Major daily asserts supernatural as fact?

Suppose you opened your newspaper this morning and saw this on the front page:

The Grove. Each one will be a magnet tonight for an array of neo-Pagan denominations flocking to celebrate the return of their dead ancestors.

What would your reaction be? Why?

Examine the language closely – what is it about the construction of that sentence that would give you pause?

Let me offer a hint. There’s a difference between celebrating a belief that dead ancestors are returning and celebrating the return of dead ancestors. As constructed, this sentence asserts that the return of dead ancestors is a matter of journalistic fact, on a par with celebrating Florida’s victory in the NCAA tournament or celebrating a national holiday. You cannot construct a technically viable sentence that has people “celebrating Ohio State’s victory over Florida.” If they’re doing that, the sentence needs to be written differently. Very differently.

If you’re with me so far – and I realize this one looks subtle at first – let me note that to the best of my knowledge that sentence didn’t appear in your newspaper this morning. Or any other newspaper, this or any other morning.

This one did, however:

The Church. Each one is a magnet this week for an array of Christian denominations flocking to celebrate the death and Resurrection of Christ.

Rocky Mountain News, front page, yesterday.

Now, there’s lots of evidence suggesting that Jesus Christ was a real person, so a news item noting that people celebrate his birth or death – no problem there. Matters of probable fact – if he lived, it’s safe enough to assume that he was born and died. And even as a non-Christian, I have no issues with the assertion that he was a real person, and in all likelihood a great spiritual figue.

But resurrection. That’s a matter of great faith for millions of people, to be sure, but it’s also an event for which there is nothing remotely like acceptable evidence. The myth’s role in the spiritual lives of people is potentially a subject for all kinds of good journalism, but the assertion of this miracle as rational fact by the Rocky or any other newspaper is an egregious, appalling bit of journalistic malpractice that ought to get whoever was responsible for it fired. Today. Period. If they wrote that a man who had been murdered the other night miraculously arose and walked out of the morgue – not that this event was reported, but that it happened, and without the word “alleged” anywhere in sight – their careers would be over. (I mean, come on, this is an industry where people can watch video of a guy being beaten senseless from eight different angles and still use the term “alleged attackers.” What are we really talking about here?)

But since they’re playing to an article of faith embraced by lots of their readers, that makes it… what? It’s certainly innocent looking enough – what? we’re talking about Christians celebrating one of their holidays – but it actually takes an article of dogma and conducts a clever bit of linguistic smuggling past the reader’s crap detectors, embedding that which cannot be proven in a way that presents it as a given.

Our two newspapers here are pure crap and have been for years. The Rocky and Denver Post both lied about the Cassie Bernall “she said yes” story – by their own admission, they published the “she said yes” version of events several days after they knew them to be false (although they didn’t use the word “lie”) – so it isn’t like this is the first time they’ve rolled out an edition of the Jesus Times. And if they want to publish “faith-based news” that’s certainly their prerogative.

If they’re going to do so, though, I’d appreciate it if they’d stop pretending to be a real newspaper.

I’m sure I’m going to hear it on this one. But what that sentence says is not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of linguistic and grammatical fact. If you want to argue that this isn’t what they meant to say, well, that may be. I can’t prove that one way or another. At the least, professional journalists in major metro dailies shouldn’t make mistakes like this ever.

At the worst, it makes it hard to accuse people who worry about the looming shadow of Dominionism of being paranoid.

:xpost:

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30 thoughts on “Major daily asserts supernatural as fact?

  1. Inserting three words after “celebrate” — their belief in — takes care of your objection and doesn’t minimize Christians’ belief. It would be interesting to study the newspapers’ word choices when writing about religious holidays of non-Christians.
    I consider myself to be a Christian, but I would have applied my suggestion had I been working the copy desk that day.

  2. And had they inserted those three words you’d hear not a peep from me. Well, maybe you’d hear me griping about how we hardly need a government sanction of religion when the press has done it for them, but you wouldn’t hear THIS complaint, anyway….

  3. Just to play devil’s advocate, I would assume that there was no intention of that kind of journalistic hoodwinking at all. Rather, just that the journalist was all-too-typically non-thinking in this respect, and likely writing from a personal perspective sympathetic to the common tenets of Christianity. That it could make it from their computer to an editor and out again without being revised could indicate the same intellectual laziness on the editor’s part. Then again, for all we know, the writer *did* have the three problem-solving words and the editor removed them. Now, were *that* the case and could it be proven, *that* would make for a helluva beef for sure 🙂
    Of course, my knee-jerk reaction is to worry about Dominionism, heh. It’s so entrenched, and it comes so naturally to the Christian mainstream, anyone outside of that mainstream starts out marginalized just by taking issue with the impropriety of the language, much less the beliefs behind the language.
    Ahh, I ramble. These things do that to me.

  4. And in truth, if I were in Vegas that’s the square where I’d put my chips. Given what I know about the RMN, I’d be stunned to find a copy editor there clever enough to come up with the smuggler tactic. Whereas finding a moron would be about like jumping out of a boat and finding water.
    That doesn’t make it okay, though. In some respects it makes it worse, don’t you think?

  5. Oh, it absolutely makes it worse. As I tell my students sometimes, “How can I trust you to get the big things right when you can’t get the little things right?”

