Pounding the polygamy beat

Polygamy Under Attack FrontWhen Texas judge issued an order Monday allowing the parents in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to begin picking up their children, I noticed that the CNN headline was:

Polygamist moms can pick up their kids

That was at 12:54. By 1:36, it was changed to

Polygamist parents OK’d to pick up their kids

That’s a good change. The FLDS had put the mothers of the siezed children front and center as part of a smart public relations move. Putting the older fathers out there would have just reminded the public of the polygamy and age differentials. It’s smart for the FLDS to highlight the mothers but the press shouldn’t follow suit. The original headline is a small example of the many problems we saw with media coverage of the sect. Frankly, much of the coverage was sensationalistic, unreflective and about an inch deep.

In a sea of horrible coverage, one reporter in particular is an exception. Brooke Adams has been covering polygamous families for the Salt Lake Tribune for years. Day after day, she reports hard news and keeps a blog devoted to the subject. This week, for instance, she noted that the last DNA reports would arrive on 51st District Judge Barbara Walther’s desk and the state’s abuse and criminal investigations would pick up speed. The first thing Texas authorities will be looking for is whether sect leader Warren Jeffs fathered any children with four girls he married between 2004 and 2006. Apparently the sect says that the marriages were never consummated but the state alleges otherwise:

The search warrant that allowed Arizona authorities to collect DNA samples from Jeffs a week ago laid out a chilling pattern of underage marriages.

Using bishop’s records and photographs found at the YFZ Ranch, the Texas Attorney General’s Office alleges:

1. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on Jan. 18, 2004, in Utah. The evidence: Wedding photos.

2. That the girl gave birth on Oct. 14, 2005, when she was 15. The evidence: Photos of the girl and Jeffs moments after birth; he is holding the newborn.

3. That Jeffs sexually assaulted a 12-year-old he married on July 27, 2006, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records and photographs.

4. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on July 22, 2004, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records.

5. A marriage between Jeffs and a 12-year-old girl on April 16, 2005, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records.

The DNA will show whether Jeffs and any of the girls are parents of any child at the ranch.

And if they do, the probe will likely snare others: the girls’ parents and anyone else who knew and kept silent. No more floodlights; this time the state will be proceeding with laser-beam focus.

I didn’t even see this reported elsewhere. One story that I wish we’d highlighted here was Adams’ piece from April about how the YFZ Ranch raid echoed the Short Creek raid from the 1950s. It was one of the most prescient pieces of reporting I’ve read all year.

Thankfully Adams’ work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Kelly McBride highlighted her work for Poynter. Characterizing other reporters as gullible and sensationalistic, McBride provides examples of how Adams out reported them. She says that Adams’ reliance on polygamous families instead of Texas authorities made the difference:

Some readers of Adams’ coverage might see an overly sympathetic view of the FLDS. I see something different. Sometimes being a good reporter means taking on an unpopular cause, asking difficult questions. Yes, there are children in the FLDS church who have been forced into marriage and thus sexual relations, Adams says. But there are also families who don’t do that, she says.

I actually agree that some of her coverage was overly sympathetic. But still, her stories included more real people than anyone else’s. And she was healthily critical when no one else was. What made Adams’ work different according to McBride?

*Knowledge. Adams has experience and history with the topic. That meant she knew more about the FLDS than most of her sources. She could spot myths and hyperbole and kept them out of her reporting.

*Thoroughness. Rather than simply reporting what Texas authorities were saying, Adams scrutinized all the court documents and then did her own reporting to verify or refute the evidence.

* Collaboration. Adams said her editor, Sheila McCann and her photography partner, Trent Nelson, were great supporters.

* Conviction. Maybe it helped that she was isolated in Texas, unable to see how her stories were playing back home. But Adams said she wondered why no other newsrooms were pursuing the same angle she was.

* Persistence. Getting FLDS families to open up is incredibly difficult. But Adams kept at it.

I can’t imagine many papers in the country other than the Salt Lake Tribune having a full-time polygamy reporter but Adams’ reporting sure does show the difference of having someone on the beat full-time.

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The statistic that wouldn’t die

oneinfour 01So I’m reading Washington Post reporter Rob Stein’s article on the latest frightening report to come from the Centers for Disease Control and Research. The latest report is that efforts to get teenagers to delay sex and use condoms is “faltering.” But by frightening and faltering, they mean that the data suggest we’ve hit something of a plateau after years of improvements.

Anyway, I come across this paragraph:

Coming on the heels of reports that one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease and that the teen birth rate has increased for the first time in 15 years, the data is triggering alarm across the ideological spectrum.

