Ghosts after Seattle Pacific shooting? Not in this story

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Here at GetReligion, we blog often about holy ghosts in news coverage. However, we much prefer stories that leave no room for spiritual ghostbusting.

Such is the case with an exceptional Seattle Times report on the “grief without despair” that followed last week’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

Given the university’s evangelical Christian ties, religion has been a part of this tragic story from the beginning, as tmatt noted earlier.

In a piece published Sunday, the Times explores the faith angle in a simple-but-remarkable way:

In the hours after a gunman killed one Seattle Pacific University student and wounded two others, what struck many was the way the students responded.

They clasped hands in prayer circles; lifted their voices together to sing hymns; prayed for the shooter as well as the victims.

“I have never been more proud of this institution,” Richard Steele, a professor in SPU’s School of Theology, wrote in an email to friends. “The faith, courage and calmness were just stunning,”

The response of the students, faculty and staff to Thursday’s startling violence highlights the role of religious belief at SPU. The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

Yes, the reporter — a former Godbeat pro named Janet Tu — provides relevant background on Seattle Pacific:

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, Bible studies, Bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

Faculty and staff must be professing, practicing Christians.

But this story (relatively concise at 1,000 words) is at its best when Tu steps backs and allows her sources — three professors and two students — to discuss the role of faith in their own words:

[Read more...]

Washington mudslide disaster: the heart of the matter

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More than two weeks after the horrendous mudslide in Oso, Wash., news coverage is taking a different turn. Gone are the frenetic rescue stories and the first profiles of those lost, and in their place are more broad-based stories about those who will help residents recover long-term.

From the Seattle Times comes this piece about the faith community, both local and transplanted, in the wake of the tragedy. While we would expect this type of coverage at this stage in the developing story, this report seems different. Not only is it well-sourced, but it moved me to empathy in a way I didn’t really expect.

People of faith, ministers and chaplains have responded to the deadly March 22 mudslide as a calling. They’re on the ground in Oso, Darrington and Arlington, trying to help shocked survivors pick up and go on. The transition from overwhelming loss to healing will be slow and difficult, they say.

“I’ve been ordained 38 years, so I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never been a part of something this dramatic and all-encompassing,” said the Rev. Tim Sauer, pastor at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Arlington and St. John Vianney in Darrington.

“There is a heightened sense of numbness, at least initially. It’s been two weeks now, so the realities are starting to kick in.”

I expected at this point to be told about the scramble for finding housing for the displaced or how hundreds of donors are bringing furniture or clothing to be sorted through by eager volunteers. The living tend to busy themselves non-stop in the activity of serving so that they don’t have time to think, really.

Not so. We instead hear thoughts about “being present” for those who have lost a loved one. “Emotional care” is emphasized by those working close to hurting families.

This story illustrates the presence of ministry in a way few post-disaster pieces even attempt. It’s almost as if the staff understands another role the media might have in a situation like this: to encourage the community to engage in spiritual reflection and to take time to assess their mental health as well as offering physical and emotional assistance to those directly affected.

[Read more...]

Writing a puff piece: a how-to manual

Truth be told, in our bias for fair, accurate journalism, we at GetReligion probably focus too much on the negative.

We point out mistakes in mainstream reporting. We cry out for balance. We complain about the MSM bubble.

For once, I want to accentuate the positive. Therefore, please allow me to highlight a Seattle Times story this week as a perfect example of how to write a puff piece.

Before I begin, however, I must stress that reporters typically do not write their own headlines. In this case, the headline and deck might give the reader the mistaken impression that this will be an actual news story, not a puff piece (shame on the headline writer!):

In black churches, a gay-marriage divide

A source of debate across the country and the subject of ballot measures in four states this year, same-sex marriage remains a thorny issue within the African-American community, where objections are deeply rooted in religion and biblical teachings.

At this point, I must admit that I was worried. I feared that the story might subject me to actual intelligent voices on both sides seriously engaging the thorny issue and even providing insight (of a theological nature!) on the deeply rooted objections.

Whew! Imagine my relief when I realized that this would indeed be a puff piece.

Some key elements that make this puff piece work:

• The lede: Immediately, the Times takes readers to a gay-friendly church that stands as a stark contrast to the discriminatory black churches that — somehow in an enlightened age — still manage to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality:

Sounds of gospel music resonated through the sparse sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon as voices rose up in praise and a few hands sailed through the air.

Liberation United Church of Christ in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood is a small congregation with a style of Christian worship not unlike many charismatic black churches.

But its congregants, many of them African American, come here as much for the spiritual euphoria as for this: that as gays and lesbians, they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the churches of their parents and grandparents.

That’s particularly relevant in a year when questions about whether gays should be allowed to marry will appear on the November ballot in four states, including Washington.

The sourcing: The Times quotes eight sources by name, by my quick count. Fortunately, six of them support same-sex marriage and contribute mightily to the puff piece. But even the two sources who oppose same-sex marriage serve a purpose, providing caricatures with real names to highlight the lunacy of the other side:

Within the community, there are unspoken concerns, particularly among older people, that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow diminishes the discrimination blacks have endured.

Some have even said that given the challenges in the black community — from education to health care — marriage for gays cannot be a priority, despite a significant number of African Americans in same-sex relationships.

But ultimately for many, the Bible is the final arbiter.

“People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong,” said André Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, who has participated in recent rallies in favor of traditional marriage.

“Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them.”

Notice the way the story makes a lot of broad generalizations about the other side without attributing the information to a named source? That’s a brilliant tool for a puff piece. But then the story quotes a single pastor as the sole representative of the “many conservative leaders — including some black pastors” opposed to same-sex marriage. Again, brilliant.

• The marginalization: Make it crystal clear which point of view is on the right side of history and public opinion. (Hint: Don’t dare let on that a state referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage has never passed in the United States or that polls show support for the Washington state measure under 50 percent.) The proper way to write it:

While national polls now show majority support for gay marriage in the general population and among other racial and ethnic groups, support among black people remains under 50 percent — despite a bump after endorsements by President Obama and the NAACP.

Recently, black pastors in parts of the South and Midwest have encouraged voters to sit out the election or to consider not supporting Obama because of his position.

In Atlanta, Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s, said she would never suggest that people not vote. But she said she and some pastors are so disturbed by Obama’s endorsement they’ve formed an organization, GodSaid.org, to urge black Americans to vote their “biblical values” rather than a party line.

At this point, we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the story. The writer has allowed token appearances by the other side. But the entire rest of the story — the final one-third — needs to provide positive, compelling anecdotes and quotes to support the need for same-sex marriage. Bingo, the Times is up to the challenge! This is such a terrific puff piece — leads with the side that’s right, ends with the side that’s right and sprinkles the side that’s wrong in the middle, but just a little bit!

All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for a better puff piece.

Seattle skyline image via Shutterstock


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