Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life

We’ve received quite a few complaints about the religion angle the New York Times chose for its story on the March For Life. And I’d sure as heck like to join in.

But before I do that, I want to point out that the Times also ran a straight news story covering the march and, unlike any year I can recall, it actually ran in the print edition and not just as a brief mention on a blog post. The story that has outraged so many folks is the primary story on the march that ran in a more prominent position than the straight story. In fact, it ran above the fold of the national news section, headlined “In Fight Over Life, a New Call by Catholics.”

The lede:

The March for Life in Washington on Friday renewed the annual impassioned call to end legalized abortion, 40 years after the Roe v. Wade decision. But this year, some Roman Catholic leaders and theologians are asking why so many of those who call themselves “pro-life” have been silent, or even opposed, when it comes to controlling the guns that have been used to kill and injure millions of Americans.

More than 60 Catholic priests, nuns, scholars and two former ambassadors to the Vatican sent a letter this week saying that if marchers and politicians truly want to defend life they should support “common-sense reforms to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation.”

A caption for the piece read:

Anti-abortion protesters flooded the National Mall in Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life. Many Catholic leaders and theologians are asking why many of those who call themselves ‘pro-life’ have been silent when it comes to gun control.

You’ll notice that marchers are only called “pro-life” in a scare-quotey sense to cast skepticism on their claims. You might also wonder if the Times broke precedent to cover the massive march so as to be able to criticize it with this more prominent story, but we can’t really know the answer to that question.

We’re a family site here so I’m going to be careful here:

Are you [bleeping] kidding me? Are you [bleeping] kidding me?

What? This is the religion angle for the massive, hundreds-thousands-strong March for Life that marks the murder of 55 million unborn children over the last 40 years? We’re going to turn it into something nebulous (no specific gun controls are even discussed) related to the media’s current political cause du jour?

And it gets worse.

Believe it or not, this is basically just a press release from the same savvy, highly funded PR firm that has been rolling reporters for the last year. One is beginning to think they enjoy the ride.

The group that put out the letter is … drum roll please …

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Foot-long subs vs. March For Life

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The Associated Press has a Twitter feed with nearly 1.6 million followers. Those followers received two tweets about a gun control rally and march in Washington, D.C. this weekend.

“Gun control march in Washington to feature Newtown residents, pastors, parents and survivors of gun violence,” read one.

“PHOTOS: Thousands march for gun control on National Mall in Washington,” read another.

Considering the relatively small size of the march (Some said “nearly 1,000.” Others, as noted above, said “thousands.”), it makes one wonder how many links to stories and photo collections were sent out for the massive 40th anniversary March for Life.

The answer, of course, would be zero. Really, the AP Twitter feed never found it worthwhile, in its steady stream of tweets, to even mention the March for Life, much less link to a photo gallery of it.

My family and I participated in the March For Life and, smack dab in the middle of it, we didn’t really have much of a perspective of its size. It was extremely cold — just brutal conditions — so I kept my head down and my hands in my pocket. I knew that the number of Lutherans for Life, which was our contingent, was significantly larger than any previous year. If you watch the video above, which comes not from a mainstream media source but from Roman Catholic broadcast network EWTN, you can get something of a feel for how many people move past one bend in the march over the course of 8 minutes.

Our Lutherans started marching at 1:20 PM and we didn’t make it past the Supreme Court until 3:30 or so. The march goes on at that pace for quite some time.

And yet while only giving the briefest coverage to this massive march — or neglecting to give any at all! — many networks gave tremendous coverage to that gun control rally. Both rallies were described by some outlets as featuring the exact same number of attendees — “thousands” — even though the pro-life rally was exponentially larger (I don’t quite know what it means, but perhaps it’s worth considering that people who seek protection for unborn children are called “anti-abortion” while people who seek to limit 2nd Amendment protections are called “supporters of gun control” or “advocates of gun control.”)

Some readers complained about the lack of coverage on CNN. I don’t know if anyone has done a comprehensive analysis, but when I got home from the march, I watched for coverage of the commemoration of the 55 million unborn children killed via abortion in the last 40 years but only saw some serious attention paid to a dolphin that had gotten trapped in waters in Brooklyn that day and had died. If you wrote it as fiction people would say it was too over-the-top.

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‘Many’ problems in this CNN gun-control story

In my journalism-education day job, I grade lots and lots of papers — including many news stories written by student journalists. It’s hard work and somebody needs to do it, because it’s important for journalists to learn the basics in terms of grammar and Associated Press style so that they can move on to writing more complex stories in a manner that is as accurate and balanced as possible.

