In my journalism-education day job, I grade lots and lots of papers -- including many news stories written by student journalists. It's hard work and somebody needs to do it, because it's important for journalists to learn the basics in terms of grammar and Associated Press style so that they can move on to writing more complex stories in a manner that is as accurate and balanced as possible. One of the old-school rules stressed here at the Washington Journalism Center is that saying that "God is in the details." Of course, the devil is in the details, too, but that almost goes without saying.
The point is that journalists are supposed to give readers as much specific information as possible through careful reporting and the use of clear attributions. Name your sources. Quote the specifics, whenever possible. Try to avoid vague labels. After all, with a few attributed facts, readers can be given information with which to make their own judgments.
Thus, one of the words I circle most often with my purple pen -- red is too old-fashioned, for some contemporary students -- is the word "many."
You know, "many" -- as in "many people are allegedly doing what my story claims they are doing, but I don't have any specific information to give you to demonstrate that fact, so I'll just say 'many' and move on."
Washington (CNN) -– There is a split in American pews over gun control. In the weeks since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, many Christians are wrestling with gun control, an issue they once held as a sacred, untouchable right.
For years gun control was championed by Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, but now many evangelicals are joining the growing choir of Americans asking what can be done.
“Maybe the most interesting meeting we had was with the interfaith group,” Vice President Joe Biden told reporters after meeting with a wide range of interest groups on guns. Biden was tasked by President Barack Obama to head up a task force to provide recommendations to reduce gun violence.
Biden said he was surprised to see a new face at the table: “evangelical groups, who generally have been reluctant to engage in this, because it's been viewed as maybe an attack on cultural norms relating to rural communities and gun ownership.”
Newtown could mark a tipping point on gun control for evangelicals.
So we have the "many" syndrome, at least twice, followed by the classic "could mark" language to soften the fact claim on which the story is based. Also, I don't know many conservative Christians who would claim that the gun issue rests on a "sacred" right, as opposed to a constitutional right. Then again, I am rather pro-gun control, so the odds are good that I don't hang out with the right theological crowd.
Also, allow me to note that when discussing trends among conservative evangelical Protestants, Biden would not be one of my go-to voices to add authority to my fact claims. Just sayin'.
So what does this story offer in terms of authority, to back up that crucial "many" language in the lede about religious groups changing their views on guns? To be specific, what is the authority for the claim about evangelical Protestants?
If you said, "Quotes from one evangelical pastor, drawn from an opinion piece written FOR CNN," then you should win some kind of prize. You can read that quote for yourself.
The story does offer some poll numbers that point to a religious divide on this issue. However, I kept wondering what, precisely, one needed to believe in order to be pro- or anti-gun control.
There are, you know, quite a few different proposals out there and some people support some of these proposals and reject one or more of the others. I know people who are all over the map on this issue, even if they could be grouped -- like me -- into the pro-gun control camp. (This recent cover story in The Atlantic remains a great starting point for discussions.)
Here is the key poll information in this particular CNN report:
“Most religious groups actually line up in support of stricter gun control laws,” said pollster Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. “The group that really stands out is white evangelical Protestants as the group most strongly opposed to stricter gun control laws," he said.
An August survey by the research institute found about 60% of Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans support stricter gun control laws, compared to just 35% of white evangelical Protestants and 42% of white mainline Protestants. That survey came after the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater but before the shooting in the Connecticut elementary school.
Jones said culture and geography also played a role in the differences among groups.
The research institute found that white evangelicals are also the most likely religious denomination to own guns. Many live in southern and rural areas where guns are a way of life.
The story does offer a voice on the theological left describing what is claimed -- with no back-up information to prove this is the case -- to be a conservative scriptural basis for pro-gun views. The former Barack Obama campaign adviser shoots this point of view down rather easily, which is no surprise.
The story also offers one evangelical leader who offers a more complex view of gun control than the norm. But notice that this evangelical leader does not actually reject any specific gun-control concepts or legislation. Also notice the nice grammatical error, with the Family Research Council (singular), then being quoted as a "they" (plural). That's another purple-pen special. But, I digress.
The focus cannot be on guns alone for many Christians, but also on the environment that gives rise to this type of violence, according to the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group. They said the focus should not only be on the guns themselves, but also on the environment that gives rise to this type of violence.
"When you have 40% of America's children being born into homes without fathers, we shouldn't be surprised to see this rise in violence. You cannot look at one aspect of this and say that it's simply because we don't have a ban on assault weapons," said the council's president, Tony Perkins.
"I'm not saying there is not merit to have a discussion about gun ownership,” Perkins said. “I do believe we have a Second Amendment right and that a law abiding citizen should have the right to protect themselves. What we are saying here at the Family Research Council is when we have a discussion about the violence that is taking place here in our nation, we cannot overlook the role that the family plays in this environment."
Now, if Perkins said the discussion cannot be on gun control "alone" -- this is a paraphrase quote -- then bully for him (from my point of view). In these quotes, Perkins is actually not taking a stand one way or the other on gun-control specifics. Is he one of the "many" who are against gun control of the "many" who are said to be changing their minds?
Yes, how would we know?
That's a problem in a news story. God is in the details.