Baptists’ hot time in Phoenix

Unlike Rob Bell, Southern Baptists believe in hell.

In related news (kidding), the denomination this week staged its annual meeting in a frying pan.

A year ago in this space, we lamented (and again here) the lack of mainstream media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2010 meeting in Orlando, Fla.:

Once upon a time, the Southern Baptist Convention knew how to make headlines.

Whether battling over “hotbeds of liberalism” or declaring that a woman should “submit herself graciously” to her husband or feeding news holes with gay rights activists’ arrests, the convention’s annual meeting once drew a cadre of reporters — a “who’s who” list of Religion Newswriters Association members.

How far has the news value of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — with 16 million members — fallen?

Well, 11,000 Southern Baptists are staging their 2010 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, and it’s drawing barely a blip of coverage from most media organizations, if that.

Fast-forward 12 months. Instead of the home city of Walt Disney World, Baptists convened in the, um, desert. In the summertime. Sounds like a hot recipe for a popular convention, huh?

Not so much.

Let’s check in with (apparently) the only secular reporter to make his way to Phoenix: religion writer Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In a story mostly behind a paywall (I have my ways, people), Lockwood noted:

Overall, there were 4,791 messengers in Phoenix, officials said, the lowest number, by far, since the 1944 annual meeting in Atlanta, when the nation was in the midst of World War II.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and experienced decades of growth before plateauing around the turn of the century.

To summarize: Not only did the press stay home this time, but so did the Baptists. (Thank you, I’m here all week.)

Alas, even from afar, there has actually been some pretty interesting mainstream coverage of the two-day Phoenix meeting. In advance of the convention, The Tennessean’s Bob Smietana reported on the denomination’s declining baptism rate (which is becoming an annual story for the Southern Baptists).

Lockwood’s first-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Southern Baptists, who split from Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on Tuesday elected a black pastor to serve as first vice president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, soundly defeated Richard Ong, a deacon at First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix, to claim the second-highest office in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Luter, 54, is the highest ranking black to ever win office in the predominantly white denomination, which allowed its churches to exclude blacks from membership at least into the late-1970s.

The race angle drew the attention of Religion News Service, The New York Times and The Associated Press, all of which produced fairly substantial reports — albeit not from the convention floor. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans profiled Luter and analyzed why he’s likely to be elected the denomination’s first black president in his hometown next summer.

That potential election sets the stage for what could be a “big headline” kind of convention with reporters from the major media on the scene in New Orleans in 2012. Most of the reporting I’ve seen on this year’s convention has highlighted the Baptists’ lack of minority membership and leadership. I’m hopeful that next year’s reports will do a better job of putting those figures in context of the wider religious world. In terms of diversity, how do the Southern Baptists compare with other denominations?

Lockwood’s second-day lede from the scene:

PHOENIX — Meeting in one of the nation’s most heavily Hispanic states, the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday called for the creation of “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures” for illegal aliens living in the United States.

Convention delegates, known as messengers, debated whether to strip that language from a resolution titled “On Immigration and the Gospel,” which had been crafted by the Committee on Resolutions.

But attempts to delete the wording failed by a vote of 766-723.

The overall resolution then passed by a show of hands.

Two-fifths of Hispanic Southern Baptists in this country are here illegally, Baptist leaders estimated.

Again, the Arkansas newspaper captured the angle of the day that national media followed from afar, including RNS, Politico and the AP.

How did the Democrat-Gazette benefit by actually having a reporter at the meeting? The advantages were subtle but important. For example, Lockwood’s report was the only one I read that quoted actual delegates — er, messengers — opposed to the immigration language approved:

Richard Huff, a Southern Baptist messenger from Tucson, Ariz., moved to strike any call for a pathway to legal residency.

If illegal aliens are allowed to stay, “we will be rewarding people who have broken the law,” warned John Killian, a messenger and pastor from Maytown, Ala. Accepting millions of illegal aliens is “a policy that’s completely unsustainable for our economy.”

Others warned that the measure was misguided.

“This is amnesty any way you phrase it,” said Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif.

As seems to happen every year, gay-rights advocates raised concerns about Southern Baptists’ treatment of homosexuals. Unless I missed it, the Times was the only mainstream publication to tout that angle, tacking it on to the end of its report:

Gay and lesbian advocates on Wednesday called on the Southern Baptists to apologize for antihomosexual policies and for what they called destructive efforts to “cure” people of homosexuality.

