BeloWatch

Holier than thou
Religion is one of the great underreported realms of American journalism.
Not because it isn't written about. Every newspaper in America regularly sets aside space for religion stories; almost every sizable paper has its own full-time religion reporter.

The problem is that what they write resembles the prose in a church newsletter. Readers are given rewritten press releases from places of worship, a calendar of events, fluffy, uplifting profiles of religious leaders and "volunteers of the week." If the paper's really enterprising, readers might get a windy story about esoteric debates among religious scholars.

In short, there's nothing but pablum in the mix--nothing doubting, criticizing, or questioning. The usual standards of good journalism simply don't apply.

It's all a comfortable fit beside the paid listings of weekly worship services--all to avoid offending a soul, in this sensitive journalistic realm.

And that's exactly what Dallas' Only Daily is offering in its new weekly Saturday section on religion--titled "Religion."

The section debuted December 8, promoted with a boxed introduction on the top of the paper's front page. "Each Saturday, the Religion section will offer readers stories on religion, spirituality, and values, along with a calendar of the week's events, a people-oriented 'Word and Deed' column, a 'Living Faith' profile, volunteer listings, a place of worship profile and a column from local religious leaders."

But the highlight of the first week's section, the box noted, was a groundbreaking "Dallas Morning News survey on local residents' religious beliefs."

The startling conclusion of this scientific survey by the Dallas Morning News research department ("margin of error: plus or minus 3.2 percentage points")?

"Nine out of 10 Dallas-Fort Worth area adults polled said they are religious, but that doesn't necessarily mean they attend a place of worship each week," wrote reporter Christine Wicker in her lead story (headlined "The Fabric of Faith") in the religion section.

Other items on the new section's front page included a report on "fresh Hanukkah sounds" ("New music is growing out of an ancient story"); a series of "Keeping Up" briefs ("Travel back to the 15th century this weekend for a Yuletide Madrigal Feaste at Northway Christian Church"); and a story offering various opinions from religion scholars about the ethics of genetic engineering.

Not exactly groundbreaking or daring stuff.
The problem is that religion is a realm filled with villains as well as heros; greed as well as nobility; passion as well as pacificism; arrogance as well as humility; sinners as well as saints.

But if the section's debut is any indication, the News will present a world of religion reflecting none of that.

There's nothing wrong with a section that is respectful of religion. But it doesn't need to be reverential. There is no reason why coverage of religion should be different from that of any other realm.

The bottom line is that the News' strictly traditional, offend-no-one approach will leave untouched the most important religion stories--those that require enterprise, courage, and aggressive reporting.

Because the new section in Dallas' Only Daily lacks every one of those qualities.

Sanitizing the garbage story
A quick BeloWatch update on the effort by Dallas' Only Daily to pretend the Dallas Observer doesn't exist:

On November 10, the Observer published a cover story titled "The Trashing of Ferris, Texas." Written by assistant editor Julie Lyons, it explored the controversy surrounding a proposal by Waste Management, Inc. to multiply the size of the Ferris landfill, located south of Dallas in Ellis County.

An accompanying story, headlined "FBI probes bribery allegations in Ferris," broke the news that federal agents were investigating claims by public officials in Ferris and Lancaster that a Waste Management consultant--former Ferris mayor Billy Don Dunn--had offered them bribes to keep them from opposing the landfill. It was based largely on a nine-page search-warrant affidavit from FBI agent James Kendall, filed in Dallas federal court.

The corruption allegations were extensively--and colorfully--discussed in a public document. The Ferris landfill was of special interest to Dallas citizens because officials here had claimed its expansion might bar construction of a long-sought cargo airport in nearby Lancaster by attracting birds that would pose an air-safety hazard.

Yet the News followed up with not a single word about the story--for about three weeks.

Then, the Austin American-Statesman published a copyrighted story reporting the very same allegations, based on the very same affidavit. The story was sweetened slightly by the additional news that FBI agents were questioning state officials about whether Waste Management had pressured them to approve the landfill expansion.

The Associated Press picked up the story. And the News suddenly deemed it newsworthy.

It appeared in the December 4 News, beneath an AP byline and a headline quite similar to one in the Observer more than three weeks earlier: "FBI investigating landfill company." And the News credited the Austin daily.

Using the wire services to sanitize a story broken by a competitor is an old trick in the newspaper business--it's the journalistic equivalent of money laundering.

Pretending a newsworthy story doesn't exist is also exceedingly petty, not to mention a disservice to readers, who might expect their paper of record to report the news promptly--even if it first appears in the Dallas Observer.

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