Believe me, I understand the difficulty of writing about a complex academic study within the confines of a normal-sized daily newspaper or wire service story. Researchers spend months or even years examining a topic. They produce a thick report on their findings. Then a university PR office whips up an important-sounding press release and sends it out.
What's a reporter to do? Take time in a frenzied newsroom to understand the big words in the study report? Or run with the press release and produce a "news story" with a bunch of vague generalizations with no specific details to back them up?
The above scenario falls under the category of hypothetically speaking. I have no way of knowing if it applies to a Birmingham News story that ran this past weekend with the headline Bible Belt may keep reins on accounting fraud, study says.
What I do know about the Birmingham story -- a version of which was picked up and distributed nationally by Religion News Service -- is this: I wouldn't bet the (meager) savings in my 401(k) retirement account on the claims made in this 475-word story.
Here's the top of the report:
Companies in Alabama and other Bible Belt states may do a better job of thumping accounting fraud than those in other states, a study indicates.
Research by Mays Business School at Texas A&M University found that companies headquartered in counties with high levels of churchgoing are less likely to practice aggressive financial reporting.
The study conducted by accounting faculty members Sean McQuire, Thomas Omer and Nathan Sharp also found that small and medium-sized firms tend to use religion as a self-regulating mechanism in the absence of more formal external monitoring.
Apparently, the idea is that religion contributes to a higher level of business integrity and ethics. But the story never connects those dots, except for noting that the researchers -- in a way never explained -- compared Gallup surveys on religiosity with shareholder lawsuits related to accounting malfeasance.
Also, the article never specifies what area is covered by the Bible Belt -- an ambiguous geographic region that doesn't exactly show up on U.S. maps.
More from the story:
Sharp, in an interview Friday, said the study is more a measure of an overall accounting approach among multiple firms of various sizes in the Bible Belt and can't predict mega frauds such as those at Birmingham-based HealthSouth Corp.; Clinton, Miss.-based WorldCom and Houston-based Enron Corp. -- all companies in Bible Belt states.
"We would view them more as anomalies," Sharp said. "What we focused on was smaller, systemic aggressive accounting occurring as almost a part of doing business."
Sharp said the study also does not account for how some people use religion itself to defraud others.
Instead, the study zeroed in on how companies in areas of high levels of religion approached accounting.
"We can't predict those one-off cases," he said. "On average, when you hold everything constant, accounting practices are less aggressive in areas with high religiosity."
OK, do we all understand now?
Even a few specific examples of companies -- in the Bible Belt and beyond -- reviewed by the researchers and how they fared might provide a bit of needed context.
At the same time, it would be helpful to know if extenuating factors were considered; for example, the types of companies that might be headquartered in the Bible Belt as opposed to New York or San Francisco. In other words, did researchers really compare apples, or could this be an apples-and-oranges situation?
Maybe there really is a newsworthy story in this study. However, it's impossible to tell based on this report.
The headline grabs your attention, yes. But the story itself fall short.