How to write a bad story

Every reporter has his off days. I have to think that’s what happened with this story, which ran on page 1 of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union. Written by an award-winning religion reporter, Jeff Brumley, the piece seems to take an almost personal interest in disparaging evangelicals. It’s kind of odd. Here’s the headline:

Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt
In fact, observers of Southern politics can’t even remember a candidate.

Well, yes, it is very difficult to elect people to office before they become candidates for office. Now, I have a horrible memory so if you asked me to name a candidate in the most recent election, I’d have trouble. I think you want to have better data than “observer recall,” particularly when there’s actually only one observer in the story even asked to recall the data. Just give us some facts and figures. How many Muslims are there in the so-called “Bible Belt”? One recent religious self-identification survey says that there were 1.3 million Muslims throughout the country, or about .6% of the population. How many are in the South? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups throughout time? Give us some data.

Or, if you don’t have data, how about you just paint all evangelicals as sub-literate yokels with irrational hatred in their heart? Oh you can do that? Great:

The smart money says a snowball has a better chance you-know-where than a Muslim has being elected to statewide or national office from Northeast Florida – or anywhere else in the Bible Belt.

If the recent hullabaloo surrounding Parvez Ahmed’s appointment to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission didn’t confirm that, maybe this does: Observers of Southern politics and religion can’t recall a single Muslim candidate running for major office.

“I thought about it, and I couldn’t come up with any names,” said Ken Wald, a political science professor and expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida.

“Of all the places, the South is the least likely for that to happen,” Wald said.

The reason: The region is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, “a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity.”

That’s how the story began. Yes, that was the lede. No, I don’t know how the “smart money” or the “snowball” made it into the first sentence. Perhaps they give copyeditors, or editors in general, the weekends off at the Florida Times-Union. I don’t know. But this was not written by a high school student. Brumley is actually a good reporter whose work we’ve praised before.

So why did he think painting evangelicals as members of a religion with “intellectual difficulties” was in any way okay? I do not know.

And just a small point of logic. That there has never been a Muslim candidate running for major office doesn’t speak in any meaningful sense to the probability that one will be elected in the future. If thousands of Muslims had run for office and been defeated, that would be different.

The piece then goes on to say that the election of two Muslim representatives caused consternation among “conservatives nationwide.” But the only substantiation of that claim is a Glenn Beck quote.

It’s sort of a good primer in how not to write a religion story. It’s all over the map, relies on too few actual conservative evangelicals, precisely no liberal evangelicals, and almost all the context is given by this Wald fellow, the one who believes evangelicals have intellectual problems. Another expert says that political opposition to the appointment of Parvez Ahmed, the man named in the lede, was nothing more than racism. Ahmed was the former chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR has its fans. It was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial involving Hamas funding.

The reporter allowed various sources to trash evangelicals but never found less biased sources or gave the smeared an opportunity to respond. It makes for a really bad story. I know this reporter can do better and I hope he does so in the future.

Shameless plugs for Godbeat pros

picture-21In an era in which the definition of journalism itself seems to be up for grabs, it’s a pleasure to praise Godbeat journalists recognized for superior writing by their own colleagues in the Religion Newswriters Association. Troll the list of the 2009 RNA awards, and you will see a few names you may know, either because they comment on the blog, or we often praise them for being examples of accurate reporting — Julia Duin (who won in multiple categories!), and Bob Smietana. Another award recipient was Sarah Pulliam, the younger sister of our own Daniel Pulliam.

Here are a few highlights:

Selected as Religion Reporter of the Year, Moni Basu, now with CNN, wrote an ambitious, multi-faceted series about Fort Stewart Chaplain Darren Turner and his work here and in Iraq. Read “Chaplain Turner’s War” for yourself. Basu also won the Suplee Religion Writer of the Year Award.

Jeff Brumley of the Florida Times Union won first place among reporters for mid-sized papers for stories on how faith meets modern life. Melanie Smith of the Decatur Daily was elected Reporter of the Year from publications with workday circulations of 50,000 or below.

The Salt-Lake Tribune ,edited by Lisa Carricaburu, won an award for its religion pages, which we here at GetReligion have often found a good source for reporting on the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly Special Correspondent Kim Lawton won Television Religion Reporter of the Year for a piece she did on the continuing legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And the radio religion Reporter of the Year award went to Stephanie Martin of KQED in Northern California.

I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with all of these names. Were you? All over the nation, reporters in media both large market and small continue to work to bring us religion news. That gives me hope for the profession! Please let us know what you think of the stories (some of the content is subscription only, however) and which others ones you might have nominated.

Cell to soul

Call me a dinosaur. While I don’t blink an eye anymore at sanctuary screens and televisions in the parish house, I’m still not convinced that cell phones and computers in the sanctuary aren’t a huge distraction, another manifestation of our ADHD society gone techno-nuts.

Even I have to admit, though, that it’s clear on the surface why some congregations are allowing tweeting and texting from the pew. They want to reach potential new members, spread their messages, and stay in contact with members who might not get to church, synagogue or mosque for services.

As New York Times writer Paul Vitello wrote in an article posted this past weekend, we’re still in the early days of experimenting with the mixture of ancient faith and new media. The actual effect, as his opening paragraphs demonstrate, can be hilariously (or heretically) unpredictable. Broadly scanning multiple denominations and congregations, Vitello ably describes some of the challenges facing religious groups as they try to integrate street technologies into sanctuary praise. They range from privacy concerns to unpredictability, to the possibility of obscene language and insults. Vitello describes some of the questions now being debated online and in person:

In online debates and private discussions, leaders of all faiths have been weighing pros and cons and diagramming the boundaries of acceptable interactions: Should the congregation have a Facebook page, or should it be the imam’s or priest’s? Should there be limited access? Censoring? Is it appropriate for a clergy member to “friend” a minor?

Some recoil at the informality and unpredictability of the crowds marshaled by social media, and at their seeming immunity — even hostility — to the authority of established institutions. More deeply, some in the clergy see a basic tension between the anonymous world of online life and the meaning of religious community.

Immediately after this paragraph, Vitello follows with a really incisive quote from Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, who comments that in Judaism, “God resides in the community.” That’s not solely a practical concern. That’s a theological one.

Some of these other faith leaders must be asking profound questions also. How does the use of new social media impact the core of the message? Can you really reconnect with your faith via Twitter? How do you know if anyone is listening and if their practice or faith has been changed?

Including some of the answers to these questions — or even finding out if anyone is asking them would have given the article a mooring, instead of leaving readers with the impression that religious leaders are making it up as they go. Which may be in fact, the case.

In an article posted last week on the Jacksonville.com website, Jeff Brumley writes about the same topic, but focuses more on how new media affects worship — and whether incorporating it works as a marketing tool. Although Brumley only has a few quotes focused on the theological issues, I thought this one from rabbi Hayim Herring summed up the dilemma that many congregations seem to be finding themselves in.

It’s also too early to declare if the practice even works, said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of a Minnesota-based consulting group that helps synagogues reach out to unaffiliated Jews.

But Herring said he encourages some congregations — at least those whose observance doesn’t preclude the use of electronic devices on the sabbath — to at least consider how the process could “expand their reach.”

“Because we don’t know where social media is taking us it is worthwhile to try some limited experiments,” Herring said.

Not only do they not know if it works, but what “works” for one religious group might not work for another. Journalists covering these stories might want to ask faith leaders: what is the ultimate purpose of endorsing the use of social media in your pews?

How do you measure success? The answers might be different among religious leaders, but they would be illuminating.