Earlier this week, I suggested that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel might want to take another shot at covering some of the religious views involved in the culture war over Terri Schiavo's future. In particular, the newspaper needed to rethink its own assertion that there is some question about Roman Catholicism's teachings on death by starvation. Sure enough, the editors put veteran Godbeat scribe James Davis on the case.
This is a textbook case of a basic principle in religion-beat coverage (and good journalism in general). If you are dealing with a complicated legal story, then let the experienced legal affairs reporter get involved. If you don't have one, hire one or get one of your reporters trained and up to speed. The same goes for medicine, politics, hip-hop, NASCAR, science, soccer, opera and other complicated subjects.
This is certainly true with religion news. A Florida newspaper has to have a Terri Schiavo coverage team right now and the religion reporter has to be on it. This is journalism and it's happening in Holy Week (in the Western church)!
Thus, Davis produced a basic story rounding up the views of various faiths in the complicated religious turf called South Florida. The headline was simple but on target: "Different faiths find common ground in end-of-life issues." In this case, the pro-life position can be found in a variety of sanctuaries, including those of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.
Many in the ranks agree that the feeding and hydration tube keeping the brain-damaged woman alive should not have been withdrawn, South Florida leaders in those faiths said. . . . While acknowledging the legal battle on legislative and court levels, spiritual authorities say moral right and wrong are a different matter.
"Just because you have the power to make a decision, doesn't mean you should," said Imam Sayed Mohammad Jawad Al Qazwini, of Assadiq Islamic Educational Center, Boca Raton. "Even if [Schiavo] wanted to withdraw the tube, Islam would say she could not.
"We don't have authority over our souls; only God does," Al Qazwini said. "Death is just a transformation from this world to another world."
The story underlines the fact that the MSM have emphasized the views of evangelical Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics. Still, Davis does quote the Vatican statement that links the church's teachings directly to the Schiavo case.
However, Davis -- correctly -- stresses that there is quite a divide on this moral issue between the Catholic left and right. He quotes this rather personal story from Edward Sunshine, associate professor of theology at Barry University in Miami Shores:
. . . Individual Catholics make their own decisions -- like Sunshine's mother, who was dying of cancer in 1973.
"An intravenous tube was the only thing keeping her alive, and she said she couldn't take it anymore," he said. "She had it removed and died in a couple of days."
But what if patients, like Schiavo, have no power to speak for themselves? Simple, Sunshine said. "It's the closest person. And unless proven otherwise, the spouse should be considered that person."
The major point of view missing in this new story is that of evangelical Protestantism. However, the question facing a veteran reporter such as Davis is obvious: Which evangelical voice do you quote? There are so many to choose from and the viewpoints are quite diverse.
Perhaps that is the subject of the next story. At the national level, reporters can turn to a diverse group such as the National Association of Evangelicals. But what should a reporter do at the local level? What are the one or two essential evangelical, or dare we say "fundamentalist," voices? Southern Baptists? Multicultural charismatic?