Remember Harold Camping, the man who predicted that many would be raptured on May 21? Camping (who has wrongly predicted these kinds of events before), set a prediction for the end of the world for October 21.
Part of me fears that just by writing on this, I'm reminding reporters of an easy story to pursue this week, since there is a clear date to pounce on. Harold Camping stories are kind of made for the media. The question is whether any reporters will find truly new and compelling angles.
After we saw round one of Harold Camping, I told a religion reporter to cross off any events on her calendar this week. "You might as well plan to be stuck at your computer and on the phone that October week because you know it's going to be Harold Camping all over again," I said. But who knows? Perhaps something else will happen this week that will keep reporters busy?
Besides, people are less likely to consider Camping's claims this time around because he was wrong earlier this year. Many of the May reports ignored the May 21/October 21 delineation, simply suggesting that May 21 was the end of the world. It was a silly story that didn't need fact checking, apparently.
For religion reporters, stories of people predicting a rapture or the end of the world is kind of old news. New York magazine offers a lengthy feature recapturing the hysteria, including how the media has covered the May prediction.
Over the course of years of herculean effort, Camping and his listeners had spread his—and His—word far and wide: $100 million raised to finance 5,000 billboards across the U.S. and 30 countries; millions of copies of free books and pamphlets distributed; 24-hour Bible instruction translated into 75 languages, available to millions via Family Radio’s network of radio stations and its website. Added to this, the extraordinary media attention: from the New York Times to the BBC to Al-Jazeera to the Kenya Daily Nation. Every day as May 21 approached, hundreds of stories ran in media outlets around the world—an informational saturation “only God could have orchestrated,” as Camping noted.
Author Dan P. Lee notes that the lead-up to May 21 was one of the most successful worldwide media campaigns in recent history, but media outlets have paid less attention this time, at least so far.
Despite a world now days away from annihilation, the media has largely ignored Camping’s October 21 prediction. There is none of the joking and condescension, the gleeful alarm, the attempts to tie loose strands of human despair into a story of Camping-induced hysteria.
People love talking about heaven, hell, end-of-the-world issues and Harold Camping offers reporters an individual with some sort of identifiable following. One of my theories for why the initial story did well in May was because it came on a weekend, when people could have parties and talk about it on Facebook on a Saturday. If it was predicted for a Tuesday, people probably would have been thinking and talking about lots of other things. Also, we probably wouldn't have seen the same level of interest if it had fallen on the same weekend as Kate Middleton's wedding or Hurricane Irene. Timing is everything.
It's worth considering whether covering Camping lends a level of legitimacy when most Christians believe something along the lines of "no one knows the hour" for Jesus' return. It's nice to see a religion story thrive on the web, but it's unfortunate when it devolves into jest and puns.
Perhaps there is room for a few follow-up stories, especially talking with people who gave time and money to Camping's theories. I'm also curious to see what kind of money is being poured into a campaign, if there is one that is comparable to the one in May. Part of me wishes the media would agree to let just a few outlets pursue the story and agree not to pursue a herd mentality.
Will we see the same level of coverage that we did last time? Let's hope not.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.