may take more time, but better informed readers will recognize that slow news-reporting is good news-reporting.

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  • FW Ken

    Slow News Day gets my vote. In fact, my opinion is that 24 hour news channels are clear proof that satan exists. I remember when the evening news was 15 minutes national news, followed by 15 minutes of local news. More accurately, I remember when they went to 30 minutes each. “Making a difference” was the business of documentaries and special reports.

    Were we better off? I don’t know. It was a simpler time, with summer evenings spent catching fireflies and playing Red Rover. I wouldn’t go back (AIR CONDITIONING!), but we should be asking whether all this “news”, a large part of which is just talking heads talking, is really useful.

    As to young Martin/Messiah: religious reasoning aside, would you really want to be in the third grade, spill your lunch, and hear the cafeteria start to chant “Messy, Messy, Messy”.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Good recap. While it may be impossible to give a detailed story at all times, it doesn’t excuse the current media from a few detailed stories SOME of the time. My reaction to this was the same as yours at first before realizing the religious freedom aspect as well as one other point. Kids will often find a way to bowdlerize your name, no matter what it is, so the judge’s reasoning fails both theologically and rationally.

  • Loren Sickles

    This speaks to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Trivializing “news” for the sake of shock and entertainment value.


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