I'm thrilled when our readers send us story suggestions from papers we might not normally see. Search engines are a wonderful invention, but we still miss articles that might be wonderful examples of factual, fair religion coverage or ones that most clearly are not.
So a hat tip to reader Jason for sending us a story from the Topeka Capital Journal about sex text access restriction in a Topeka library. It is a wonderful example--of how not to write about religion.
I know that writer's don't always have a say about headlines, but the subhead on this one should be up for a prize for worst headline of 2009 (yes, I know the year has just started, but baby it's a contender). At least it's consistent with the rest of the story, creating a lovely "say what?" atmosphere for the reader.
Things start becoming foggy right around the opening sentence:
Members of Topeka Bible Church are encouraged to volunteer and serve the community.
That helps explain why four current or former church members are on the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library board of trustees, which has generated criticism recently for restricting minors' access to four sex-related books.
It's possible that a desire to serve Topeka motivated the board members--it's also possible that they were motivated by something else entirely.
We don't know, because writer Bush apparently either didn't ask or didn't include the answer to this very interesting question. The one quote she has from someone who voted to "restrict" minor's access to "Sex for Busy People" and three other books sounds like it was written by either someone in p.r. or a lawyer. Bush really doesn't even explain what "restriction" is.
This is a controversy with potential legal implications. It's not simply another meeting of the library board. If the writer wanted to convey the idea that faith and affiliation drove votes, she should have talked to a diverse group of board members-and asked the members who voted against the restriction about whether their faith affected their vote. If she wanted to write solely about politics, she could have crafted another lede and avoid the whole motivation question entirely.
Bush has a really good, to the point quote from Topeka Bible minister Doug Will near the top of the story--but it's a steep slope into confusion after that.
Buried deep is a quote from an anti-restriction board member in which (finally!!!) somebody makes the accusation that seems to drive the story.
Onstott Storey said she sees the restrictions as a "black eye on the community."
"I have no quarrel with anyone's religion," she said. "The problem that has occurred here is that four people on this board attend the same congregation as Mrs. Borchers. From the vote, it is clear they all come from the same perspective, which is not representative of the whole community."
OK, let's get real. It's possible that some board members did not want to talk about a matter of ongoing controversy. As often happens, the people who oppose a decision are more vocal than the "winners." But this article is such a motley assortment of speculation, beat reporting and religious inference that it just adds to the debate, rather than helping to clarify it.
That being said, you'll be glad that "books continue to be placed on the shelves and things are moving forward at the library." Were you worried, gentle reader? I know I was.
Picture of an old library shelf is used under a Wikimedia Commons license