I’ll just quote the subhead from the National Journal article we discussed this week:

Does one of every four American teenagers really have a sexually transmitted disease? No, despite headlines given to a recent federal study.

Somehow I think that this one-in-four statistic will prove very hard to kill.

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When you assume . . .

godgeneThere’s been something of a trend among a certain subsection of evolutionary anthropologists to explain religion as the product of a gene. Not that there is any evidence of a religion gene, mind you. Heck, not that there’s any evidence that such a gene is possible! But if there was, you see, it could explain Methodists.

Reporters, who report on science about as well as they report on religion, love these stories. I came across one such article published by ABC News. Written by Ewen Callaway, it was originally published by New Scientist, which means it’s not as bad as some of these stories tend to end up. But it’s still bad. The headline, which is in no way backed up by the story, is “Religion Is a Product of Evolution, Software Suggests.” Here is the chunk about the software program constructed by James Down, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan:

To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people — those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

Argh. The truth is that Dow, not a software model, suggests that “Religion Is a Product of Evolution.” He crafted a software model with the necessary assumptions to elicit the conclusion he’d already suggested. Way to just swallow the study hook, line and sinker, Callaway! There is just no way that a study this weak should receive media play. Assumptions underly the entire study — not evidence or facts. A computer simulation may be useful, but it is not a scientific fact. No experiments were performed, no data were collected.

If you assume the existence of a religion gene and then assume that gene has an advantage in the population, it does nothing to advance the debate about why religion exists to build a software program designed around those assumptions.

Check out that second-to-last paragraph. It shows that Dow just reworked the study until it came up with the answer he was looking for. The reporter should have been much more critical. Even if the reporter wanted to assume an evolutionary explanation for religion, a much more critical article could have been written. The irony that this software model — based on completely unproven assumptions — would be used by ABC News to denigrate religious belief is too much.

Stories like this don’t serve science or religion well.

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Advocacy in search of evidence

abstinence 01Back in March, we criticized some of the stories that came from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one in four teenage girls had a sexually transmitted disease. Many of the stories were thinly veiled advocacy pieces. They argued that this sad statistic was the result of a national policy of abstinence education.

Reporters had trouble, apparently, finding people who support abstinence education. Had they reported the story better, they might have discovered that there is no national policy of abstinence education. The federal government may throw significant money at abstinence education but they do so by providing grants. The abstinence message and materials are not uniform across the country or even in a given state. And places where a young person might receive abstinence education may also teach formal sex education. It’s difficult to do a quality analysis of the effect on sex education or abstinence education. If you’re going to turn a CDC report into advocacy journalism, you should know your limits.

Well that was March. The theme of the stories is fully ensconced in the collective consciousness. Supposedly we all know now that abstinence education is ineffective and gives young women STDs.

This week the Washington Post ran a story that described abstinence education as “controversial” and sex education as “comprehensive.” Just in case you didn’t know which side you should be on. The article is about a campaign being launched by abstinence advocates:

Congress is debating whether to authorize about $190 million in federal funding for such programs, which have come under increasing criticism because of a series of reports that concluded they are ineffective. Such criticism has prompted at least 17 states to refuse federal funding for such programs.

Well, let’s go back to that CDC study. The one that showed how ineffective abstinence education was. Not only was the advocacy theme ridiculous, so was the study! In an exhaustively reported piece for National Journal, Neil Munro shows that the study had serious shortcomings:

Rival Washington advocates pounced on the CDC’s startling statistic. One faction, led by Planned Parenthood and other groups that get federal grants, said the number shows that the Bush administration’s abstinence-promotion programs don’t work and that funding should be transferred to sex-education and condom-distribution programs. The rival faction, led by social conservatives, said that the one-in-four number demonstrates the failure of condoms and sex-education classes. . . .

But how useful or valid is that one-in-four number? Are 25 percent of America’s teenage girls really in imminent danger from HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, and the human papilloma virus (HPV) that leads to cervical cancer?

A close examination of the CDC’s star statistic reveals several serious shortcomings that undermine its validity, as well as its usefulness to parents, legislators, health officials, and advocacy groups on the left and the right.

For instance, the study referred to infections (most of which never turn into diseases) but the media claimed 25 percent of teenage girls had diseases. The study actually included both girls as young as 13 and women as old as 19. Most strikingly to me, the number was culled from a database with only 600 females under the age of 20! Relevant to the policy discussions, Munro notes that the CDC’s news conference and materials didn’t put the numbers into context. Had they, the data would have shown that infection rates for the most serious diseases, including syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid, are sharply below 1990 levels. And teenagers’ expoure to STDs had dropped because their sexual activity had declined 20 percent among girls and 40 percent among boys, according to a 2006 report.