Mr. Mohler said that in contrast to racial issues, the church view that homosexual behavior is a sin is dictated by the Bible. “We cannot compromise without disobeying the Scriptures,” he said, adding that it is also an article of faith that the Holy Spirit can transform people.

Those two grafs seemed to come out of nowhere in a story about the convention’s minority appeal. There’s no explanation of the alleged “antihomosexual policies” or the “destructive efforts.” (The Associated Baptist Press provided a fuller report on the gay-rights angle.)

Ready, OK? Cheerleading in Arizona

Just for the fun of it, pretend that you’re a line editor at a 100,000-circulation newspaper in the Southwest — say, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

Just for the sake of all our sanity, pretend that this story — on the local Presbyterian response to the national denomination’s move toward gay ordination — is the reporter’s first draft and not the actual 1,000 words of blatant cheerleading that appeared in the newspaper.

For this exercise to work, you must be interested in quality journalism as opposed to, say, social advocacy, public relations or editorials masquerading as news stories.

Ready, OK?

Let’s start at the top:

Hallelujahs are sounding loudly from at least two local churches as members celebrate a long-sought change in the Presbyterian Church to fully include everyone regardless of their sexual or gender orientation.

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church has worked to remove obstacles for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ordination for more than two decades, and it officially joined the national movement, called More Light Presbyterians, in 2006.

Last month, the change came nationwide.

“It’s been been a long wait, and St. Mark’s is celebrating,” said the Rev. Gusti Newquist. “Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are part of God’s good creation, and when God calls them to serve as ministers, we should welcome them gratefully. God calls people to serve in the church and church policy should not be a barrier to answering God’s call.”

Now, if I’m the editor, I’d probably ask the reporter — sans her pompoms — to join me in my office and explain why she chose this lede. In the friendliest way possible, I’d ask questions such as: How representative is this opening to what’s happening among all Presbyterian churches in the Tucson area? Where do the “at least two churches” you mentioned fit into the overall picture? Did you interview anybody from other churches in the area? What did they say? Even at the two churches mentioned, is there total agreement on the direction taken?

Then we’d move on to the story’s nut graf — in this case, two grafs:

Presbyterians in Minnesota’s Twin Cities became the last needed presbytery – the name for a regional governing body – to vote in favor of eliminating all barriers to the ordination of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States, which includes nearly 2.4 million members, joins Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ denominations with its inclusive policy.

Before geting into the nitty-gritty of my questions, I’d point out to the reporter that AP style for this denomination is Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), not “Presbyterian Church in the United States.”

And I’d ask for the source on the 2.4 million members. I’d note that I’m an avid New York Times reader and that the Times put the membership figure at about 2 million when it reported on the Twin Cities vote. I’d note that my AP stylebook — 2007 version since my publication can’t afford to buy one every year — puts the membership figure at 3.5 million members. I suspect that the AP number is old, but as a skeptical journalist, it makes me wonder if — just perhaps — this denomination is hemorrhaging. If so, I’d tell the reporter that perhaps we might consider presenting a fuller picture than this glowing tribute to the gay-ordination change.

Then I’d apologize for digressing and move on to my real questions …

I’d start with the elephant in the local newsroom: The local presbytery. I’d praise the reporter for finding a local angle on a national story. But as gently as possible, I’d ask: How did the local presbytery vote? Since I’ve advanced up to editor, I would know how to Google and find out that the local presbytery is known as the Presbytery de Cristo and includes about 30 congregations in southern Arizona and New Mexico. From reading the reporter’s story, I would assume that everybody in the Presbytery de Cristo is all fired up excited about ordaining gays and lesbians as ministers.

But my Googling would have revealed otherwise: I’d know that despite everyone in the reporter’s story praising the change, the vote in the Tucson presbytery was 62-62 0n Amendment 10-A. That tie vote, in fact, put the Presbytery de Cristo in the “no” column on this change and reflected a switch from the last time the local body voted on this issue. So while the reporter’s story is about the excitement of local Presbyterians related to this change, the actual trend has been the other direction. I’d try to explain this to the eager young reporter in as nice a way as possible.

