Something fishy in the STD stats

bratzOne more time, into the whirlpool of questions about how newspapers should handle stories that raise moral questions, yet questions that are -- for many readers -- may or may not not religious. In other words:

rob reynolds says:

March 13, 2008, at 8:35 pm ...

I couldn't care less about the whole sin angle. This country needs to move beyond its Puritan roots.

I was going to write about the recent New York Times STD story, but, ironically, the Eliot Spitzer story got in the way. Another GetReligionista or two will weigh in on other reports on the same topic. They are all haunted, to one degree or another.

The basic facts of the story by Lawrence K. Altman are pretty blunt. Here's what grabbed the headlines:

The first national study of four common sexually transmitted diseases among girls and young women has found that one in four are infected with at least one of the diseases, federal health officials reported Tuesday.

Nearly half the African-Americans in the study of teenagers ages 14 to 19 were infected with at least one of the diseases monitored in the study -- human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, genital herpes and trichomoniasis, a common parasite. The 50 percent figure compared with 20 percent of white teenagers, health officials and researchers said at a news conference at a scientific meeting in Chicago.

The religion angle shows up quickly, primarily as the political forces are work are brought into play. The various straw people come out to dance -- at least on one side of a big question.

The president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards, said the new findings "emphasize the need for real comprehensive sex education."

"The national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure," Ms. Richards said, "and teenage girls are paying the real price."

Now, before you click the "comment" link, let me make a comment or two of my own to define what we need to discuss about this story.

The word "abstinence" is, of course, a reference to those who advocate a traditional, religious view of sexual morality. It is a buzz word that means "Religious Right." Thus, the story contains an important -- and totally justified -- voice on one side of a very hot moral and religious issue. In its own way, the newspaper introduced the "sin" question.

Where is the other side of this argument? Why quote only one side? That's the journalistic question that we will discuss.

It is also interesting to note that the "abstinence" issue is the only one raised, as the Times attempts to raise a question that demands -- who, what, when, where, why and how -- to be raised. Why is all of this happening? Are African-American teen-agers in big cities served by public schools being bombarded with two or three times more "abstinence" education than their white counterparts? Have other forms of sexual education vanished? Are there NO other cultural forces at work in this story? None?

These are questions that need to be raised in a journalistic context. There is no way to avoid the crucial question: "Why are these numbers as high as they are?"

To the newspaper's credit, it did end the story with at least one reference to the complex nature of the trends being discussed. It seems that there are questions being raised that cannot simply be answered with more condoms.

The Food and Drug Administration has said in a report that latex condoms are "highly effective" at preventing infection by chlamydia, trichomoniasis, H.I.V., gonorrhea and hepatitis B. The agency noted that condoms seemed less effective against genital herpes and syphilis. Protection against human papillomavirus "is partial at best," the report said.

g fishSo how are we coming to comment on the religion elements of this story?

You can comment all you want about the journalistic question that I have raised. If you want to veer away from that and get into the who issue of sex education and religion, then I urge you to do this -- simply offer our readers a URL for another site at which they can read material that you want them to read. Otherwise, I will be spiking as many flame-throwing comments as I can.

But, I will take the liberty to point you to the work of Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher, whose reaction to the story was the same as my own. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I found it hard to read this story and not think of the classic column that Peggy Noonan wrote after the Columbine High School massacre:

Your child is an intelligent little fish. He swims in deep water. Waves of sound and sight, of thought and fact, come invisibly through that water, like radar; they go through him again and again, from this direction and that. The sound from the television is a wave, and the sound from the radio; the headlines on the newsstand, on the magazines, on the ad on the bus as it whizzes by -- all are waves. The fish -- your child -- is bombarded and barely knows it. But the waves contain words like this, which I'll limit to only one source, the news:

... was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested ... had her breast implants removed ... took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired ... said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide ... is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens ... court battle over who owns the frozen sperm ... contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women ... died of lethal injection ... had threatened to kill her children ... said that he turned and said, "You better put some ice on that" ... had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself ... protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism ... showed no remorse ... which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student ... which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiance ...

This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture.

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