Pod people: What's a religion 'story,' anyway?

We had a lively discussion the other day (click here to go to the comments) about the post in which I offered my take on the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll that names the top religion news stories -- note, "stories" -- of the previous year. Several ideas emerged from that discussion.

First of all, it's hard work to create this kind of list and, well, mistakes are inevitable. In this case, "mistakes" equal omissions. In the earlier post I noted, in particular, the missing story of the massacre at the Sayidat al-Nejat Catholic Cathedral in Bagdad. This is a story that, in hindsight, looms larger and larger. I heard from other religion-beat veterans who said that was an obvious hole in the poll's list of events.

At the same time, the poll was posted BEFORE the series of actions in Congress that led to the repeal of the "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy that prevented gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military. That's another story that has obvious religions implications, especially for military chaplains. However, the ballot for the RNA poll was finished before that happened. How do you get a poll out for use by professionals a week or so ahead of Jan. 1 and cover events that have not happened yet? That's a tough one.

Since writing that GetReligion post, let alone my own Scripps Howard column about the poll, I have heard from other people noting prominent stories that were at least as important as -- to cite an example that was on the ballot, but didn't make the top 10 -- this one:

Hinduism gains more of the spotlight through the book "Eat, Pray, Love" and word of star Julia Roberts' conversion to it. At least one prominent conservative Protestant leader gains attention criticizing yoga.

For example, what about the clashes between the Vatican and the government of China over who is and who is not a Catholic bishop? That even led to several Vatican-approved bishops being rounded up by government forces and then taken, against their will, to meetings intended to create what the great Catholic-beat specialist John L. Allen, Jr., described as a "rump bishops' conference and an assembly of Catholics calculated to preserve state control." By the way, back up a few words and click that link to see his list of the year's top under-reported Catholic stories.

What about the announcement of Rome's plan, after years of appeals from some traditionalists in the Church of England, to smooth the way for Anglicans who want to form a network of parishes that are loyal to Rome, while maintaining some links to Anglican worship and tradition? That was a pretty big story. As one reader put it, in a private email, "If only Julia Roberts was an Anglican traditionalist."

But the subject that interested me the most was more theoretical.

Is a religion-news story a single event, or can the concept of an "event" or news "story" be broadened in this kind of poll, so that several stories that are related, or linked to the same major institution, are combined into one item? Thus, this enlarged "story" or "event" has more impact in the poll. Take, for example, this one:

The U.S. Supreme Court convenes for the first time ever without a Protestant in its number (6 Catholics and 3 Jews). The court hears arguments in the case of the Kansas church that loudly protests at funerals of servicemen; the decision will come this spring. The Court earlier allows a cross to remain at least temporarily on National Park land in the Mojave Desert, but then the cross is stolen.

Now is that one event/story, or is it really three? This kind of clustering occurs all through the RNA ballot.

I can totally sympathize with this "cluster" trend. Really.

Here's another one. If Present Barack Obama gives five speeches on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, is that one event or one "trend"? The later will obviously place higher in poll voting.

Or how do you handle a campaign year in which there are 10 or 20 different events that are clearly linked to religious and moral issues? Does every event place on its own? Or how about the Koran burning events and the mosque near Ground Zero? Were those events related? Is that the same "news story"? The RNA crew said "yes" this year and I would find it hard to argue against that point of view.

At the same time, I think some of the "cluster" items -- like that Supreme Court item -- stretched this concept too far. Where is the line that was crossed? I'm not sure. Maybe it's like the high court's definition of obscenity?

Anyway, all of this -- as you can tell by the logo at the logo in this post -- ended up in the first GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast of the year. Click here to listen or download that. You are also supposed to be able to find us at iTunes, but for some reason new episodes are failing to load there. You can search for "GetReligion" and try to subscribe. Please try, since iTunes is a rather important part of the podcasting world.

In the end, what do you think about these struggles in picking events for the RNA poll or defining what is a "religion-news story" in the first place? Chime in. Again.

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