How to write a bad story

Every reporter has his off days. I have to think that's what happened with this story, which ran on page 1 of Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union. Written by an award-winning religion reporter, Jeff Brumley, the piece seems to take an almost personal interest in disparaging evangelicals. It's kind of odd. Here's the headline:

Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt In fact, observers of Southern politics can't even remember a candidate.

Well, yes, it is very difficult to elect people to office before they become candidates for office. Now, I have a horrible memory so if you asked me to name a candidate in the most recent election, I'd have trouble. I think you want to have better data than "observer recall," particularly when there's actually only one observer in the story even asked to recall the data. Just give us some facts and figures. How many Muslims are there in the so-called "Bible Belt"? One recent religious self-identification survey says that there were 1.3 million Muslims throughout the country, or about .6% of the population. How many are in the South? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups? How does their candidacy rate compare to other religious groups throughout time? Give us some data.

Or, if you don't have data, how about you just paint all evangelicals as sub-literate yokels with irrational hatred in their heart? Oh you can do that? Great:

The smart money says a snowball has a better chance you-know-where than a Muslim has being elected to statewide or national office from Northeast Florida - or anywhere else in the Bible Belt.

If the recent hullabaloo surrounding Parvez Ahmed's appointment to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission didn't confirm that, maybe this does: Observers of Southern politics and religion can't recall a single Muslim candidate running for major office.

"I thought about it, and I couldn't come up with any names," said Ken Wald, a political science professor and expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida.

"Of all the places, the South is the least likely for that to happen," Wald said.

The reason: The region is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, "a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity."

That's how the story began. Yes, that was the lede. No, I don't know how the "smart money" or the "snowball" made it into the first sentence. Perhaps they give copyeditors, or editors in general, the weekends off at the Florida Times-Union. I don't know. But this was not written by a high school student. Brumley is actually a good reporter whose work we've praised before.

So why did he think painting evangelicals as members of a religion with "intellectual difficulties" was in any way okay? I do not know.

And just a small point of logic. That there has never been a Muslim candidate running for major office doesn't speak in any meaningful sense to the probability that one will be elected in the future. If thousands of Muslims had run for office and been defeated, that would be different.

The piece then goes on to say that the election of two Muslim representatives caused consternation among "conservatives nationwide." But the only substantiation of that claim is a Glenn Beck quote.

It's sort of a good primer in how not to write a religion story. It's all over the map, relies on too few actual conservative evangelicals, precisely no liberal evangelicals, and almost all the context is given by this Wald fellow, the one who believes evangelicals have intellectual problems. Another expert says that political opposition to the appointment of Parvez Ahmed, the man named in the lede, was nothing more than racism. Ahmed was the former chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR has its fans. It was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial involving Hamas funding.

The reporter allowed various sources to trash evangelicals but never found less biased sources or gave the smeared an opportunity to respond. It makes for a really bad story. I know this reporter can do better and I hope he does so in the future.

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