As for possible sources that might help balance the first draft, I’d do what all good editors do and search in my own newspaper’s archive. In about two seconds, I’d find a 2006 Daily Star story on this same issue with some great potential contacts:

Several large local Presbyterian churches, among them St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on the Northwest Side and Northminster Presbyterian Church on the North Side, want to ensure ordination is reserved for people who are chaste or in heterosexual marriages, and have argued against any changes to the denomination’s constitution. On its Web site, St. Andrew’s posted a notice opposing the result of this week’s vote on ordination in Birmingham.

Northminster has joined the Confessing Movement within the denomination — a conservative movement that affirms a ban on elected homosexual church leaders. Shepherd of the Valley Presbyterian Church in Safford also is part of the Confessing Movement.

I’d also ask the reporter to be more specific when referring to Lutheran denominations adopting “inclusive” policies since it’s my understanding that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod do not share the same policy on this question. While the vague reference in the reporter’s story might be technically accurate, I’d err on the side of not confusing readers.

As my meeting with the reporter came to an end, I’d ask her to take another shot at her story. She’d probably fall all over herself apologizing for her rotten, one-sided first attempt. I’d pat her on the shoulder and tell her not to worry about it.

“That’s why we have editors,” I’d say, sheepishly. “I’m just doing my job.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Big hole in the Big Easy?

Back in March, we did a couple of posts — here and here — on news coverage of a Catholic high school in New Orleans embroiled in controversy over corporal punishment and deeper issues.

The drama at the African-American high school has kept raging in recent weeks, and Times-Picayune religion writer Bruce Nolan has been all over it.

A GetReligion reader sharing a link to the latest news tells us:

Overall, Mr. Nolan’s stories have been great, and he has done a good job at covering the religious and racial tensions at play in this controversy. But this latest story has a huge hole.

Oh, really? Let’s check out the complaint.

Here’s the top of the story in question:

The Rev. John Raphael told a crowd of hundreds of cheering supporters Wednesday he will remain on the job as president of St. Augustine High School in spite of a weekend order from his religious community that abruptly recalled him to Baltimore.

Raphael’s unexpected appearance at a late afternoon rally on the school grounds electrified hundreds of parents, alumni and friends who had come to show support for Raphael and St. Augustine in its conflict with both the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Josephite order that founded the school.

The conflict is nominally about whether, after a year’s suspension, to resume the use of corporal punishment at the school — a practice that violates St. Augustine’s Catholic identity, in the view of Archbishop Gregory Aymond and the leadership of the Josephite order.

The reader’s concern:

Fr. Raphael has chosen to defy (very publicly) a direct order from his religious order’s superior general. Most religious orders require vows of obedience, and canon law might even require it. Did Fr. Raphael take a vow of obedience? What are the possible canonical consequences to publicly disobeying one’s religious superior? The story doesn’t say, and leaves readers wondering. For a story about such a public act of disobedience, it’s a large and gaping hole.

The story reports that the school’s local board of directors believes it has sole power to hire or fire its school president. The board chairman told the crowd that Raphael has a valid contract and had agreed to honor it.

More from Nolan’s report:

Henry also told the crowd that Raphael has sought advice from church law experts, indicating that Raphael might use internal church procedures to challenge his removal within the Josephite community. Later Raphael authorized the release of his email to the board in which he said a canon lawyer had advised him that Chiffriller’s order “is unquestionably invalid.”

Raphael advised the board that he was prepared to pursue the case in the church’s legal system.

But significantly, the Josephites are also about to have regularly scheduled elections in a week or so that will bring new leadership to bear on the St. Augustine matter.

Henry said the board hopes to have more success dealing with new Josephite leadership.

At the microphone, Raphael framed his decision to remain as president as squarely within St. Augustine’s 60-year tradition of encouraging resistance to injustice, when necessary to the point of defiance.

Does any of that negate the alleged “large and gaping” hole? Perhaps. At the least, this story acknowledges that canon law is an issue.

The major weakness, as I see it, is that the piece fails to include any input from those who have told Raphael to leave. Whether that’s because the reporter didn’t call them — or they didn’t want to comment — I don’t know. That would be good information to include, even in the form of a “declined to comment” or a “could not be reached for comment” or “do not as a general practice talk to the media.”