One of the old-school rules stressed here at the Washington Journalism Center is that saying that “God is in the details.” Of course, the devil is in the details, too, but that almost goes without saying.

The point is that journalists are supposed to give readers as much specific information as possible through careful reporting and the use of clear attributions. Name your sources. Quote the specifics, whenever possible. Try to avoid vague labels. After all, with a few attributed facts, readers can be given information with which to make their own judgments.

Thus, one of the words I circle most often with my purple pen — red is too old-fashioned, for some contemporary students — is the word “many.”

You know, “many” — as in “many people are allegedly doing what my story claims they are doing, but I don’t have any specific information to give you to demonstrate that fact, so I’ll just say ‘many’ and move on.”

Here is a perfect example, drawn from CNN:

Washington (CNN) -– There is a split in American pews over gun control. In the weeks since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, many Christians are wrestling with gun control, an issue they once held as a sacred, untouchable right.

For years gun control was championed by Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, but now many evangelicals are joining the growing choir of Americans asking what can be done.

“Maybe the most interesting meeting we had was with the interfaith group,” Vice President Joe Biden told reporters after meeting with a wide range of interest groups on guns. Biden was tasked by President Barack Obama to head up a task force to provide recommendations to reduce gun violence.

Biden said he was surprised to see a new face at the table: “evangelical groups, who generally have been reluctant to engage in this, because it’s been viewed as maybe an attack on cultural norms relating to rural communities and gun ownership.”

Newtown could mark a tipping point on gun control for evangelicals.

So we have the “many” syndrome, at least twice, followed by the classic “could mark” language to soften the fact claim on which the story is based. Also, I don’t know many conservative Christians who would claim that the gun issue rests on a “sacred” right, as opposed to a constitutional right. Then again, I am rather pro-gun control, so the odds are good that I don’t hang out with the right theological crowd.

Also, allow me to note that when discussing trends among conservative evangelical Protestants, Biden would not be one of my go-to voices to add authority to my fact claims. Just sayin’.

So what does this story offer in terms of authority, to back up that crucial “many” language in the lede about religious groups changing their views on guns? To be specific, what is the authority for the claim about evangelical Protestants?

If you said, “Quotes from one evangelical pastor, drawn from an opinion piece written FOR CNN,” then you should win some kind of prize. You can read that quote for yourself.

The story does offer some poll numbers that point to a religious divide on this issue. However, I kept wondering what, precisely, one needed to believe in order to be pro- or anti-gun control.

There are, you know, quite a few different proposals out there and some people support some of these proposals and reject one or more of the others. I know people who are all over the map on this issue, even if they could be grouped — like me — into the pro-gun control camp. (This recent cover story in The Atlantic remains a great starting point for discussions.)

Here is the key poll information in this particular CNN report:

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Bring your swords, and guns, to church

Back in my high school days, my family attended a Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas.

Most every Sunday, our minister made the same request before he preached.

“Hold up your swords!” he’d say, and we’d all raise our Bibles to show that we brought them.

I don’t recall him ever asking us to hold up our guns. Of course, that was years before Texas passed a law allowing the carrying of concealed handguns.

In the days since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, we’ve seen a barrage of news stories and social media posts on the gun control issue.

ReligionLink produced a helpful primer on “God and gun control,” with background articles and expert source suggestions for reporters covering the faith-based response to the Connecticut tragedy.

A Religion News Service headline caught my attention today:

Churches under fire for using gun classes as outreach

When I clicked the link, I noticed that the story had an Oklahoma dateline. Since that’s my home state, my interest was piqued even more.

Here’s the top of the story:

PRYOR CREEK, Okla. — Pryor Creek, Okla., is gun country.

Located midway between Tulsa and Siloam Springs, Ark., the town of approximately 8,500 sits in the heart of Oklahoma’s greenbelt. Hunting and fishing are simply part of everyday life in Pryor, as it is known to locals.

Derek Melton is the assistant chief of police in Pryor, as well as senior pastor at Pryor Creek Community Church, a congregation he describes as Baptist, but not Southern Baptist.

Immediately, two things struck me about this story. First, the lede seemed to lack condescension or outrage. That’s not always the case when the national media report on gun-toting folks in the sticks. Second, the writer (or his editor) felt compelled to identify the nature of the church. How many journalists would have put a period after “Pryor Creek Community Church” and left it at that?

Instead, RNS elaborated on the church’s denominational affiliation (or more precisely, its lack thereof) even before getting to the nut graf:

“We follow the 1833 Baptist Confession,” Melton said. “We are an historically evangelical church.”

The confession is better known as the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833, and there are very few churches around the country that subscribe to it. They answer to no denominational headquarters, no bishop, no overarching authority, except the Holy Spirit as mediated through the congregation.

