Race and religion in context

A major challenge for reporters covering Tuesday's speech by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on the subject of race in America is getting the right amount of background. Obviously there are libraries of potential context that could arguably be inserted into a newspaper's coverage, but that's just not practical. Reporters and their editors must balance the need to apply certain context that is generally known but is necessary to tell a complete story and inserting new context that helps explain the new picture that developed Tuesday as a result of Obama's speech. Anyone who listened to Obama's speech, including the reporters covering it, received a load of additional context.

Obama's hometown newspapers, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times, each had a couple of stories dealing with the speech. I was surprised there was not more coverage of this rather major event involving one of their own, but such is the economics of today's newspaper business.

From a religion perspective, the best story between these two papers was this analysis by Manya Brachear on the historical shift in black churches in America:

In many ways, Obama's attempt to shift the nationwide discussion, since Wright's controversial statements surfaced on the Internet, parallels a transition at Trinity -- a switch from the black-power rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s to a new approach that seeks to foster social justice and address racial disparities in different ways.

"For Pastor Wright's generation there was an assumption that if you were to speak to a person of African-American descent, they understood the language of the church," Moss said in an interview. "That's not the case anymore. There is a need for this generation to be broad in their language to speak to a young man on the corner that does not know the language of the tradition or a young woman coming out of the Ivy League who doesn't see a need for the tradition."

Obama's campaign has shined the spotlight on Trinity, which in the early 1970s adopted the motto "Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian," and hired Wright to lead them in heralding an Afro-centric agenda.

Wright sought to build on the black theology of liberation introduced in 1968 by Rev. James Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, who views the Bible through the struggles of the black community and the legacy of slavery. Wright's calls for social justice rooted in black pride were echoed by other pastors and pioneering presidential candidates, including Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. The same calls inspired Obama to worship at Trinity, a scene he described in his 1993 memoir "Dreams from My Father" and that he recounted in his Tuesday speech.

The Tribune's main story on the speech was short on language from Obama's speech and focused a lot on the reaction to the speech rather than the speech itself. Again, it is about context, and newspapers only have so much room. Absent from much of the coverage is any mention of the religious choice of language, such as describing slavery as the country's "original sin."

What is interesting about this story, and I'm sure someone could do a closer analysis of this, is the subtle instances where sections of the news articles seem to reflect various parts of Obama's speech. Perhaps the second day story on this could be how Obama's speech may have changed the journalistic narrative behind the coverage of Obama's former church and pastor.

The rather short story in the Sun-Times on the speech is accompanied by a decent story on the average person's reaction to the speech. Rather than quoting lofting academic types on the long-term impact of the speech, the story gets the instant raw reaction from both supporters and naysayers:

"I thought he explained himself well," Loyola University senior Erica Fiero, 22, said at a graduation fair at the North Side campus.

"Making that comparison between his grandma and his pastor really brought home his message about unconditional love and his firsthand knowledge of these two worlds," the communications major said.

On the other side of town, Evan Oberlin, 19, a freshman at the University of Illinois Chicago on the Near West Side, gave Obama a failing grade for not vilifying Wright.

"I gave it an F," Oberlin said over coffee at the UIC Student Center East cafeteria. "I thought he would be condemning more."

A story on the speech that I thought was especially good is in my hometown paper The Indianapolis Star. Rather than simply getting the academic's perspective or the average person's perspective, Robert King talks to local ministers in Indianapolis on the challenges this community has when it comes to race and religion:

Go to many black churches around Indianapolis on any given Sunday, local pastors say, and there is a good chance you can hear some of the same critical views of America as those expressed by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor to presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Few will curse from the pulpit and shout that God should damn America for its various injustices, as Wright has done. But they say the crux of the message that America is still fraught with racism and social injustice is a common refrain.

"In my world, I interact with a lot of individuals who have strong misgivings about America," said the Rev. Charles Ware, a pastor and president of Crossroads Bible College on the Eastside. "That anger with oppression in American society is there. It is preached.

The comments collected in the story give great context to the issue of race and religion in Indianapolis. The story goes beyond the inflammatory sound bites that brought about Obama's Tuesday speech and educates a community on a very important issue. Obama's speech is great context for almost any local newspaper to send a reporter out to explore and report on the issue of race and religion.

Please respect our Commenting Policy