In a twist, vague evangelicals all oppose immigration reform

Stop me if I sound like a broken record.

Once or twice or maybe even three times, I've complained about major media reporting that the nation's evangelicals — all acting in lockstep — have jumped on an immigration reform bandwagon.

My concern about these stories has been purely journalistic: a lack of adequate reporting and sourcing to back up broad generalizations about a vaguely defined group of Christians.

For a twist, how about we consider a story from the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City daily newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

In GetReligion-esque fashion, the Deseret News takes issue with media coverage of evangelicals and immigration. Let's start at the top:

It's been in the headlines for months.

"Evangelicals push Congress for immigration changes."

"Among U.S. evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform."

"Obama's immigration plan encourages evangelicals."

Outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Reuters and numerous others have written more or less the same story on the subject.

The problem is that it's not exactly true. Evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform, which is commonly taken to mean a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and, simultaneously, measures for improved enforcement of immigration law.

Since our focus is journalism, anyone see a problem with that lede?

My first problem is a personal one. In other words, I'll leave open the possibility that my opinion could be wrong. But if I were the editor, I'd suggest the reporter focus less on other media and more on reporting the actual facts. Do some digging, and write a news story on what's happening with evangelicals and immigration. Save the media weeping and gnashing of teeth for GetReligion.

My second problem is the same one I've had with previous reports by CNN, the Tampa Bay Times and The Dallas Morning News: Blanket statements about evangelicals with no named attribution. Who says evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform? How do you know this? These are basic, Journalism 101 kinds of questions.

The story continues:

Yes, scores of leaders, including prominent conservatives from the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family, have signed on to such coalitions as the Evangelical Immigration Table, Christian Churches Together and G92 — all of which advocate for comprehensive reform.

But among the rank and file, the attitude is something closer to "not so fast."

Again, according to whom?

Keep reading, and to its credit, the Deseret News quotes some folks on both sides of the issue. But like the earlier reports that pursued an opposite thesis, I'm left wanting more insight and information to back up the claims made.

More from the story:

Allan Wall, an Oklahoma schoolteacher and practicing evangelical who writes about immigration, put it this way: "Despite the stereotype of some kind of monolithic army of evangelical zombies being controlled by their leaders, in reality it's a rather fractious bunch."

Data appear to support Wall's view. A June 2012 Pew Forum survey found that evangelicals prioritize "better border security" over "creating a path to citizenship" by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1. Among the American public in general, the ratio is 1 to 1.

"Appear" can be a dangerous verb in a news story, and a survey's findings can differ depending on who's doing the analyzing. What was it Mark Twain said about "lies, damn lies and statistics?"

In a comment on my previous post, GetReligion reader Matthew Soerens takes issue with the Deseret News' interpretation:

The Pew survey they reference ... does not support their conclusion that evangelicals “in the pews” disagree with increasingly outspoken evangelical leaders: that survey found 54% support a path to citizenship, which is a majority even if not a dramatic majority. They also fail to mention that Pew’s survey was only of white, non-Hispanic evangelicals, which is a critical detail (in my experience, the non-white evangelical, whom Pew estimates are about 20% of all American evangelicals, are often a major reason that leaders feel the impetus to speak out, in addition to their reading of Scripture).

I greatly appreciate Get Religion’s valiant efforts to keep religion writers honest and help them to understand the many nuances of religious issues which often get oversimplified. It’s a valuable service.

That last part of Matthew's comment doesn't really relate to this post. But hey, I couldn't resist sharing it.

So ... do most evangelicals support immigration reform? Or do most evangelicals oppose it? We'll keep watching for mainstream media coverage that hits the mark.

Stay tuned.

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