One of the first tasks that young journalists face when they arrive at a mainstream journalism internship is having to write a bunch of those short news stories that newsroom folks call "briefs." What usually happens is that an editor hands you a stack of press releases and says, "Go through these and see if there are any important stories in there. Everything else, just pick out the facts and write me up some three or four paragraph briefs."
You can see that the important words are "just pick out the facts." The problem is that young reporters often have trouble sifting the facts out of the PR materials, the "spin" to use the current Beltway term.
Let's say that the press release says something like this: "Urging the White House to press for real change on healing God's creation, a diverse interfaith coalition of religious leaders gathered in the Capitol Hilton today and called for a global ban on styrofoam cups." The story then notes that the coalition includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.
Now, a veteran reporter gazes at this piece of dead tree pulp and recognizes all of the names as staff members at one or two progressive think tanks, a nearby "emerging" evangelical congregation and the nearest office of the World Council of Churches. In one sense, there is diversity in the list and in another sense if is a collection of, as journalists like to put it, the "usual suspects." But it is hard for a young journalist to recognize this.
So why do I bring this up? Well, the same week that the Associated Press took a pass on covering the national meetings of America's largest non-Catholic flock -- that would be the Southern Baptist Convention -- it also put out the following little story, which I offer here in its entirety.
As it turned out, this SBC meeting approved -- among other newsworthy actions -- an unusual and rather blunt statement on corporate responsibility for the Gulf of Mexico spill. Here's my Scripps Howard column on the background of that effort.
Meanwhile, under a headline that said, "Evangelical leaders: Gulf oil spill raises moral issues," the longest version of the AP mini-report that I could find said this:
Leaders of a group that encourages evangelical Christians to care for the environment say the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico raises moral challenges for the country.
The Revs. Jim Ball and Mitchell Hescox, leaders of the Evangelical Environmental Network, are visiting southern Louisiana to pray with people who have lost jobs because of the spill. Joining them is the Rev. Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Ball says they took a boat ride off the coast Thursday and were saddened by sights of oil-spattered marshes where birds were nesting.
He says the oil spill is a stain on the nation's stewardship of God's creation, and should inspire people of faith to embrace cleaner energy sources. Ball says how the nation responds to the disaster is a matter of values.
That's it. You can find that same material several places online, or, at least, you could at the end of last week.
Strange, strange. Now here is my question: What in the world IS this story? For example, since I know quite a few evangelical people, I guess that I should know who these people are -- but I don't.
Is this an actual news report from the Gulf that somehow was gutted? Is it a rewritten press release, perhaps one that came in as an email from the stricken region? If so, why isn't it an AP news brief of some kind? Where are the direct quotes taken from interviews? I am genuinely confused.