At the same time, if you read the whole story, there’s a lot of nuance — and obvious understanding of religion and the issues at play — in this report. Thank the Godbeat for that.

Caps, gowns and prayer lawsuits (updated)


As spring turns to summer, it’s the time for shaved-ice snow cones, cool dips in the swimming pool, hot nights at the ballpark … and steamy legal battles over whether prayer is allowed at high school graduation ceremonies.

For much of the last week, a federal lawsuit over whether prayer would be allowed as seniors at a Texas high school donned caps and gowns made headlines in the Lone Star State and nationally. With each turn of the crank (read: each new development in the case), I grew more frustrated with the lack of specific reporting on the legal arguments on each side. Most of the reports I read acted as if this were the first time anyone had ever sued over a high school graduation prayer. I really don’t think that’s the case.

The Texas case burst into the headlines when a federal judge banned prayer at the ceremony — a decision quickly appealed by the school district and lambasted by the state’s governor and attorney general. The top of the San Antonio Express News report on the ruling:

At this year’s graduation ceremony for students of Medina Valley High School, publicly uttered prayer is out — but individual references to a higher being are allowed.

Such was the ruling Tuesday from Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in a lawsuit filed by Christa and Danny Schultz on behalf of one of their sons, who is one of the 238 seniors who will graduate Saturday from the school in Castroville.

The Schultz family is agnostic and says a son who graduated in 2009 was wrongly subjected to school-sponsored prayer, something the school district has repeatedly allowed despite long-standing legal precedent that bars it.

That lede makes clear that the judge’s ruling contained some nuance. However, the story never quotes directly from the order or explains precisely what the judge allowed and prohibited. Neither does the newspaper provide a link to the pdf of the actual ruling — much to my dismay. (Update: Thanks to Kate Shellnut for pointing out this link where the Express News did link to the documents!)

Moreover, the third paragraph refers to “long-standing legal precedent” but provides no details to confirm that assertion. By reading this particular news story, it’s obvious that prayers are banned at high school graduations.

Or maybe not. I was pleased Sunday to see a front-page story in The Tennessean by Godbeat writer Bob Smietana that seems much more cognizant of the murky legal waters on this issue:

Some things are clearly banned — such as teacher-led prayer or allowing an outside group, like the Gideons, to hand out Bibles.

Other things — like having students pray or mention God during a graduation speech or holding school events in a church — have been banned by some courts and allowed by others.

“The terrible answer that no one wants to hear is that everything depends on the context,” Haynes said. “These things can’t be answered in black and white.”

In a follow-up story, the San Antonio paper interviewed a valedictorian fighting for the right to pray in her graduation address. While the first report said individual references to a higher being were allowed, the second story reported:

Hildenbrand, 18 , wants to be able to pray and mention terms or phrases barred by Biery’s order — to include “amen” and “in the name of Jesus” in the speech, said Erin Leu , an attorney with the Liberty Institute.

Biery’s order, issued Tuesday, says the Schultzes are “likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the inclusion of prayers at Medina Valley High School graduation ceremonies violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.” It also ordered the district to not include the terms “invocation” and “benediction” in the graduation program, and prohibits speakers from uttering certain phrases that would encourage the crowd to join in prayer.

A Reuters report on the ruling included this section:

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday asked a federal appeals court to overturn the order.

“This is part of an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting, while at the same time demanding from the court increased yielding to all things agnostic and atheistic,” Abbott said.

He said Congress begins each session with a prayer to God, and Biery’s ruling would allow a student to “bend over in honor of Mecca,” but not lead a prayer to the Christian God.

But again, this report does not quote the judge’s ruling directly, so it’s difficult for a reader to discern what he actually ruled.

Fox News provided a bit of specificity:

The judge did grant students permission to make the sign of the cross, wear religious garb or kneel to face Mecca. But that’s not good enough for some students at the high school.

On Friday, an appeals court reversed the judge’s ruling. Students who attended the ceremony “heard prayers aplenty,” and the majority seemed quite pleased by that, the Express News reported.

Meanwhile, and maybe it’s just me, the journalistic nitty-gritty on the legal battle that just occurred seems vague, confusing and totally lacking in context to understand it.

Until the next graduation season …

The death of ‘Dr. Death’ (updated)

What ever happened to … Jack Kevorkian?

