As an Evangelical in the media, I’m sympathetic to the struggle journalists have with reporting on our peculiar tradition. When simply defining what the term "Evangelical" means poses a challenge, it can be difficult to know how to report on shared beliefs within Evangelicalism, much less the on the more controversial sub-movements within the tradition. The BBC news magazine recently ran a feature on the Quiverfull movement, though, that had me taking notes on how to do it right. Here are a few Journalism 101 tips about reporting on religious trends that I gleaned from the article:
1. Explain the movement in terms its adherents would agree with. – The BBC provides some helpful background by mentioning the term "Quiverfull" comes from Psalm 127:
The psalm - where children are compared to arrows for war - is the inspiration for the Quiverfull movement.
"Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They shall not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate."
Christians in the movement believe in giving up all forms of contraception and accepting as many children as God gives, both as a sign of obedience to God and in a bid to ensure the future of the faith.
2. Explain why the movement is newsworthy. – Almost any genuine religious trend is worthy of coverage, but the average reader should be given some reason for caring enough to read the article. The BBC provides a helpful, succinct explanation:
In the US, Quiverfull families frequently reach up to a dozen children with the numbers of adherents in the tens of thousands. But now the movement is gaining popularity in other countries.
In the UK, where the average family size is 1.7 children, this makes couples who follow its teachings stand out.
3. Provide background on the movement in neutral language. – Consider how the BBC provides background on the movement's influences:
The movement is growing in the UK through informal social networks and the Christian homeschooling community. Doug Philips, a leading American Quiverfull figure, is behind the organisation Vision Forum, a major provider of home education materials.
Vicki and Phil were encouraged by the teachings of Nancy Campbell, a Tennessee-based preacher influential in the movement. Her ministry, Above Rubies, advocates motherhood as a woman's highest calling. Its magazine is distributed to more than 100 countries worldwide, with a circulation topping 160,000.
It’s hard to imagine that most media outlets in the U.S. wouldn’t be tempted to add an extra adjective—such as “conservative” or “patriarchial”—to modify Vision Forum and Above Rubies.
4. Provide balance by quoting critics familiar with the movement. – The article mentions that the movement is partially a “backlash against the growing acceptance of birth control and feminism.” It would have been perfectly acceptable for the BBC to quote a feminist group or a secular proponent of birth control to provide an alternative viewpoint. But instead the articles quote women who have left the movement:
One woman who tested her faith in Quiverfull to the limit is Vyckie Garrison, a mother of seven. Once a cornerstone of the Quiverfull movement in the US, she left in 2008. Her website No Longer Quivering is described as a "place for women escaping and recovering from spiritual abuse".
Because the critics are intimately familiar with Quiverfull beliefs, it provides a more balanced perspective on the movement than secular critics would have provided.
5. Explain the broader implications. – Rather than spending three paragraphs explaining the larger socio-political implications of the movement, the BBC lets their sources explain the potential ramifications:
Within the Quiverfull movement, having larger families is part of a broader plan.
"Mothers determine the destiny of the nation," Campbell says. "We're in a battle for the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. And our children are all part of that battle."
Campbell believes there are specific groups of people with high birth-rates that she is worried will soon outnumber Christians. "We are limiting our children. And then we are allowing other cultures to come into our nation who are having a lot more children than us.
"Gradually, down the line, the culture is going to change, without anyone doing anything except having children, or not having children," she says.
Again, we see the BBC trusting its readers to understand what is being said without feeling the need to connect-the-dots for them or resorting to clever metaphors (e.g., babies as arrows in the Culture War).
While no news article is without flaws, this one could serve as a model for how to report on controversial movements within larger faith traditions. The feature isn't flashy as make the reporting seem rather easy. But I suspect reaching such an unbiased tone took extensive editorial effort. The BBC deserves praise—a quiverfull of kudos—for both a fine article and for showing us all what solid reporting should look like.