STDsThe National Journal article is also telling for how the media just uncritically reported the CDC’s own spin:

CDC officials, including [John Douglas, director of the CDC's STD prevention division], announced the number in Chicago at the CDC’s biannual National STD Prevention Conference, which is attended by many experts, state officials, and reporters. The subsequent media reports and editorials generally echoed the recommendations of CDC officials, and their advocacy allies, for greater government-funded testing and intervention.

For example, the second paragraph of the 8:51 p.m. version of the March 11 AP article said, “Some doctors said the [infection] numbers might be a reflection of both abstinence-only sex education and teens’ own sense of invulnerability.” The AP article also quoted Planned Parenthood’s Richards as saying that “the national policy of abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price.” Neither that dispatch nor The New York Times quoted advocates of abstinence-only programs.

The one-in-four figure immediately became fodder in the ongoing debate over whether the government should support comprehensive sex education or fund advocacy for sexual abstinence until marriage. Sex-education advocates were first out of the gate, announcing even before the press conference (in time for initial news reports) that funding should be transferred from “failed” abstinence-only programs to education that includes lessons on the use of contraceptives.

Proponents for abstinence and marriage programs countered that the CDC’s number demonstrates just the opposite. “The half [of the adolescents] that weren’t having sex did not have STIs,” said the Family Research Council’s Gaul. The CDC’s one-in-four number “represents a failure of contraceptive-based education,” Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said at the Waxman hearing.

Munro shows that the CDC’s report won’t settle the debate because the study didn’t compare infection rates for teens in abstinence programs with other teens. He reports that the data’s complexity and small sample size mean that its relative standard error was greater than 30 percent. He shows that the CDC used the study to push for increased funding. And so on and so forth.

It is depressing beyond belief that of all the reporters who covered this story, only Munro was skeptical enough to dig into the dramatic subtexts at play here and expose the fraud. And who wants to bet that despite Munro’s tremendous reporting, we’ll still see reporters parrot this unreliable statistic and draw policy conclusions from it?

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Attention AP Stylebook committee

hn bobby jindalFrom time to time, I have been known to use a strange adjective in my posts about conflicts inside the wide, wide world of Roman Catholicism.

The term in question is “pro-Vatican Catholics.”

Some GetReligion readers have challenged me on this, asking, in effect: What other kind of Catholics are there? (Cue: rim shot and cymbal splash) No, seriously. People ask that.

What I mean, of course, is that these are Catholics who accept the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the doctrines it proclaims. I am referring to people who, when push come to shove, back the pope and the hierarchy. That’s pretty logical, isn’t it, in light of the fact that there are many people who oppose these doctrines?

Now, it appears that the principalities and powers at the New York Times are searching for a similar word to suggest that there are kind-of Catholics and then there are people who are, well, uber-Catholics. Here is the crucial reference — in context — in a story that ran with the headline: “In Louisiana, Inklings of a New (True) Champion of the Right.”

BATON ROUGE, La. – Religion and fiscal stringency have a friendly home at the state Capitol here, with a conservative, Bobby Jindal, in the governor’s office, a host of straight-arrow novice legislators eager to please him and an honored spot for the Louisiana Family Forum in the old marble halls.

The newly conservative tone of state government is seeping through a host of successful bills — on school vouchers, creationism, stem-cell restrictions and tax and spending cuts — and it is adding to the speculative frenzy here surrounding Mr. Jindal as a potential vice-presidential choice for Senator John McCain.

Politicians here say they are certain that Mr. Jindal would balance a McCain ticket, and not just because he is an Indian-American. The Christian right has a new champion in Mr. Jindal, a serious Catholic who has said that “in my faith, you give 100 percent of yourself to God.”

So what, precisely, is a “serious Catholic?” Is this the opposite of a “non-serious Catholic” or even a “fingers-crossed Catholic”? Would the Times care to name some other names on both sides of this divide?

And what about that reference that this serious Catholic is backing “creationism”? What is that all about? Here’s a follow-up reference:

Hot-button terms and issues are avoided. Cloning will not get state financing but also will not be criminalized, and Mr. Jindal is nowhere to be seen on the Louisiana Science Education Act, which promotes “open and objective discussion” in the schools of “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”

You have to watch out for those open discussions. They are dangerous, especially when linked to that vague and hostile term “creationism.” But, wait, that term isn’t mentioned in the bill. It sounds like the bill calls for more talk about evolution, not less.