Until Kevorkian died today at age 83, the once-famous “Dr. Death” had not crossed my mind in many years.

Of course, Kevorkian’s passing is a major news story, and The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Associated Press and other major media quickly published in-depth obituaries. The top of the Post obit:

Jack Kevorkian, the zealous, straight-talking American doctor known as “Dr. Death” for his lifelong crusade to legalize physician-assisted suicide died on Friday at a Detroit area hospital, the Associated Press reported. He was 83 years old.

Dr. Kevorkian spent decades campaigning for the legalization of euthanasia. He served eight years in prison and was arrested numerous times for helping more than 130 patients commit suicide between 1990 and 2000, using injections, carbon monoxide and his infamous suicide machine, built from scraps for $30. Those he aided had terminal conditions such as multiple sclerosis, ALS and malignant brain tumors.

When asked in a 2010 interview by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about how it felt to take a patient’s life, Dr. Kevorkian said, “I didn’t do it to end a life. I did it to end the suffering the patient’s going through. The patient’s obviously suffering — what’s a doctor supposed to do, turn his back?”

Dying, he believed, should be an intimate and dignified process, something that many terminally ill are denied, he said.

Meanwhile, the fine folks at ReligionLink — who do such a magnificent job of keeping Godbeat writers on top of current trends — rushed out a primer on what Kevorkian’s death likely means to the end-of-life debate:

The death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a former pathologist who helped dozens of terminally ill people die with a suicide machine, has renewed a national debate on end-of-life issues that never went away completely, even after Kevorkian was sentenced to prison in 1999.

In fact, a Gallup poll in May found that physician-assisted suicide remains the most contentious moral issue in the country, with 45 percent saying it is morally acceptable and 48 percent saying it is morally wrong.

And the ferocity of the so-called “death panels” controversy during the health care reform debate  remains so potent that in January the Obama administrationreversed course on end-of-life counseling regulations due to concerns that passing the regulations would rekindle the furor.

Beyond the immediate reactions prompted by Kevorkian’s death, the debate over end-of-life issues can be traced to technological advances and new brain research, and also to questions being raised by believers, particularly in Catholicism and Judaism.

There’s much more detail on the ReligionLink site, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

As for the obits themselves, there’s not much religion to be found. Wondering what, if anything, Kevorkian believed about the afterlife? I didn’t see any of those details in the obits I read.

The AP obit hints at some of Kevorkian’s clashes with religion:

Kevorkian, who died Friday at a Michigan hospital at 83, insisted suicide with the help of a medical professional was a civil right.

His gaunt, hollow-cheeked appearance gave him a ghoulish, almost cadaverous look and helped earn him the nickname “Dr. Death.” But Kevorkian likened himself to Martin Luther King and Gandhi and called physicians who didn’t support him “hypocritic oafs.”

“Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity,” he once said. “I put myself in my patients’ place. This is something I would want.”

Kevorkian jabbed his finger in the air as he publicly mocked politicians and religious leaders. He was a magnet for the news media, once talking to reporters with his head and wrists restrained in a stock reminiscent of the Medieval era.

But there’s no exploration of what Kevorkian believed about religion. I found mention of Kevorkian on the website but missed any reference to Kevorkian as an atheist in the obits I read.

This sentence in the Times obit stood out to me:

In 1976, bored with medicine, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., where he spent 12 years producing an unsuccessful film about Handel’s “Messiah,” painting and writing, supporting himself with part-time pathology positions at two hospitals.

Did faith — or lack thereof — play any role in his production of the “Messiah” film?

If you spot any news reports that tackle the questions raised in this post or address the issues pointed out by ReligionLink, please share the links in the comments section.

Update: Be sure to check out the comments for some great links. Thanks, readers!

Got boilerplate? Will cover predictably

If you watched the community memorial service in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, you could not miss the powerful religious messages and imagery.

From the Rev. Aaron Brown’s overtly Christian sermon (“Jesus never promised to protect us from the storms of life”) to Gov. Jay Nixon’s reflections on Joplin’s “God-given mission” in the wake of the destruction, faith and hope were the story of this service.

Unless, of course, you depended on the Washington Post to give you a true picture of what the service sounded — and felt — like.