  6. Tell you what: I’ll present it to my Editing students Tuesday. It’ll make for a good just-back-from-break discussion. Then I’ll post here to let you know how it goes.
    We’re also going to discuss this story:
    http://timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=578281&category=ALBANY&BCCode=&newsdate=4/6/2007
    I’m curious to get their reaction to the “ghetto” quotation near the end. There were some interesting online responses for a couple of days about this, including one from my colleague and former ATU staffer Mediastar.

  7. I think some of those commenters are fooling themselves
    I read the Albany story and the comments after it just now. I was amused at the number of people who said “oh, just print it — if we’re offended, we’ll be offended at the person who said it, not at the newspaper.” Bah! If they’d found the comment offensive, I’d wager well over 50 percent of them would in fact be offended at the newspaper for providing the space to a comment that offended them. It’s easy to say otherwise … until the quote is one you really don’t like.

  8. I wish you could be there in human (not insect!) form.The students would benefit from hearing the perspective of someone from the area, someone who (I’m guessing) would give us a non-journalist’s point of view.

  9. Re: I think some of those commenters are fooling themselves
    Good point, Carole. As CMW was fond of saying, “It all depends on whose ox is being gored.”

  10. Someone who lives in an area that has been described as a “ghetto” — although on the other side of the river.
    I’m a writer but not a journalist. Sometimes I wish I’d taken that path.
    When’s your class? 😉

  11. Oh come on … We all know even if the alleged perp is white, somehow the people in the ghetto are responsible!!
    Yeah, right.
    –The artist formerly known as Mediastar

  12. I’m not sure what I think of the article. I think that the questionable nature of the quote depends on how you read the article. If it’s an article reporting a rape, the quote doesn’t seem to be related enough to merit printing. However, the article is framed as chastizing the police department for not alerting the public to a possible danger. It then closes as if it’s an article about the perceptions of Albany residents in regards to the dangers of crime in Albany.
    I think that’s part of why the article falls down — it isn’t cohesive enough in its purpose. If it focused on perceptions of safety, the quote might better stand as relavent.
    All-in-all, I think it’s an overblown article that lead to an overblown situation. And… if crime really is an increasing problem in Albany, then I think the city needs to be taken to task over how they deal with it, more than worrying about the possible insensitivity of one person’s opinion.

  13. It all comes back to the two questions every writer should ask before writing: Who is my audience? What is my purpose? As you point out, that second question was mishandled.
    In a story strictly about the perceptions of Albany residents about crime, that quotation would have had a place because the story also would (perhaps risky assumption here) contain responses to that quotation. The quotation/response could have helped eliminate stereotypes instead of perpetuating them, as the original story did.

  14. Your demands for ensuring separation of church and state, while admirable, are likely to fall on deaf ears. What am I saying? Has already fallen on deaf ears – especially in such a religious society as the US.

  15. I’ll probably get blasted, but I’ll be some cannon fodder for y’all. When you were discussing the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and take it as being shoddy reporting, I ask you this? What is the standard for reporting. How many sources make it necessary to run with it?
    In the case of the resurrection, we have many different stories corroborating the same event. You can find them in Matt 28:1,2-4,5-8,9-10,11-15. Luke reports the resurrection in a different style in Luke 24: vs.1-8,9-12,13-32,33-43. Mark reports it in 16: vs.1,2-8,9-11,12-13,14. John reports it in 20: vs. 1,2-10,11-18. 1. Cor reports the resurrection in 15: vs.5. There you have it, 5 reporters verifying the same event(the resurrection of Christ)….shouldn’t that meet today’s minimalistic journalistic standards? Don’t you only need one or two corroborating stories to publish the article?
    I’m quite naive when it comes to journalism, and am trying to understand it better, so I can fine tune my BS detector.
    After all, there is only one story of the “Death of Socrates” and it’s corroborated by no one else, yet is accepted as historical fact.
    Please teach me the flaws in my logic:)
    Aloha,
    Jeff

  16. Let’s start by being clear on the difference between reporting on things that are known to happen in the natural world vs. things that only happen in myths. It is one thing to report that a man ran from a building and another to report that he walked on water. Journalism must have credulity regarding things like the laws of the universe.
    Second, even if the story were that people heard gunshots and then a man ran from the building, the news story would read something like “witnesses say they heard gunshots and then saw a man run from the building.” Even at that level, you’re writing that people reported it, not that it happened exactly that way, because as a reporter you have no grounds to establish as fact something you didn’t see. Even if ten witnesses said that, you’d report that ten witnesses said it.
    Now consider what you’d think if you read this bit in your paper: “Last night at 8:42 PM, John Smith arose from the dead and took his children for ice cream.” Heck, imagine that it read this way: “Witnesses report that last night at 8:42 PM, John Smith arose from the dead and took his children for ice cream.”
    Your first thought (and second, and third, and fourth…) is that police need to pat those witnesses down to see if they’re still holding whatever they’ve been smoking.
    I’ll stick to the journalistic canon here and will avoid going to the logical place, which has to do with how people can matter-of-factly reconcile the dramatic change in the laws of nature that happened shortly after Jesus ascended into Heaven.

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