Perhaps this serious Catholic simply backs the message sent by the late Pope John Paul II, who was hailed as backing evolution, when in reality he said:

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. …

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

In other words, maybe the serious Catholic is, on this and other issues, simply pro-Vatican?

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How to cover the Womenpriests

Womenpriest ordinationOne of the biggest problems that your GetReligionistas face week after week can be stated this way: We know that many problems on the religion beat would vanish if reporters had more time to write and were given longer story lengths.

Trust me, as a columnist who has for 20 years written to a plus-or-minus 10 words assigned length, I know that having room for one or two extra paragraphs of background information would really help.

That’s why it’s important to note when reporters — even with short, short stories — manage to avoid words that are wrong and use words that are as right as possible, given the realities of daily journalism.

So how does that apply to the whole issue of covering the Womenpriests movement and its fight with the Roman Catholic Church?

Once again, here is the kind of inaccurate language that we are trying to avoid, drawn from the Vancouver Sun:

The Roman Catholic Church should change the “unjust, discriminatory” law denying women the right to be priests, says a Catholic group pushing for reform.

Without the church’s approval, the Roman Catholic Womenpriests Movement ordained two people, James Lauder of Victoria and Monica Kilburn-Smith of Calgary, as Roman Catholic priests Thursday at St. Aidan’s United Church in Victoria.

Note again, that this is a “Catholic” group and that the women are becoming “Roman Catholic priests,” although “without the church’s approval.” Enough said.

Is there any other way to write this story, one that is accurate to people on both sides? Consider this language, used by veteran Godbeat scribe Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In a decree intended to close loopholes in canon law, the Vatican has said that any attempt to ordain a woman will bring automatic excommunications that can be lifted only by Rome.

It is aimed at a number of rituals worldwide, including one in Pittsburgh in 2006, that claim to have ordained women as Catholic priests. Experts say that because canon law is designed to be flexible and to favor the accused, and because no law previously dealt explicitly with penalties for attempting to ordain a woman, this decree is intended to eliminate all wiggle room.

It was signed by Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Remaining firm on what has been established by … canon law, both the one who has attempted to confer holy orders on a woman, and the woman who has attempted to receive the said sacrament, incur latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication, reserved to the Apostolic See,” it said.

Now, was that so hard? This language takes seriously the movement’s claim that it is doing what the Vatican says it cannot do. It does not state, as a given, that the action has been successful — since that would require settling the theological issue.

Short, punchy news writing does require — repeat, require — reporters to write paragraphs that make them want to pound their heads on a marble sanctuary wall. Consider what a veteran, highly informed reporter like Rodgers must have felt like after writing this:

The Catholic Church teaches that only males can be ordained because Jesus chose only male apostles. Advocates for women’s ordination cite a reference to a female apostle named Junia in the New Testament.

Oh there is so, so much more to it than that and, if you follow the national religion-writing scene, you know that Rodgers knows it. But, there is nothing in that paragraph that is wrong.

That’s the rule: First, do no harm.

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What is next for YFZ

YFZ RanchNow that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that Texas officials were wrong to remove more than 450 children from a FLDS ranch, journalists should be focusing on what is next in the legal process. The idea being portrayed in some news accounts that this case is over and the FLDS group will be left alone should be set aside because allegations and evidence of forced underage marriages and impregnated minors don’t just disappear.

In fact, the concept that all of the children are headed home to their parents should not be reported because it is highly unlikely to be the case. Some children will eventually be sent back to their parents, but it will be interesting to see which of them do not and on what grounds.

The key for journalists to understand is that all the Texas courts have said is that it was wrong to remove all of the group’s children on a single theory of child abuse. The case for removing children due to abuse or potential abuse must be proven on an individual basis. In other words, Texas officials cannot break-up families because of their religious beliefs.

Here is a nuanced account from The Salt Lake Tribune:

Based on that, the state’s action was too over-reaching, one attorney said.

“Sadly, I think there may be some children that needed to be protected within that community,” said Polly Rea O’Toole, a Dallas attorney representing an 8-year-old child. “But because of the way the department went about it by sweeping up 460-odd children at one time they may have deprived themselves of the opportunity to protect children.”

Willie Jessop said the “FLDS I’m acquainted with do not allow children to be married until they are of legal age.”

For a good perspective on what is next, check out this report by Stephanie Simon and Ann Zimmerman at the Wall Street Journal:

Authorities said they feared that the polygamist families, once reunited, would flee out of state and resume practices that officials consider abusive, such as yoking young girls to older men in marriage.

