One of the most interesting questions my students ask me all the time can be stated like this: In an age of short stories and even shorter attention spans, how do I know how much information is enough when I'm dealing with a complicated topic?
You can see the relevance to the religion beat, right? How do you know how much the average reader actually knows about a given world religion (think Islam) or even, in an American context, details about different forms of Judaism or Christianity? How do you know when you need to stop and spend a few precious words explaining something that, to some readers, may be perfectly obvious, but not perfectly obvious to others?
Well, I saw an interesting little story the other day from Burlington, Vt., that perfectly illustrated this situation and I stashed it away for later discussion. Reading it a second time I noticed that, well, it was written by a former student of mine, someone with whom I have had this precise discussion.
So, let me clearly state that connection and note that the following is not a slam job. I honestly do not know whether this little story has to have an addition fact paragraph or two. I also don't know if the reporter (hello there, April) wrote additional material that was removed by an editor. Things happen. This is one reason GetReligionistas rarely mention reporters by name.
So what's the subject here? Well, it's Islam and bacon. Here's the top of the story:
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- The Winooski restaurant that was overwhelmed with online comments after it took down a bacon advertisement is moving forward, with the help of a public relations firm.
Sneakers Bistro and Cafe took down a sign that said "Yield For Sneakers Bacon" that had been in the Winooski Rotary last week in response to a complaint from a "vegan and a member of a Muslim household" who said the sign was insensitive to the city's diverse population.
Many people balked at the decision, criticizing Sneakers for what they said was an unnecessary move.
OK, so it appears that, at the heart of this story, there are tensions about Americans having to be hyper sensitive to the concerns of traditional Muslims and whether minority groups have a right to criticize businesses, public groups, etc., that have different beliefs.
Toss in the power of social media and niche news (click here for Fox News report) to turn local issues into national arguments and you have a culture wars puzzle, at best. As the story notes:
Facing national media attention and a swarm of social media comments, Sneakers has engaged the public-relations help of People Making Good in Burlington. Sneakers owner Marc Dysinger has declined to comment.
Nicole Ravlin of People Making Good said Sneakers should focus on its local community and customers rather than addressing national and international comments. Most of the social media posts have come from outside Vermont, Ravlin said. ...
Some locals are posting online about eating at Sneakers or taking other steps to bolster the restaurant's reputation.
So what is my issue here?
Obviously, many readers -- local and national -- are aware that traditional, practicing Muslims do not eat pork. The reality, of course, is that many, many Muslims do eat pork. It's kind of like issue of Lenten fasting for Catholics and Jews and the dietary laws. The more traditional the believer, the more likely it is that this kind of issue will really matter to them.
So, did this story need one or two sentences stating the facts on this particular religious issue?
Was it safe to assume that readers would automatically understand what was happening here, what was a stake, from the point of view of some Sneakers critics as well as some Sneakers supporters?
How much information does the typical newspaper reader need, in this situation? I vote for the extra sentence or two, but I'd like to hear from readers. This issue will only become more complex and prominent as religious diversity increases in this culture.