Reporting stuff we already know

duh duhThe Detroit News and Baltimore Sun recently produced two shockingly non-news worthy articles about the role or religion in this 2008 presidential election. First, the Sun's effort to explain that once again Catholics are swing voters in this election treads close to sounding like an opinion piece at times. Catholics concerned with issues such as abortion and pre-martial sex are said to adhere to "pelvic theology" while Catholics who do not make those issues as significant follow the more acceptable "social theology." Aside from the slanted terminology, which I should note are put-forth in quotes by the president of a Catholic Democratic group, the article just doesn't say anything new that couldn't have been said in any given election cycle:

Just a day after he was announced as Barack Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden was back in Delaware, taking his usual seat in the pews of St. Joseph on the Brandywine in the small community of Greenville.

That he would participate in a Roman Catholic Mass so soon after being added to the Democratic ticket was of little surprise. Biden once vowed that "the next Republican that tells me I'm not religious, I'm going to shove my rosary down their throat."

Similar passions lie behind the efforts of the Obama campaign and Democratic strategists this year to win over Catholic voters, considered by many to be a crucial constituency that could determine the next president. Emotions have grown heated, with Biden under attack from national Catholic groups for his views on abortion, and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin energizing many socially conservative voters.

The article's facts are frequently lack citations. For instance, when, where and to whom did Biden promise to impale someone's throat with a rosary? The article states without any support that part of the reason Biden was chosen was because of his Catholic faith. The article uses qualifiers "could" and "can" four times each. In other words, the Catholic vote is up for grabs once again and could determine the outcome of the election. The same could have been said about the 2004 and 2000 elections. Catholics could have voted Democratically in large numbers for the president. But they didn't.

The article frustrated me most in the following paragraph:

Social issues of concern to many religious voters had taken a back seat this year until McCain selected Palin, the governor of Alaska and a staunch abortion opponent, as his running mate. As the public learned biographical details, such as how Palin continued a pregnancy after learning the baby would be born with Down syndrome, the abortion issue has grown in prominence.

The author assumes that readers know that most Down syndrome babies are aborted. The implication is that abortion only became a big issue when the public found out that Palin did not abort her Down syndrome child. That's certainly true but by failing to highlight the fact that 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted the eradication of Down syndrome children in this country goes unsaid. Why should readers be allowed to assume the fact that when people find out they have Down syndrome children they are aborted? Is the statistic too shocking to be repeated to many times? Readers deserve a more thorough explanation for why allowing a Down syndrome child to come to term raises the issue of abortion.

The Detroit News takes a slightly different approach in writing about how "social issues may become secondary at" the polls. Yes, the word "may" is used in the headline. Would you ever see in the paper's sports section that the Indiana Pacers may finish ahead of the Detroit Pistons this year? I doubt it. That's too speculative. Why should matters of public policy and voter preferences be any different?

See this paragraph for an example of speculative news writing:

Values voters, whose religious beliefs often dictate socially conservative electoral decisions, have been especially prized by candidates since the votes were counted in 2004. But a week before the election, some of the assumptions about how they will vote in 2008 have changed, values voters and observers say. While evangelical Christians are committed to their values, they are unlikely to drive McCain into the Oval Office in the same way that they propelled President Bush, based on issues like gay marriage, abortion and nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Aren't there better things to put in news stories than speculative feelings that reflect the popular consensus (or the often-wrong "conventional wisdom")?

For some hard religion-political news from my neck of the woods, check out Spiritual Politics and its highlighting of the fact that polls show that evangelicals are supporting McCain 57-33 as opposed to the 77-22 support they threw Bush in 2004. With evangelicals accounting for 35% of my state's electorate, that vote could be critical in determining the state's outcome which is tied according to the most recent polls. Or maybe not. Polls are just a bit ahead of the popular consensus that reporters sometimes and unfortunately rely upon, but at least there is some hard data that can be tracked from poll to poll.

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