The Supreme Court acknowledged those concerns. But the majority of justices ruled that the state could take other measures, short of separating families, to protect the children from sexual abuse.

For instance, the district judge handling the case could order the families reunited on condition that they promise to remain in Texas. Or she could insist that men identified as possible perpetrators of abuse move out of the home.

The judge could also grant the state custody of the children deemed most at risk, specifically pregnant girls or teenagers who have hit puberty and are considered ready for marriage in the culture of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Basically, it’s back to square one,” said Jack Sampson, a family law professor at the University of Texas.

He said he expected that all young children and boys would be returned to their families within days, but some older girls might remain in state custody pending individual review of their circumstances and the risk that they will be abused. “The return of all the children is certainly not mandated,” he said.

Two important news angles are at risk of disappearing from the news coverage.

Of course there are those who still believe, as the Texas state officials alleged, that the group’s religion and beliefs justify removing the children for their safety. While that viewpoint is no longer legally sustainable without more evidence in Texas, reporters should not forget that the argument still exists and could re-emerge if the state is able to uncover more evidence.

Secondly, The New York Times picked up the important previously under-reported angle of the harm done to the children through the state-forced separation.

Since the public’s perception of this situation is formed largely through reporting by journalists, it is essential that the reality of the situation is portrayed and not wild allegations by government officials. Just as journalists covering the planning stages of military invasions should never take the words of public officials as the gospel truth, journalists covering the FLDS or other groups should never assume allegations made by state officials have proper legal or evidentiary support. That can lead to disastrous consequences and poor decisions that may or may not be reversible.

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Covering the other polygamy

3 wedding bandsWhile the news media has been focused on the sensational story of a breakaway Mormon fundamentalist denomination and its practice of polygamous marriage and allegations of child abuse, National Public Radio produced a solid two-part series this week on another significant religious tradition in the United States that allows for polygamy.

Muslims do not widely practice polygamy and in many cases its discourages from a practical standpoint. But one estimate puts the number at 1-3 percent of the 1-1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, which is no small number if you do the math. There are estimates of 50,000 to 100,000 Muslims in the United States living in polygamous marriages, according to the NPR series.

The Muslim faith also places some hefty requirements on men considering marriage to more than one woman (women cannot marry more than one man in Islam) that may be interpreted differently depending on who you listen to. Here is how NPR described those views:

Abdullah says polygamy in Islam dates back to the 7th century, when battles were killing off Muslim men and leaving widows and children unprotected.

As a result, Abdullah says, the Koran specifies that a man can marry “women of your choice: two, three, four, and if you fear you cannot be just, then marry one.”

“And so, a lot of scholars look at it sequentially,” he says. “Two is optimum, then three, then four, then as a last resort, one!”

This is not the only perspective on the Koran’s regulations of polygamy. Islam is a big religion, and views will differ within the faith. Here is the viewpoint I have seen more often:

Sarah begins to cry. Others nod in sympathy. These women are all Muslim. The Koran states that men may marry up to four women. The Prophet Mohammad had multiple wives.

But there’s a restriction, says Sally, another group member. The husband cannot favor one woman over another — with his wealth or his heart.

“You have to love them the same way, share everything the same way, equally,” says Sally. “Nobody can do that. It’s impossible.”

Since it’s impossible to treat two women the same, a Muslim man should not even try to. Apparently that argument doesn’t discourage all Muslims. And equality between wives is not always observed and sometimes leads to abuse, the article notes.

This is a difficult story to tell. Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s reporting demonstrates the challenge of getting people to talk about something about which they are normally very quiet because of laws against polygamy. One husband with two wives refused to be interviewed, although his second wife is interviewed extensively.

Hagerty quotes a Muslim woman saying that every woman would prefer to be married to a man as his only wife. Another says that life is easier for second wives than it is for first wives.

With persistence and time, Hagerty was able to tell a tremendous story of what life is like in polygamous marriages from the perspective of first wives, second wives and husbands. Many diverse viewpoints were put forward, from the opinion that polygamous marriages help build up society and give children a father they otherwise wouldn’t have, to the heartbreak a 40-year-old first wife felt when her 43-year-old husband married a 30-year-old woman.

Somehow, I sense that the issue of polygamy will not go away. Perhaps if journalists did a better job covering the FLDS group before their leader was under prosecution, the current mess in Texas would not have played out the way it has.

The United States is a diverse place with many groups believing and practicing many things. Journalists should be open to that and cover as many of those groups as objectively as possible.

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