Mysterious deluge of unreported Catholics

I'm on a few of those neighborhood list-servs. One of them is for area parents. One of the members is a local reporter and she asks for interviews with folks for various stories she's working on. Well, one of her recent stories was related to the Newtown massacre. Had any parents, she wanted to know, removed toy guns from their home in response to the Sandy Hook massacre? Some time later, she asked again. And again. One mother responded that the reporter should "give up" trying to force a story that wasn't there.

Now, as someone who has used social media to find sources for stories I'm working on, I've given some thought to this. I think the best way to handle such searches for sources is to not constrain them too much to your particular idea of what the story should be. So here's a great example of how to do it, from the Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein:

Discussing Matthew Warren suicide at your church service? Bible study group? I'd love to hear:

In general, you want to keep the query as broad as possible so you don't end up with a story where you're forcing a few weak anecdotes into a preconceived hook that may or may not be valid.

Which brings us to this NBC News story  headlined "'It was a sign': Lapsed Catholics lured back by Pope Francis." Now that reporters have a pope they like, instead of the last few, whom they clearly didn't like, we'll probably see a lot of coverage like this. I sort of imagine it all began with a social media request.

It begins:

Twenty million Americans consider themselves lapsed Catholics, but Pope Francis is convincing many to test the holy waters again with his bold gestures and common touch.

After years of disenchantment with the church's hierarchy and teachings, former members of the flock say they are willing to give the Vatican a second chance under new leadership.

So of these 20 million, how many other than the three anecdotes in this story are we talking about? Well, it will not surprise you that it's "unknown."

What a trend piece!

We have a Dallas Baby Boomer Latina who generally drifted away from the Catholic Church after a divorce and such and switched to an evangelical church three years ago and recently started visiting Catholic Masses again.

We have a priest who says some people told him they're coming back because of Pope Francis.

The article says that church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, birth control and "treatment" of women are the reason people have left the Catholic Church. Then it admits that Pope Francis "hasn't given any hint of radical change on those issues."

But the president of a website for returning Catholics says traffic is way up.

Anyway, here's a sample anecdote:

Brian O'Neill, 48, an Irish-American cop from Washington State, went to Catholic elementary school and a Jesuit high school but hasn't practiced since graduating from a secular college. He says that could change soon.

The Vatican's stance on social issues, along with the gilded lifestyle of some higher-ups previously drove O'Neill away. Francis' embrace of the poor and his background as a service-minded Jesuit might bring the father of two back.

"I was shocked and amazed when he started doing those things -- you know, 'No Popemobile for me,'" said O'Neill, who wrote a column for his local newspaper about possibly returning to Catholicism.

He said that while Francis' views on church teachings might still be far from his own, his election heralds change.

"When the church says that's the guy we're going to put on St. Peter's throne, that says enough about where the church wants to go," O'Neill said. "Will I go back? I'm planning on it -- if I can find a good service."

But then we hear from a 70-year-old Unitarian who is totally not returning to Catholicism since Pope Francis isn't going to change church teaching on birth control or homosexuality.

I mean, I love the idea for the story -- but unless you want major tyranny by anecdote, it's worth it to report this a little better. One teacher who might come back, one cop who couldn't sound less committed to coming back and a Unitarian who is not coming back do not make for the strongest story.

Deluge image via Shutterstock.

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