Hate in a story about embracing diversity

university of marylandThe best thing reporters can hear from editors is that they can have as much space as they need to tell the story. In an era of online publishing, this should be the case every time, but I don't see reporters or their editors using that opportunity all that often. In a world where column inches do not matter, reporters face a different challenge of knowing when to stop reporting and writing. In my own experience, a good editor acts as a good stop. A fast-approaching deadline also acts as a fairly reliable stopper.

In an excellent example of how to use the Internet to enhance a reporter's ability to tell a story, The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein filed two versions of her Jan. 15 article, "A Mission of Understanding: At U-Md., Evangelical Christian Teen Breaks Into the Mainstream, Out of His Comfort Zone." One went into the morning newspaper, which I enjoyed over eggs and toast, and the other went online which I also enjoyed (sans the food).

Why aren't newspapers doing this more often? The print version of the article, which I cannot find online, was more concise and more readable. And the online version seemed to read like the version that existed before the Post's inch-guardians got their grubby hands on it. The online version rambled a little bit, but it told a more complete story.

The story is about Danny Leydorf, who attended a Christian school in Annapolis since he was in kindergarten. For college he selected the University of Maryland, a secular state school, in an effort to "test his faith in a more diverse world." This, as the article nicely outlines, is a growing trend among kids raised in Christian educational environments. For the last 30 years, kids coming out of Christian high schools were directed toward Christian colleges or the mission field, and even today there remains hesitancy about secular schools.

After reading the through the first five paragraphs of the article, one does not have to wonder why Christians are hesitating or nervous:

"I feel like I exist to be interacting," the lanky, towheaded 19-year-old said eagerly one day last summer, shortly after his graduation, "and part of that is just getting out there."

So he'd deliberately picked a large, secular college: the University of Maryland. But the week before he was to leave, the wider world dealt him a blow.

"I hate evangelical Christians," read the Facebook.com profile of his roommate-to-be, who had seemed so perfect on the phone. He loved politics and "The Simpsons," like Leydorf, and they even had the same views about how to set up the room. Could it still work?

We later learn that Leydorf decided to ignore the Facebook comment, concluding that the unnamed roommate was using "evangelical" to describe people like "Jerry Falwell whom Leydorf considers intolerant." (I guess it just depends on how you define "evangelical," right?)

facebookCollege kids are not exactly known for their discretion, and this is especially true for freshmen. Saying that you "hate" something on Facebook is not generally taken very seriously. For instance, there is a group on Facebook called "Abortion: Because I Hate Babies" that has 72 members. Another called "ACME employees who hate ACME" has 11 members. The "Adam Sandler Hate Club" has 46 members. You get the idea.

But that doesn't mean the Post should simply ignore the irony that Leydorf, raised in a Christian school and seeking to learn to live in "a more diverse world," is facing the hate of the real world before he even steps on campus. Perhaps Leydorf's roommate will learn a thing or two from his new evangelical Christian friend who seems as willing as anyone to embrace diverse environments.

Go to the Maryland University homepage and you'll immediately see a link on Diversity. On that page you're told that this is "your road map to the plethora of equity and diversity undertakings on our campus."

A huge part of the story is devoted to telling the story of why evangelicals withdrew from secular institutions. Perhaps this lack of interaction has allowed people like Leydorf's roommate to develop a hate for Christians because they did not know any -- or at least any like Leydorf, who is someone that most people would find it hard to hate.

Colleges and universities are burdened with the unenviable task for sorting through the competing values of free speech and protecting diversity and individual rights. Was this a comment that should have changed the direction of the story? I would say no because I think the writer had a better story to tell. But it's certainly worth looking into in the future. And as I said earlier, time is the big constraint for reporters these days, not column inches.

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