New twists in Jahi McMath case -- but same old generic religion in media coverage

Jahi McMath -- the teenage girl from California whose family is fighting to keep her alive against a hospital's brain-death diagnosis -- is back in the headlines.  Yet, even as Jahi's family says she is showing new signs of brain activity,  there is little sign that mainstream journalists feel the need to exercise their brains when describing the family's faith. Instead, they continue to keep the faith angle as generic as possible, chalking up the persistence of the teen's family to vague "religious grounds."

The San Jose Mercury News begins its story on the latest developments in the McMath case by highlighting the case's novelty:

OAKLAND -- Her attorney calls her "Patient No. 1," a groundbreaking test of widely accepted standards defining brain death as a form of irreversible mortality. Indeed, as far as brain-dead patients go, Jahi McMath has entered uncharted territory.
Most families, according to medical experts, come to terms with a medical diagnosis of brain death within days. Loved ones gather to say goodbye as machines are shut off, organ donation decisions are made, funeral services planned.
Not so for Jahi, who would have celebrated her 14th birthday on Friday. Almost 11 months after she was first declared brain dead and  became the subject of a national debate, the Oakland 13-year-old remains on machines -- a case unlike any recorded in the United States since the medical establishment first recognized brain death as a form of death in the past century, experts said. ...
Jahi's doctors say original tests performed on the girl were accurate but contend that, over time, the swelling in her brain has receded, and tests now show different results. Videos released by Dolan also show her limbs moving when her mother commands her to move.

The story doesn't link to the videos. Here is one in which Jahi appears to kick her foot at her mother's prompt.

The Mercury-News continues:

The tests, according to the doctors' declarations, show Jahi's brain did not liquefy, which is what regularly happens to brain-dead patients within weeks. Her skin, according to [family attorney Christopher] Dolan, remains warm and soft. 

In addition to quoting the family's attorney, the story quotes various experts. The sources seem to have been chosen with care, and the reporter has made a good effort to provide balance. All in all, it's a fine report, save for this factoid that dangles in the air like an unanswered question -- or, to put it in GetReligion terms, a religion ghost

Since January, Jahi has been in New Jersey, where a state law allows families to reject a brain-death diagnosis on religious grounds. But the family says they want to bring her home to her native Oakland.

What, pray tell, are these "religious grounds"? The Mercury News gives no indication, and they're not alone. Reuters used the same vague language when covering the story. Why are journalists omitting giving specific information about the family's faith, when their faith is the very reason they're rejecting Jahi's brain-death diagnosis?

This media avoidance of the religion angle in the McMath case is not new. Tamie Ross observed in this space last January that, despite the family's using social media to request prayers for their daughter and express their hopes for a miracle, no news outlet offered information as to where the family worshiped. 

Could it be that the McMath family really only has some vague, generalized, nonspecific religion?

No -- at least, not according to The New York Times, whose San Francisco bureau chief, Norimitsu Onishi, appears to be the only reporter during the whole 11-month case to have asked Jahi's mother specifics about her faith. Onishi paid due attention to the religion angle when covering the story back in January, providing the needed depth missing from the rest of the media's reports:

Nailah Winkfield, the girl’s mother, said she was hopeful that Friday’s agreement would facilitate her daughter’s move.
“I believe in God, and I believe that if he wanted her dead, he would have taken her already,” Ms. Winkfield, a Baptist, said by phone. “Her heart is beating, her blood is flowing. She moves when I go near her and talk to her. That’s not a dead person.”
Jahi was admitted to Children’s Hospital last month, and underwent three surgical procedures that included removing her tonsils and adenoids. She subsequently “suffered serious complications” that resulted in her death, according to court documents submitted by the hospital. The family’s lawyer said in a court filing that Jahi suffered “large blood loss and, as a result, she suffered a heart attack and a loss of oxygen to her brain.”
The hospital determined two days later that the girl was legally dead, and later sought to remove the ventilator. The family objected, asserting that the heartbeat was proof that she remained alive. In a document filed in Federal Court, the family’s lawyer stated that the girl’s parents are “Christians with firm religious beliefs that as long as the heart is beating, Jahi is alive.”

Got that, media folk? Jahi's mother's Baptist faith -- and her understanding of what it requires -- forms the foundation of her religious grounds for fighting to keep her daughter on life support. It also tells us something about her faith in the power of prayer, which comes through in a recent post she made on Facebook:

 Thank you all for your donations, kind words of encouragement and PRAYER. Please keep praying for Jahi that is the most important thing you could ever give her. I believe more than anything it is the positive thoughts and faithful prayers that have been keeping her going. We will pray for you all as well, thank you.

Image via Keep Jahi McMath on Life Support.

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