Bad news and good news in religion reporting

By Martin E. Marty
16 May 2011

It feels like I have to wear virtual sunglasses when doing my too-rare sightings of positive religion news in public media, so bright are these exceptions to the down and depressing accounts.

Since most religious people and those who benefit from their doings see and experience more bright sides than down sides, we ask: is there something wrong with those who report and publish or broadcast the depressing and scandalous stories?

As someone who has hung out with the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) types for a half century, I’d argue that the problem results not from villainy or bias so much as from the nature of things, and have come up with a formula: if religion is covered as news, the bad stuff will predominate; if it appears as features, the good side gets a chance to show.

News waits for someone to embezzle or kill or seduce another in the name of God. Features allow for creative reporters to get up close to believing and behaving people who use their imagination, faith, energy, and communal spirit to serve others.

Let me document this sort-of thesis by reference to the largest Protestant body in the USA, the Southern Baptist Convention. Size alone commends it to the public eye; there are more Southern Baptists in the United States than there are Jews in the whole world. They often fight in Convention meetings; many of them engage in aggressive political moves that rouse reaction, and a few produce enough celebrity scandals to keep the media folk busy.

But the total of all those doings doesn’t cancel out or properly portray the other sides of such Baptist life. In this case, witness the New York Times, which recently devoted almost a whole page under the headline 'For Some, Helping With Disaster Relief Is Not Just Aid, It’s a Calling.'

The NYT even gave author Kim Severson space to explain what a “calling” is, and even to explain “faith-based” practices which are borderline transgressions in respect to some “church-state” issues and some no-no proselytizing.

Nor did Severson neglect mention of the specialty of other faith-based church bodies on the public scene: Mennonites (emergency supplies), Presbyterians (counselling), Lutherans, (shelter and long-term relief work), National Baptist Convention members (African-American church connections with governmental agencies), and so on.

But the main story featured the work of Southern Baptists, 95,000 of them trained at their churches to do instant disaster relief, accompanied by SUVs (“spontaneous untrained volunteers”). Yes, they make up a news story, because they are vital, often first on the scene and last to leave, when hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or fires strike. An elaborate “war room” (sic) in Alabama directs operations, but the bases are local churches and homes.

“Churches are literally, honestly, the first ones there” said one Alabama official. “We’re the best-kept secret out there” said a Baptist cleanup man to Severson. She featured a retired couple who use their “leisure” to work; the writer, who observed and listened to them concluded: “And they did it all for God.”

“I thought when we were done working that I wanted to travel,” said the featured Mrs. Blankenship, a former flight attendant. “I just never thought it’d look like this. But it’s our calling.”

There is much more in this story and there are many features like it elsewhere, accounts which can but should not be dismissed as “feel good.”

If I go on much more in this vein I may lose credentials as a reporter on the way “things really are.” But Severson’s story illumines another dimension of the way “things really are,” apart from denominational controversies and from believers who have not yet learned “calling.”

Reference

Kim Severson, 'For Some, Helping With Disaster Relief Is Not Just Aid, It’s a Calling,' New York Times, 9 May 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/us/09baptist.html?_r=1&ref=kimseverson

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© Martin E. Marty. The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, biography and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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