When elected officials promote BS about politics or world affairs or the state of the economy, it's a reporters responsibility to let readers know. (Not saying it happens often enough, but that is the expectation.) But what about when a pol says something religious that doesn't pass the smell rest? You get straight-faced reports like this coverage of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's battle to keep his job following his sordid spring:
Mr. Sanford vowed not to quit despite growing pressure from South Carolina lawmakers and Republican Party officials to resign or face impeachment. He said he intends to complete his term, not to hold on to power but to fight for conservative principles of governance.
"I feel absolutely committed to the cause, to what God wanted me to do with my life," he said in an interview. "I have got this blessing of being engaged in a fight for liberty, which is constantly being threatened."
I'd like to knock the reporters for not calling Sanford on delivering religious cliches and using God as his scandal-survival wingman. But instead I have to commend them. They did their job and left judgments to be made by readers or resigned for God.
At least in this case Sanford didn't pull an A-Rod and blame God. But coverage of Sanford's saga hints at one of the toughest things about religion reporting. It's also one of the elements I enjoyed the most: You're writing about the personal beliefs that shape society. And as I said recently, it's really hard to take at face-value anything that comes out of a politician's mouth.
The trouble is that when a politician says a new government program would cost $20 million when it would really cost $70 million, a reporter can identify the disparity while still maintaining the neutral tone expected of newspaper journalism. But when they say that they're on a mission from God to serve in government, despite disappearing to have a fling in South America, then it's tough for a newspaper reporter to say an individual, in this case Sanford, doesn't really believe that.
Reporters can, however, through the way stories are structured, remind readers to look at both a politician's rhetoric and their deeds.