CNN's Daniel Burke survived a GetReligion interview, but will his 'Friendly Atheists' story endure our critique?

That there title is what is known as clickbait.

I know you people: You fancy a nice train wreck. You crave a good, no-holds-barred professional wrestling match. You love GetReligion the most when we're whacking some incompetent "journalist" (hey, how do you like those scare quotes, media person!?) over the head with a 2-by-4.

Sadly, today I come to praise CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke, not to bury him. 

And I knew you wouldn't dare click if I said something vanilla like "CNN produces a really nice piece of religion journalism." (Yawn.)

Come to think of it, Burke didn't really write about religion, did he? If you read my 5Q+1 interview with him the other day, you know that he produced a 10,000-plus-word opus on atheists: 

Hmmmm, "Religion editor can't find religion to write about." Maybe that's my angle.

I kid. I kid.

But something tells me that Burke has a healthy sense of humor:

All joking aside, "The Friendly Atheists Next Door" is exceptional.

Let's start at the top:

Wake Forest, North Carolina
It's two weeks before Christmas, which means the Shaughnessys are deep into their December rituals.
Cookies have been baked and sprinkled with enough sugar to give a gingerbread man diabetes. A Christmas tree, sparkling with colored lights and surrounded by a small troop of Santa Clauses, stands in the corner of the living room, waiting.
Harry and Charlotte Shaughnessy watch their children dip into a stash of ornaments: a Welsh flag from Grace's semester abroad; a bauble from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where Todd is a freshman; a trinket embroidered with Brennen's name and 1998, the year the youngest Shaughnessy was born.
Harry, nursing a rum and Coke, smiles at the sight of an even older ornament: a stocking that says "Charlotte and Harry, 1988," their first Christmas as a couple.
In those days, the Shaughnessys were Catholic. They herded their children to Mass on Sundays and celebrated the sacraments, mostly. While Charlotte taught at the parish school and Harry started a computer consulting business, they tried, for the most part, to follow the church's doctrines.
But one day a question cracked the foundation of Harry's faith, and the fissure slowly widened until the walls shivered and the roof shook and the whole damn house fell down. Like most demolitions, it caused a disturbance.

As Burke explained in our interview, the story took 10 months to produce and went through at least five drafts before he found "the right tone and narrative arc." 

Besides the massive amount of time and space that Burke and CNN devoted to telling this story, what impresses me about it?

First, I appreciate the tone, which is both conversational and respectful. You don't have to be an atheist (and I'm certainly not) to appreciate a journalist going out of his way to attempt to understand what makes a fellow human — or humans, in the case of the Shaughnessy family — tick. Not to go negative, but CNN could use this same kind of sensitivity on some other stories.

Second, I like that Burke keeps peeling back the onion. He digs below the surface as he explores the rising number of self-proclaimed atheists in America:

I've been following that ascension for years, watching America's "atheist awakening" burst forth from a few best-sellers to become a force with the potential to reshape the country's culture, politics and spirituality.
But I am also interested in the small picture – less atheism as a mass movement and more the thoughts that flicker and burn through someone's mind as he forsakes faith. As a man like Harry begins to bend toward atheism, what are the turning points, and what happens after the last corner is turned?
I talked to Harry for 10 months about those questions. And the more I asked, the more complex his answers became. I soon realized that Harry is not a typical atheist. He's part of a bevy of former believers who, while trying to raise atheist children and create secular communities, are tapping an unlikely source: the religions they left behind.

Third, I am impressed with the fair, transparent nature of CNN's story. Rather than a blunt statement like "The atheists' Catholic relatives refused to comment," Burke provides a detailed explanation that adds to the readers' understanding:

I'm going to pause the story here to make a short confession. "Confession" may not be the right word, exactly. I haven't done anything wrong. But there's something you should know.
I asked Harry's parents and sisters multiple times to talk to me for this story. They declined. Last December, Harry's brother-in-law, Marc Hurtgen, offered this explanation in an email:
"It is not out of animus toward Harry or anything he is involved in that we are not interested in being part of your article, but rather out of respect for him and the rest of the family and a hope for open (and uncontaminated) discussion about it sometime in the future, should Harry choose to."
Because Harry's parents and sisters wouldn't talk to me, some of the conversations recounted in this story come only from the recollections of Harry and his immediate family, including his children. Interviewed separately, they all agreed on the essential details.
I understand some of the reluctance from Harry's extended family. Heaven and hell aren't metaphors to Catholics like them, and their beliefs place people who don't share them – including Harry – on the wrong side of paradise.

That kind of first-person aside wouldn't work in every story. But it does this one.

Kudos to Burke and CNN, and congratulations to Melissa Nann Burke (a former 5Q+1 interviewee herself) on getting her husband back:

If you've read this far, you are a true fan of journalism, and we appreciate you.

But if anybody asks, please tell them we trashed Burke's atheist story, and they really need to read our critique.

Please respect our Commenting Policy