Pryor Creek Community Church is also one of a few dozen churches around the country that are offering concealed carry certification classes as a way to reach out to non-Christians and attract new members. Melton sees no conflict between being a Christian and possessing weapons.

The story runs only 660 words but gives both gun proponents and critics ample space to express their points of view.

Even better, the critic is allowed to present a nuanced perspective. In other words, his position isn’t totally black or white. There’s a little gray, just like in real life:

Cizik, who was a top official at the National Association of Evangelicals before leaving it and helping form his new group, said he is concerned about churches using weapons training as a means to reach non-Christians.

“I grew up in gun country,” Cizik said. “I am not intrinsically anti-Second Amendment; however, this seems to be an ethically suspect message. The gospel should be’Put your faith in Christ.’ This seems to be’Put your faith in Glock.’”

Cizik said he believes it’s difficult to make a hard and fast judgment about the method, though. He believes gun ownership and even concealed carry permits are matters of personal judgment.

“The church has always used a variety of methods for drawing people in,” he said. “However, I do think that there are plenty of organizations more suitable that could be doing the training.”

For the sake of full disclosure, I recognized the name of the writer whose byline appeared atop this story. I have known Greg Horton for more than a decade. When I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman, he frequently e-mailed me with his critique — positive and negative — of the Saturday religion section and other religion stories that I wrote.

I think I’d still give the church gun story a positive critique even if I didn’t know the writer.

But by all means, GetReligion readers, check it out and weigh in with your journalism-related comments.

Image via Shutterstock

So, ‘broader societal problems’ in Newtown, or not?

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It goes without saying that the GetReligion crew has been closely watching the coverage of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., waiting for religion shoes to drop. So far, other than coverage of the vigil services, the emphasis — especially at CNN — has been gun control, gun control, gun control.

Since I know readers will bring this up, let me stress that, personally, I am in favor of much stricter gun control laws than we currently have in America. However, the fact that this horror took place in Connecticut, a state with rather strict laws, has made the media coverage even more poignant. The guns were legal.

As Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher said, in complete frustration:

Absent a total and draconian ban on weapons, how do you write a gun control law that can prevent a middle-aged suburban Connecticut woman who enjoys target shooting from buying guns?

The question of why this woman felt that she needed an assault weapon will be discussed, for sure. The mind boggles.

But back to the purpose of this blog, which is the discussion of religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

In most cases, debates about massacres of this kind often devolve into discussions between gun-control liberals, gun-freedom libertarians and various kinds of cultural conservatives who see evidence of various forms of social decay — from violence in our movies, to splintered homes, to increasingly value-neutral schools, to first-person-shooter video games that resemble the programs our military leaders use to make soldiers more willing to pull triggers in combat. Then there are people like me whose beliefs fall in more than one of these camps.

However, The Washington Post has run a short story based on Pew Research Center data that claims to offer evidence of a shocking, and apparently growing, two-way split in the American population:

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, one of the central questions being asked is what this horrible incident tells us about who we are as a country.

Not much, if you look at the polling conducted on this matter since the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Since that time, the tendency for people to call these sorts of mass murderers isolated incidents without any broader meaning has soared just as those saying the events are indicative of broader societal problems has ebbed.

Here’s a chart from Pew Research Center detailing polling in the aftermath of the three previous high profile incidents of violence committed with a gun.

Following the Aurora movie theater murders, two-thirds of people said it was an isolated act committed by a troubled individual. That’s a significant increase from the 47 percent who said the same following the Virginia Tech incident.

“Isolated incidents” is supposed to be the conservative, pro-guns option. The assumption, then, is that the “broader societal problems” option is the politically and culturally liberal option in this survey.

That’s interesting, in light of the fact that so many cultural and religious conservatives have, for years, seen these tragic evidence of broader, frightening cultural trends in American life. The Post story, and perhaps the Pew data, does not seem to take this into account. Instead, we read:

Among those who said that Aurora represented a broader societal problem, roughly six in ten believed the priority should be controlling gun ownership rather than protecting gun rights. Among those who viewed it as an isolated incident, just more than 40 percent prioritized controlling the ownership of firearms.

The simple truth, at least according to this poll data, is that the increasing tendency in the wake of shootings like the one in Connecticut is to chalk it up to a troubled person and move on.

In short, I think this story organizes America’s frustration and pain on these issues into TWO CAMPS, when there are at least three.

Where are the religion ghosts in that equation? That would be among the cultural conservatives who see the horrors of Newtown and similar visions of hell as evidence of, well,”broader societal problems” that are moral and spiritual, as well as cultural and political.

Ghosts? I would say.