2004 in review (I): God and the AP

More than two decades ago, my graduate advisers at the University of Illinois gave early approval to the idea of me writing my final project about the state of religion coverage in mainstream American newsrooms, which I also condensed for The Quill. One professor was skeptical, until I brought him a copy of the Associated Press' top 10 stories for the previous year. At least six of the stories were linked to religion. I have watched the AP's end-of-the-year list closely ever since, and I can't think of a year in which the number of stories containing major religion "ghosts" has fallen below four or five. I am not saying these stories were COVERED as religion stories. I am saying it would have really helped to have had a skilled religion reporter on the team covering each of these stories.

This year, as I stressed in my Scripps Howard column this week, it is hard to tell the difference between the AP's list and the annual top 10 list from the Religion Newswriters Association. OK, maybe it's not that hard. The release of "The Passion of the Christ" tied with the re-election of President Bush in the RNA poll. More details in a few days in part II of this end-of-the-year review.

Here is a GetReligion-annotated version of the AP's list, with quotes from the wire story:

1. U.S. ELECTION: After vanquishing Howard Dean, John Edwards and other Democratic rivals, Kerry seemed to have a strong chance of ousting Bush. But the Massachusetts senator struggled to explain his stance on Iraq, underestimated the sting of negative ads and -- in the end -- narrowly lost the pivotal swing state of Ohio.

Comment: I seem to remember a few news stories on the toll of "values voters" and the role of moral and cultural issues, as well. Let's call that a "freaking" ghost.

2: IRAQ: Throughout 2004, Iraq was a striking mix of bloody turmoil and tantalizing promise. Anti-American insurgents wreaked havoc with car bombings and videotaped beheadings of hostages.

Comment: I think this one speaks for itself. The entire drama of Iraq is haunted by religion and, more and more, the possible war between the Shiites and Sunnis.

3. FLORIDA HURRICANES: Four major hurricanes -- Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne -- devastated Florida and other southern states in August and September. ... Not since 1886 had one state been hit by four hurricanes in one season.

Comment: For me this hits close to home. As I noted at the time, a major topic of discussion among Floridians the question: Why us?

4. ABU GHRAIB: Photographs came to light showing U.S. military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad forcing naked Iraqi detainees to pose in humiliating positions. . . . (The) scandal fueled anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.

Comment: What can we say? Both GetReligion and The Revealer made the case that this story raised unavoidable religion questions.

5. SEPT. 11 REPORT: After painstaking research and dramatic public hearings, the commission formed to investigate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, issued its report.

Comment: Well? Anyone see any ghosts in Sept. 11 stories?

6: GAY MARRIAGE: From coast to coast, gay marriage was a volatile topic throughout the year. Massachusetts became the first state to have legal, same-sex weddings, and local officials in several places -- including San Francisco and Portland, Ore. -- also wed gay and lesbian couples before courts intervened. However, each time the issue reached the ballot -- in 13 states in all -- voters decisively approved constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

Comment: I have no idea which GetReligion post to link to, at this point, because there are so many.

7: ARAFAT DIES: For three decades, Yasser Arafat was a hero to most of his fellow Palestinians but considered unreliable -- or worse -- by leaders in the West and Israel.

Comment: Nope. No ghosts in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

8: REAGAN DIES: Alzheimer's disease had kept Ronald Reagan out of the public eye for a decade. But when the nation's 40th president died in June, at 93, Americans responded with an outpouring of affection and respect.

Comment: Simply stated, the Reagan era was the coming-out party for the religious right.

9: RUSSIAN SCHOOL SEIZURE: Even in a world grown all too accustomed to terrorism, the drama in the Russian town of Belsan was shocking because children were so clearly prime targets.

Comment: Seizure? The religious elements of this story really spooked the mainstream press. When fanatics preaching a warped version of Islam massacre "infidels" while screaming praises to Allah, is this a religion story?

10: MADRID BOMBINGS: Another stunning terrorist strike occurred in March, when 190 people were killed after bombs hidden in backpacks exploded on four commuter trains during Madrid's morning rush hour. Soon after the attack, which was blamed on Islamic militants, angry voters unseated Spain's pro-American conservative government.

Comment: See no. 9, only the religious elements were quieter in this case.

PERSONAL COMMENT: I am currently hiding in the mountains of North Carolina, in a place so remote that some of the public libraries still do not offer Internet access. Our only local cyber cafe -- 20 minutes away -- went out of business. We have no telephone here (cell or otherwise) and I am able to download email every day or two through the kindness of our friendly tobacco farmer next-door neighbor. Web work is out of the question. Special thanks to the maestro LeBlanc for posting this item for me, including nabbing some relevant URLs and art!

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