The top of the Post’s disappointing story on the event:

JOPLIN, Mo. — The survivors of the monster tornado that ravaged this small city gathered to grieve their losses, as President Obama called on them to remember the stories of “strength and courage” that emerged from the storm.

Exactly one week ago, a deadly twister of historic proportions ravaged Joplin, leaving only walls at the high school, stripping pews out of a Baptist church and tossing homes out of their neighborhoods. More than 130 people died, many are still missing and hundreds are homeless.

On Sunday, Obama stood at the front of a college auditorium for a memorial service that marked the devastation and focused on rebuilding this city of 50,000, which looks as though a bulldozer had mowed down a six-mile swath in the center.

“The question that weighs on us at a time like this is why. Why our town? Why our home? Why our son or husband or wife or sister or friend? We do not have the capacity to answer,” Obama said before quoting Scriptures and promising that the country would stand with the city.

That is, of course, the kind of boilerplate coverage of “a community coming together” that most veteran reporters could write in their sleep.

In other words: Yawn.

Contrast the Post’s approach with how the local newspaper — the Joplin Globehandled the exact same portion of Obama’s remarks:

“And as Rev. Brown alluded to, the question that weighs on us at a time like this is: Why? Why our town? Why our home? Why my son, or husband, or wife, or sister, or friend? Why?

“We do not have the capacity to answer. We can’t know when a terrible storm will strike, or where, or the severity of the devastation that it may cause. We can’t know why we’re tested with the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a home where we’ve lived a lifetime.

“These things are beyond our power to control. But that does not mean we are powerless in the face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control. And it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.

“In the last week, that’s what Joplin has not just taught Missouri, not just taught America, but has taught the world.’’

Obama continued: “As the governor said, you have shown the world what it means to love thy neighbor. You’ve banded together. You’ve come to each other’s aid. You’ve demonstrated a simple truth: that amid heartbreak and tragedy, no one is a stranger. Everybody is a brother. Everybody is a sister. We can all love one another.’’

As Obama spoke, his comments often were punctuated by applause and standing ovations. It reached its zenith when he talked about standing together in the future.

It certainly sounds like the president listened to the pastor and the governor, even if the Post didn’t.

Obama quoted from 2 Corinthians 4. It would have been interesting if the story had included the actual passage that he referenced.

The pastor and the governor both spoke emotionally from the heart and seemed to resonate with the crowd, who gave Nixon — a Democrat, like the president — a standing ovation. Yet Nixon isn’t quoted at all, and mention of Brown has nothing to do with the main point of his message. It’s not surprising that a national newspaper would focus on the president, but this news report fails to hit the mark concerning what really happened at Joplin’s memorial service.

The Post piece also contains strange sentences such as this:

The auditorium held 1,900 people, but many in this deeply conservative city opted not to come.

Did they opt not to come because they consider Obama a liberal? Did they opt not to come because all their belongings were blown to smithereens and they had nothing to wear? Did they opt not to come because 1,900 seats is not very many in a city with 50,000 grieving people?

What in the world is the point there? What does being “deeply conservative” have to do with grieving a disaster that killed more than 130 people?

It’s not the Post’s coverage was inaccurate. It just wasn’t real.

WHO are these good Samaritans?

Hey Ryan, we feel your pain.

That’s my first response to the reader who contacted GetReligion concerning a CBS News report on the Joplin, Mo., tornado relief effort:

This story was just beyond weird and frustrating as you can’t help but want to yell, “Who are these strangers showing up to help?”

Check out the headline and subhead on the piece:

Strangers flocking to help Joplin residents

84-year-old Joplin widow benefits from the kindness of total strangers as she rebuilds after the disaster

Not only are the mysterious helpers strangers; they are total strangers.

Ryan said his favorite paragraph from the report was this one:

About 30 volunteers suddenly appeared one day, and they lifted Mary’s furniture and her spirits for a while. But when there is so much need, help has to keep moving.

Ryan’s commentary on that graf:

This makes it sound as if people are like clouds and just appear out of nowhere. What brought these people? This might even be worse than a religion ghost behind it all, as I am left wondering in general what the motives are of these people just suddenly showing up to help strangers.

Just the other day, I scratched my (bald) head over tornado coverage by CNN that nailed the religion angle in the written version of a story but totally ignored God and faith in the video report.

