Contrary to popular belief, the mainstream press really isn't very effective when it comes to telling individual citizens what to think. However, as the old saying goes, the leaders of the mainstream news media (ditto for Hollywood) are much more effective when it comes to telling the American population, as a whole, what subjects to think ABOUT.
Some trends and events jump straight into the headlines, while others do not. Most reporters immediately grasp the political implications of events, facts, history and trends, for example. The religious implications? Uh, not so much. That's the message your GetReligionistas have been trumpeting for almost a decade.
Thus, we tend to feel a surge of encouragement when major news organizations write about an important topic and include the religious element of the story, especially when it makes it into the lede.
Take, for example, that Los Angeles Times story the other day about a shocking massacre that may or may not have taken place in North Korea. Here's the top of the report:
North Korea staged gruesome public executions of 80 people this month, some for offenses as minor as watching South Korean entertainment videos or being found in possession of a Bible, a South Korean newspaper reported Monday.
The daily JoongAng Ilbo attributed the mass executions to a single, unidentified source, but at least one other news agency, run by North Korean defectors, reported hearing rumors of the killings in seven cities across the reclusive country.
Authorities in Wonsan, a port on North Korea's eastern coast that is being transformed into a resort in hopes of attracting foreign investment to the impoverished country, gathered more than 10,000 residents in a stadium and forced them to watch the firing-squad executions, the newspaper reported. The condemned were lashed to poles, hooded, then sprayed with machine-gun fire, JoongAng Ilbo quoted its source, who reportedly is familiar with North Korean internal affairs and recently returned from the country.
"I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were so riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterwards," the source was quoted as saying.
There is nothing new, of course, about North Korea being the subject of a report about the persecution of Christians and/or other religious minorities.
This fiercely secular state -- unless one wants to say that worship of the regime has become a formal religion -- shows up at the top of all lists (click here for a key U.S. government source) of nations that crush essential human rights, such as religious liberty. As the story notes, this alleged event stands out because it would be the "most brutal step known to have been taken" by Kim Jong Un, 30, only two years after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
So it was important that the religion element went into the lede. Naturally, I read the rest of the story with great anticipation, seeking more information.
Anyone want to guess the degree to which the professionals in the Los Angeles Times team -- using information drawn from a variety of news sources -- followed up on that very symbolic religious detail in the lede?
Let's just say that the entertainment elements of the story did receive detailed attention.
In August, Kim was reported to have ordered the executions of a dozen entertainers from the Unhasu Orchestra and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band, including ex-girlfriend Hyon Song Wol. Chosun Ilbo, another leading South Korean daily, said the troupe members reportedly filmed themselves having sex and sold the videos on the black market to earn money.
Monday's report said a South Korean official with business in the North had been told by North Korean authorities that an investigation into the Unhasu affair suggested Kim's wife had been involved in similar prohibited activities. The source suggested that the entertainers were executed to prevent disparaging accounts from circulating about the first lady's behavior.
Meanwhile, the following is as close as readers get to additional information on the religion angle:
None of those executed on Nov. 3 had been accused of capital crimes, which under North Korean law include sedition, treason and terrorism, the newspaper said. But it added that public executions are often carried out as a way of discouraging interest in what the regime considers corrupting foreign influence, which can include using a cellphone, religious proselytizing or viewing pornography.
"The regime is obviously afraid of potential changes in people's mind-sets and is preemptively trying to scare people off," said an official of the defector-run North Korea Intellectual Solidarity website, Agence France-Presse reported.
Religious "proselytizing," which in North Korea would include any attempts at education or evangelism, is one thing. Merely owning a Bible is another.
Let me stress that the political angle of this story is important.
The entertainment angle of this story, such as it is, deserved attention and coverage.
But the religion angle was also important, since religious liberty is a key human right addressed in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This even includes (Article 18) the freedom for individuals to covert from one religion to another.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
So, it was good that a religious detail made it into the lede on this important story. If it's in the lede, perhaps subject deserves coverage in the story?