Off to San Diego

I'm off to San Diego on Thursday and don't know if I'll have a chance to blog before I go or while I am there. Now what I've dealt with clones and the Washington water problem, there's one more thing that's been on my mind the last few weeks.

Back in January, Books and Culture published an essay on Religiously Ignorant Journalists by Dr. Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I've seen it since at The Revealer and on the Evangelical Press Association site.

Here's the gist of Dr. Smith's argument.

"most "religion journalists" actually seem quite ignorant about religion generally. Which is precisely why they are calling me. It is not because they have an informed background and close familiarity with religion, and are simply looking to pick up a few good quotes to add color or an air of authority to the story. No. They call knowing almost nothing about what they have been assigned to write on and are essentially asking me to take the good part of an hour to educate them about it. . . .

Having gotten their free hyper-crash course in whatever religion subject they are asking about, they then write up their article as best they can figure it out, publish it, and move on to the next story. Even then, in my experience, they often don't really "get" many of the ideas we have discussed, sometimes to the point of positively misreporting on religion in their stories.

He then suggests that only qualified religion reporters--who "know religion just as well as their publication's political reporters know politics and their sports reporters know sports."

Even if Dr. Smith's suggestions were put into practice, I think he would still be dissatisfied with religion coverage, the way that many sports figures and politicians are unhappy with the way they are covered.

Here's why--any who covers religion is an amateur. That is, they will never understand all the nuances of a particular religion story the way someone involved in the story does. They won't have the lifetime of experience and history that members of a specific congregation or denomination or faith have. We may get the Episcopalian / Episcopal distinction right--but we'll never really "get" the story the way an insider will.

More training and knowledge will help. But even that will fall short. But the best religion writer will know that they are ignorant--they will know what they don't know. And that is crucial.

It's not religiously ignorant reporters that Dr. Smith ought to worry about. It's religiously arrogant ones--who don't know what they don't know. Like the reporter who called the church where John Kerry went on Easter Sunday “a kind of New Age church." That's arrogance--someone who didn't know what they were missing.

A couple of years ago, while doing a long piece on religion and media I came across a perfect example of a religiously arrogant reporter--someone who has just enough information to be dangerous.

In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal relate a story told by Laurie Goodstein, who covers religion for the New York Times.

Here's an excerpt from the piece I wrote in 2001

A reporter was covering a group of Pentecostals who were meeting on the steps of the U.S.
Capitol. The reporter described the meeting, and then wrote, “At times, the mood turned hostile towards the lawmakers in the stately white building behind the stage.”

The reporter was referring to a speaker who said, “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone
in the Capitol.”

Unfortunately for the reporter, said Goodstein, when a Pentecostal asks God to slay someone, they mean being slain in the Spirit or “praying that they are overcome with the love for God, for Jesus.”

“It made for an embarrassing correction,” said Goodstein.

This reporter did not know how to ask an ignorant question to the speaker that day or to someone in the crowd--just one clarifying question would have saved an embarrassing correction.

It seems to me that's our job as reporters who write about religion--to ask the questions that might show of our ignorance and then to follow up till we get the right answers.

And if we did ever become the kind of experts that Dr. Smith is hoping for, it may lead to lead to the kind of positive religion coverage he seems to want.

At least that's Terry Anderson, the one time chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Pres who later became a journalism professor, told me in 2001.

“I doubt seriously that you want more intelligent new coverage,” he said, "because if you ask for that you might get it. Then they are going to come and look at your church and its problems and they are going to put them in the newspaper and you are not going to like that."


Washington's Water Woes and The Journalism of Scandal

On a very long commute this morning (more than 2 hours) I heard this long piece on NPR about excess lead levels in Washington D.C.'s drinking water. The piece was part one of a two part series on the lead problem.

Here's how NPR's website describes it.

News of dangerous levels of lead in Washington D.C.'s drinking water sparks an outcry from the community -- especially because city water officials knew about the problem and did little to warn the public. In the first of two reports, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling explains that weak federal laws regulating drinking water are to blame.

I am veering away from religion news today because this kind of reporting illustrates one of the biggest problems facing American journalism--journalists who are more interested in scandal and blame than in information and solutions.

This line "that weak federal laws regulating drinking water are to blame" is the problem. What could have been a great piece was turned into a typical scandal story that's all to common these days.

Why? "Weak federal laws" did not put lead into the water in Washington. Now today's story is only part one of a series, but aside from one reference to "old lead pipes" Zwerdling never explains where the lead comes from or how the problem could be fixed. Instead, he focuses on an expose of a federal environemtal law that is he says was compromised by politics.