In this case, I clicked the embedded CBS video to see if it matched the story Ryan called to our attention. In fact, the video itself helped answer some of the perplexing questions — as much as CBS tried to ignore them.

A soundbite from one of the volunteers says:

We prayed that morning that if there was a need that we would know it, and God works these things out.

Hmmmmm, does it sound like — just possibly — there’s a faith angle here? The woman quoted has a son who’s wearing a green T-shirt that appears to display a Scripture on the back. Again, hmmmm …

In the same video, many of the “strangers” who show up to volunteer are wearing orange T-shirts. The writing on the front of the T-shirts says, “Samaritan’s Purse.” I do believe that Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian ministry with disaster relief experts and volunteer teams on the ground in Joplin. Even the video fails to mention Samaritan’s Purse, but you can’t miss the T-shirts … or the volunteers giving the older woman a Bible and asking to pray with her.

My, my, my.

Hey Ryan, did I mention that we feel your pain?

The Joplin twister, God and CNN

Let’s conduct a little journalistic experiment here at GetReligion.

First, watch the embedded video from CNN on a father’s vigil for his injured son. Then, read the story below the video on the CNN Belief Blog.

(Take all the time you need. I’ll be here when you get done.)

OK, finished watching and reading? Did you notice any difference between the two reports? The difference between night and day maybe?

The video report, by veteran CNN correspondent Brian Todd, contains powerful visual images of a boy in a medically induced coma and the father planted by his bedside. What the report, nearly three minutes long, lacks is any mention of the family’s faith. There’s absolutely no reference to God or prayer or the reason for the father’s hope. The piece is haunted by the kind of holy ghosts that inspired this weblog’s creation.

Then there’s the written report, with a double byline for Eric Marrapodi and Todd. Marrapodi, as you may recall, is a religion-beat specialist at CNN. Think Godbeat pros don’t make a difference on a story like this? Think again.

Here’s the headline on the story:

From tornado to hospital, prayer sustains Missouri family

See what just happened? We went from a generic “vigil” on the video to a religious family praying.

The top of the story:

Joplin, Missouri (CNN) – It’s quiet here. The only sound in the hospital room is the steady hum of a ventilator pushing air into Lage Grigsby’s lungs. It’s a stark contrast to the haunting noise of Sunday’s Joplin tornado, which put him here.

Lage’s father, James Grigsby, sits by his 14-year-old son’s bedside anxiously keeping vigil, praying and hoping his boy will pull through OK. Lage is in a medically induced coma.

There’s that P-word again (praying) way up high.

Keep reading, and we hear from the boy’s grandmother about what happened in the Home Depot parking lot that day:

They watched as orange shopping carts took flight.

“I turned around and pushed my grandkids down to the floorboard,” she said. “I kept telling them, ‘We need to pray. God’s going to take care of us.’ ”

The windows in the truck shattered, sending glass flying into Lillard’s back. She bit her tongue; she didn’t want to scare her grandchildren.

“Then all of a sudden we felt the truck go in the air.”

“All I kept saying was ‘God protect us,’” Lillard said. “Because that’s all we had was God to protect us. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

There’s another Godbeat word — used three times, by my count. “The Lord” makes an appearance in a quote later in the story.

The written report ends this way:

Through the pain and anxiety, Grigsby said his faith remains firm. The family regularly attends the Church of Christ in Neosho.

“We’re a very Christian-bound family,” Grigsby said. Lage, who has four siblings, is active in the Royal Rangers, a Christian version of the Boy Scouts.

“The hard part about this is I know God’s hand has been in this and works through this,” Grigsby said. “He is here and is at least with us at this point.”

Grigsby says he praying for his neighbors, too.

“I know there’s probably people out there who are going to be disheartened by this– I got to keep my son and they may not have,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Now, except for referring to the Church of Christ in Neosho — where there are at least three Churches of Christ — that’s powerful stuff. The last quote is used in the video, but the part about faith, “Christian-bound family” and God is totally absent.

It makes me curious: Did the generalist go do one interview and then the Godbeat pro go do another one? Or did the two reporters produce vastly different accounts of the same interview? Am I missing something here? Is there a reason for one report to ignore the religion angle entirely?

Anyway, I’ll pose my original questions again: Did you notice any difference between the two reports? The difference between night and day maybe?