Pod people: You will know us by the trail of scare quotes

This week’s “Crossroads” podcast with host Todd Wilken was recorded much earlier in the week. We discussed Dan Gilgoff’s departure from CNN and the lessons he learned there, the lack of coverage of the Passion 2013 conference in Atlanta last week, and that excellent New York Times story on a family forgiving their daughter’s murderer. You may listen to it here.

Here at GetReligion, my suggestion that this Passion event could have received more coverage was met with a mixed response. What could have come out of the event that was particularly newsworthy, people wondered.

Of course, that was before the event organizer was invited to give the benediction at the inauguration this year, and before comments he made in the previous century about homosexuality being a sin forced him out of that position.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post criticizing the slipshod way comments Chuck Hagel made about an enthusiastic fan of a gay group that mocks Catholicism and its clergy. The group was called “anti-Catholic” by Hagel, but we never saw the media describe it as such. Instead we saw a lot of double attribution and scare quotes. Apparently running a hunky Jesus contest on Easter Sunday isn’t anti-Catholic enough to be described as such without skepticism. In that post, I hid a tiny comment:

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Who’s this guy giving Obama’s benediction?

Two days ago, I wrote a post in which I suggested that the ginormous Passion 2013 conference down in Atlanta might have received even a tad more coverage. There were, reportedly 60,000 people there and yet there was almost no coverage. I thought it maybe a bit too much in the lack-of-coverage direction.

Reader responses varied. For instance, here’s Hemant Mehta:

But what would the story here be? That young Christians exist? That they gather at conferences? That’s hardly newsworthy. Did they do anything at the event that was different from what Christians typically do? (I’m asking that seriously.)

I argued that in this year, with the media focus on “the nones,” the existence of these young, motivated Christians actually would be sufficient for a story. But, further, I said it’s hard to know what was newsworthy because no one was there to cover it. Various readers agreed with Mehta.

Then reader Daniel said:

Being new on the political scene doesn’t seem to really be a standard used by journalists. If something has been going on for more than twenty years it still gets covered. What gets covered is what reporters advocate, and that’s about as far as we can get from fairminded. Lets use words like cool, trendy, unique! They sell.

The Old Bill had an idea for how to get media coverage:

Maybe if the Nuns On a Bus had been the opening act …

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Got news? The hidden mystery of 60K Christians

Of all the interesting things to consider as a media critic, the most important is probably story choice. We frequently look at individual stories and praise them or criticize them or point out interesting errors or omissions. But such an approach misses that big initial question of how story selection colors our understanding of the world more than anything else.

I’m reminded of the G.K. Chesterton quote about the matter:

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

And this is, typically, how it should be — for the obvious reasons stated above. I might say to myself every time I take a flight, “I’m hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour in a steel tube with wings!” — but I prefer my newspapers to report on crashes as opposed to safe landings. Journalism doesn’t paint anything close to an accurate picture of our modern existence but much obligation is with the reader/viewer to understand why that is.

And yet sometimes this minority view is taken to an extreme. We see failures (of imagination or otherwise) when it comes to covering the holidays religious adherents celebrate. We see that conservative and traditional people are ignored even more than they’re dismissed. Every trend, no matter how weakly substantiated, is feted — for a few months at least — while the consistent practices are hidden.

I think that is part of the explanation for why most mainstream media failed to even notice that some 60,000 young Christians were gathered in Atlanta in recent days for a large evangelical conference called Passion 2013.

It was trending on Twitter every time I checked (also, Carrie Underwood and other celebrities were tweeting about it) and we had more than a few readers ask us to critique the coverage of the event. For instance, here’s reader Joshua Little calling us out on Twitter:

It would be awesome to see a GR piece about the nonexistent coverage of #passion2013 in Atl. Just sayin’

Quite a few evangelical people noticed the absence of any coverage — including prominent folks who emailed us to note it. We discussed this weekend Dan Gilgoff’s view that conservatives are wrong to say that there is an anti-religion bias in the media. I encouraged journalists to think about why people might sense a hostility or ambivalence toward religious adherents. This might be a good example.

OK, with the caveat that it wasn’t entirely nonexistent — WSB Radio, WXIA-TV, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN (blog) joined Christianity Today, Christian Post and Christian Broadcasting Network in noticing the conference — it was remarkably undercovered. You can see the whole gamut of coverage here was limited to Christian and local press.

Surely we can find stories in a crowd of 60,000 college students and young adults. Surely there’s something interesting about what they heard or saw, what they discussed. Surely it would be interesting to look at who critiqued the conference. Surely there’s something worth just noticing about evangelical young adults gathered at this moment.

If this had been 60,000 people gathered under a different banner, we would have coverage, right? Heck, if this had been even close to 60 emergent Christians, or feminist Mormons or LGBQT Methodist clergy we would have seen quite a bit of coverage — if the past is any indication. Now, obviously this all relates back to the Chesterton quote — some things are more newsworthy than others. But just how many evangelicals do you have to get together for it to be worth covering?