Sex, lies and schnitzel

wiener-schnitzel02One of the journalism terms we use on this site is the "hook." Like it sounds, it's that thing in the lede of a story that snags reader/viewer/listener attention. There is so much news and information competing for attention that news consumers need a reason to stop and read or watch or listen to your story. If you want to catch their attention, a hook -- some new angle, fresh piece of information or area of common ground -- is the way to go.

This story -- about how confession varies among major religions -- has no hook. I have no idea why it ran now and not, well, 400 years ago. Here's the lede:

"Confession is good for the soul," says a Scottish proverb from the mid-1600s. Most religions would agree. Verses from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran speak of the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness from a God who is merciful.

With all of the many sin, confession and forgiveness angles in the news each and every day, it's a shame a story about a very interesting topic couldn't have a fresher lede.

But sometimes you have a hook -- a really, really good hook for discussing hot-button issues -- and no story. And yet that's exactly what happened this past week with the revelation that one of the inventors of the pill denounced his own invention. It's been all over the blogosphere and I have yet to find much of any mainstream media attention to this story. Here's a bit from the Guardian, which covered the story and its reaction in the Vatican:

Roman Catholic leaders have pounced on a "confession" by one of the inventors of the birth control pill who has said the contraceptive he helped create was responsible for a "demographic catastrophe". . . .

The assault began with a personal commentary in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard by 85-year-old Carl Djerassi. The Austrian chemist was one of three whose formulation of the synthetic progestogen Norethisterone marked a key step towards the earliest oral contraceptive pill.

Djerassi outlined the "horror scenario" that occurred because of the population imbalance, for which his invention was partly to blame. He said that in most of Europe there was now "no connection at all between sexuality and reproduction". He said: "This divide in Catholic Austria, a country which has on average 1.4 children per family, is now complete."

He described families who had decided against reproduction as "wanting to enjoy their schnitzels while leaving the rest of the world to get on with it".

The fall in the birth rate, he said, was an "epidemic" far worse - but given less attention - than obesity. . . .

The head of Austria's Catholics, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, told an interviewer that the Vatican had forecast 40 years ago that the pill would lead to a dramatic fall in the birth rate in the west. "Somebody above suspicion like Carl Djerassi ... is saying that each family has to produce three children to maintain population levels, but we're far away from that."

Schonborn told Austrian TV that when he first read Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical condemning artificial contraception he viewed it negatively as a "cold shower". But he said he had altered his views as, over time, it had proved "prophetic".

So the story goes out of its way to avoid neutral language in describing Djerassi's views. But at least they printed them! That's more than can be said of any American media outlet, near as I can tell.

Djerassi is a professor at Stanford and longtime resident of the United States. He was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Nixon for his work on The Pill. U.S. media tend to be a bit American-centric (just check out the Religious Newswriters Association list of top 10 stories of 2008) -- but just because this story broke in Austria is no reason to ignore it here. And no matter where Djerassi dropped his bombshell allegation or where he lives, how many millions of women here in the United States have used oral contraceptives and might be interested in something their creator has to say about its unintended consequences?

There's just no news justification for obscuring this story.

Remember a few months back when the media highlighted every story of every conservative or even right-leaning person who had decided to support then-Presidential nominee Barack Obama? Well, they did that because it makes for a great story. In the same way, when one of the inventors of oral contraception denounces its effects, that's what we call news. What should have happened is for journalists to run stories with just the news, then to run stories that use that hook to explore more substantive issues. Demographic issues in Europe and the rest of the world, the change in the relationship between sex and procreation, the unintended consequences of inventions, etc.

There are many interesting places to go with this story. But it's kind of hard to go anywhere when we don't even get the initial news.

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