Reuters reports on Graham outreach in Ferguson but falls back on clichés

Reuters gets an A for spotting an emergency chaplaincy team by the Billy Graham organization in Ferguson, Mo. For execution, though, Reuters gets a C-minus at best.

Mainstream media ignored Graham's Rapid Response Teams, which sped to the city twice -- first after the shooting of teenager Michael brown, then after two police officers were shot. Someone at Reuters evidently saw the same and assigned the story. But between the motion and the act, as T.S. Eliot said, falls the shadow: in this case, a shadow of clichés and vagaries.

The article does get some things right. As Reuters reports, the chaplains talked people down, both among the police and the protestors. They grabbed a woman away from an angry crowd. And they even won over a gang leader, who lent them her protection while they ministered on the streets.

Reuters also cites some helpful numbers: 1,800 volunteer chaplains, who have "chalked up more than 250 deployments, from tornadoes and hurricanes to shootings." If only the rest of the story was like that.

Instead, it too often tosses in a stock word or general phrase in place of actual reporting. For instance:

Soon, uniformed Graham chaplains emerged from the mobile conference room parked across the street, talking people down and even dragging a woman by the wrist from an angry crowd.
Over the course of the day, the chaplains invited people into the truck, offering snacks and prayer.

What were people doing? Shouting? Throwing things? What did the Graham people say to talk them down? What was the crowd threatening against the woman? And why her?

And that's just one paragraph. Elsewhere in the story, we get:

* "... intent on bringing peace and saving souls." How to save souls is never described.

* "... at the mercy of the city's most feared drugs gangs." Leaving aside the typo of "drugs," what happened? Did someone wave a gun or threaten their lives?

* "... from then on, the gangs were our protectors." From whom, if the threat was from the gangs themselves? And how were they won over?

* "... gave themselves to Jesus." One could guess this was part of soul saving. But one shouldn't have to guess. How about an anecdote?

We get more detail in the three paragraphs, totaling 96 words, on the Ferguson shootings and other events. We also get some in two background paragraphs on Billy Graham and his son and successor Franklin.

"Contempt for the BGEA -- but why?" read the e-mail of a reader who alerted us to this article. Myself, I don’t read this story as contempt. More like shallowness, by a writer and/or editor who didn't really understand what the chaplains were doing -- and worse, didn't seem to want to learn.

Basic reporting would have helped here. Reuters has never been famed for direct quotes, but it apparently talked to only one person: an officer of the Rapid Response Teams. Reuters could have talked to cops, protestors, and Ferguson's pastors and city leaders. "Allow them to tell their own stories, rather than allowing the reporter to use sweeping generalizations and clichés," our reader-tipster says.

Some of that is visible in Mashable, to my surprise. The article, posted yesterday, details the chaplains' work, posts four stark b/w photos, and gets reactions from people in the street -- some of them unfavorable.

You can also get some of this, of course, in Decision, Graham's own magazine. A story, posted March 12 -- before the second team deployment -- says that 81 chaplains served Ferguson in the six weeks ending in January, talking and praying with more than 1,800 people.

The article and accompanying vidclip also quote pastors, police, regular people, Mayor James Knowles II -- even Charles Ewing, Michael Brown's uncle. The video also shows an interracial unity service led by Will Graham, one of Billy's grandsons.

No one expects the kind of boosterism from Reuters that you'd see on Graham's website. But we should expect reporting, not vagaries.

Photo: Still from Billy Graham video "Ferguson: From Ruin to Revival."

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