Pod people: Not all 'big' stories are created equal

I think that I have made the following point in previous GetReligion posts, but it must be made again. One of the hardest concepts for journalists to explain to non-journalists is the concept of "what a story is." Some events are stories and some are not. Some events and trends are stories for specific audiences and not for others. Some events are stories on some days and not on others.

Then there is this fact: Some events and trends are stories, but they are not "big" stories.

So what turns a "story" into a "big" story?

I'm glad you asked. Like it or not, a "big" story is a story that lots of journalism editors think is a "big story." They know one when they see one, you see. It's a kind of instinct that comes from working in newsrooms and reading newspapers for years and years. Does this mean that the logic is somewhat circular? You betcha.

Is this fair? Not really.

For one thing, when asked about these journalistic mysteries, most editors will say that these "big story" decisions are rooted in (a) a sense of what the public wants to know and (b) what the public needs to know. Of course, it's hard for the public to respond to certain kinds of stories -- religion stories leap to mind -- if these stories are either ignored or buried several clicks inside the publication. Am I the only person who cannot find the "On Faith" section in the iPad version of The Washington Post?

Moving on. Is it harder for a story to become a "big story" if editors are not interested in it? You betcha.

Is it harder for a story to become a "big story" if editors do not know anything about the groups and people that are involved? You betcha.

Some GetReligion readers may recall this anecdote from my days at the late, beloved Rocky Mountain News:

There was a stretch in the 1980s when Colorado Springs -- really quick -- turned into “Wheaton of the West,” a phrase I used in a column early on that I really wish I had copyrighted. Every month or so, some new group arrived at the base of Pikes Peak. ...

Anyway, I’m sitting at my desk one day and a member of the business-page staff walked up and asked: “Hey, there’s some organization moving to Colorado Springs called Focus on the Family. Is that worth a brief?”

I almost fell out of my chair. I told her that this might be one of the biggest Colorado news stories of the late 20th century.

The response: No way. You see, none of the editors had ever heard of Focus on the Family. That was a niche radio show and publishing empire that was not on their radar screen.

Truth be told, the Focus on the Family move to Colorado Springs was not a "big" story. It was a "huge" story. The problem was that the people sitting in the daily news-budget meeting, the meeting in which they decided what stories went where, didn't know that they were dealing with a national story that would send tremors through Colorado politics, culture and religion for decades to come.

I was able to convince the editors this story was bigger than a news brief, but barely. In a matter of months, they all knew who Dr. James Dobson was and they knew that Focus on the Family mattered.

I bring this up because of some interesting reactions in the comment boxes about my post the other day on the 10 biggest religion-beat stories of 2011, according to the pros at the Religion Newswriters Association. In turn, this discussion became the hook for this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to it).

The key came at this point in the RNA results list:

6. Pope John Paul II is beatified -- the last step before sainthood -- in a May ceremony attended by more than million people in Rome.

7. California evangelist Harold Camping attracts attention with his predictions that the world would end in May and again in October.

Say what? The Camping story was almost as "big" as the Pope John Paul II story? And it was more important than, let's say, the following (just to pick a few choice numbers)?

12. Majority-Christian Southern Sudan achieves its independence from Northern Sudan after years of trying. Worldwide church leaders, especially in Africa, receive some credit for the outcome and they pledge continued support to the new nation. ...

14. The irreverent satire "The Book of Mormon," about a pair of non-traditional missionaries to Uganda, wins nine Tony awards on Broadway, including best musical. ...

16. Hopes for an end to Pakistan's blasphemy law are dashed when two leading advocates of religious conciliation, Salman Taseer and Shahbazz Bhatti, are assassinated two months apart.

That's right. "The Book of Mormon" was a "bigger" story than the publicly popular assassinations of one of Pakistan's most important Muslim progressives and the nation's only Christian member of the cabinet.

But back to the Harold "End of the World" Camping story. In the comments pages, there was this interesting dialogue:

carl jacobs says: January 4, 2012, at 12:24 am

Harold Camping wasn’t a big story. He was never big enough or representative enough or important enough to warrant the coverage he received. He was just a vehicle that allowed institutional mockery of the Christian faith to be passed off as a story. The collective laughter was the whole point from beginning to end. ... I’m not surprised to see it on the list. A good time was had by all.

Mike O. says: January 4, 2012, at 12:57 am

Carl, Harold Camping wasn’t just a big story, it was a huge story. Both religious and non-religious were absolutley fascinated by it. The story had legs despite your personal feelings about Family Radio’s religious interpetations. A story can’t get that much extended attention and not be called a big story — unless the adjective “big” has suddenly lost all meaning. ...

carl jacobs says: January 4, 2012, at 8:28 am

... I didn’t say it wasn’t Big and Huge. I said it wasn’t a story. There was no ‘there’ there. Or perhaps I should put it this way. The reason for the Hugeness of the Media event had nothing to do with the story as told. It wasn’t “Harold Camping has declared a date. Let’s wait for his prophesy to fail.” If it was only Harold Camping, no one would have cared. “Unknown radio personality predicts end of world” isn’t a story. How many reporters had even heard of Harold Camping before last Spring? ...

Midst all the laughter, do you think there was any real concern for the people who believed Camping, and suffered genuine harm as a result? They were straight men in a comedy sketch. They were the people who made the mocking crowd think well of themselves. “Look at those fools! We aren’t fools like them!” isn’t much of a story. But it was the sum total of that event in May. When it was over, the crowd went home to seek for a different source of amusement.

The whole thing was despicable.

Now, on one level this argument was another round in the debates about whether mainstream journalists deliberately -- key word there is "deliberately" -- promote stories that make traditional religious believers look stupid. On another level, however, this offered a window into the mystery of why some "stories" become "big stories."

Yes, yes, yes, I am well aware that Camping is not exactly a traditional believer and it's insulting that many editors seemed to think that he was a crucial, representative mainstream Christian voice. On the positive side, I also know that some journalists turned this oddball story hook into a chance to explore the actual "end times" teachings of various Christian traditions. You can look at this from two different directions.

At the same time, as you'll hear in the podcast, I freely admit that before this story broke I had never heard of Camping. Yes, he was that obscure. Please remember that I was on the religion beat in Charlotte, N.C., during the start of the whole "Pearlygate" scandal era in which just about every major religious broadcaster on Planet Earth was dissected, to varying degrees, in the mainstream press.

Thus, we must conclude that it was the subject -- Flash! Another stupid end of the world prophecy! -- that hooked editors. Something had to yank this obscure story out to page one, where it became a juggernaut. That's what made this strange little story more important than (insert a truly important issue or event here).

So, I'll conclude with a question and a lesson:

(1) GetReligion readers, come clean. How many of you had heard of Camping before this story broke?

(2) Clearly, religious leaders can learn an important lesson from this poll. If you want mainstream press coverage, buy space on billboards and ask yourself this question: "What shocking statement can I print here that will make people laugh in newsrooms?"

Enjoy the podcast.

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