How amazing. Politics shaped a law in Washington DC.

Zwerling never explains, for example--whether the problem is at Washington's water purification plant, in the ground water, or in the network of pipes that carry water to homes. Nor does he report on whether the high lead levels showed up in the standard blood tests many doctors do to check for lead levels. And there's no mention of how other cities deal with this issue.

I was jumping out of my seat as I drove along and yelling at the radio. It was almost as bad as watching Grady Little leave Pedro Martinez in during game seven of the American League Championship series last fall. I didn't get information--I got a reporter badgering some flunking at Washington's water utility about a public information campaign entitled "your water is safe" which was supposed to actually warn Washington residents about lead level.

I was left angry and worried after hearing the piece. I know where the damn lead is coming from--from lead water pipes that older cities like Washington and Chicago used for decades. From my days at Habitat for Humanity, I could estimate that running new water service would cost about $15,000 a house, and that's not addressing the main supply lines in the street. We are talking about a project that would cost upwards of 300 million dollars in a city like Washington.

Fortunately, the Chicago Tribune also ran a piece on the Washington water problem. It notes that Chicago adds phosphate to its supply which keeps lead from leaching into the water supply, a solution Washington could try.

NPR just wanted to fix blame and so didn't give the information that helps this story makes sense. Sure, the people who did not inform residents may have acted in a manner that was morally questionable. But they didn't make the problem. Probably 100 years of using lead water pipe did that. And the cost of fixing the problem could be enormous.

Is this an issue that I, and you, and anyone who get their water from lead pipe ought to worry about. Tune in tomorrow and see.

And sleep tight.


Godsend Returns

The Godsend Institute story is making the rounds. Marketplace had a piece on it, and did the San Francisco Chronicle

The Chronicle piece was written by science writer David Ewing Duncan

Here's what he had to say:

Still, there is a danger in "Godsend's" fear factor -- that the distinction between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning will be blurred even further by the film and by the fake but all too credible Web site.

Already, many people confuse reproductive cloning with therapeutic cloning -- a confusion that plays into the agenda of conservatives who believe that life begins at conception and oppose all cloning.

Conservatives have sought to lump together the two types of cloning, knowing that nearly everyone wants to outlaw reproductive cloning, while many favor therapeutic cloning -- or would, if they really understood its potential value and how it has been approved and regulated in other countries, such as Britain.

The language of this stem cell and cloning debate is fascinating, especially this "reproductive cloning" and "therapeutic cloning." They are the same procedure--called somatic cell nuclear transfer--in which the DNA from an egg is removed and the DNA of a mature cell is implanted. While the end is different--getting a child versus creating an embryo--the procedure is identical.

Ewing doesn't believe that this Godsend film will lead to a ban on cloning--though he ads that "fear and confusion continue to dominate the discussion."

There is little talk about the actual science and the possibilities, and about the notion of allowing promising research to continue -- under strict guidelines -- to see if it is viable or not.

There's an interesting link here between "fear and confusion" and religion, at least the conservative side. But it's the line about actual science I find most interesting. Wthen Ewing argues that there's a difference between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning, he's not talking about real science either. He's talking about a moral and ethical judgement--that the value of potential research outweighs the value of the embyro.

That's not a pure science question by any means.

He also note's that Godsend references Pandora's Box in talking about cloning.
Writer Robin Marantz Henig uses Pandora in the title of her new book on in-vitro fertilization called "Pandora's Baby."

She also turns to science fiction -- in this case, Mary Shelily's Frankenstein to find a metaphor for the ethical dilemnas of ivf.

"Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

Kathryn Joyce of The Revealer notes that the moral of Sci-fi movies like Godsend is always the same:

"advanced technology plus immoral/hubristic scientist and/or naïve/lazy/wrongthinking civilian equals one whopping morality tale, reminding us not to mess with God’s plan/fly too high/want what we can’t have."

When it comes to cloning, I think the same old morality tale may work just fine.

Henig's book on IVF compares the current questions about Stem cells and cloning with the 1970s- 1980s debates over "test tube babies."

"Perhaps the biggest difference between in vitro fertilization and cloning is the focus of our anxieties about them. In the 1970s the greatest fear about in vitro fertilization was that it might fail, leading to sorrow, disappointment and possibly the birth of grotesquely abnormal babies. Today the greatest fear about cloning is that it might succeed."

I don't think we can handle the consequences if cloning works.


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