Just keep swimming, just keep swimming? When reporters fear talking about prayer

Faithful readers of GetReligion may recall the interview I did years ago with the late Peter Jennings of ABC News in which we talked about the failure of many major news organizations to, yes, "get religion." For a few years, Jennings attempted to get his elite newsroom to take religion news more seriously, with mixed results.

This interview came up the other day when I received a call from columnist Jay Evensen of The Deseret News, who was acting on a research tip from former GetReligionista Mark Kellner.

Evensen was doing a follow-up column on an amazing story about the survival of two girls after a boating accident on Bear Lake in Utah. This drew the attention of Good Morning America over at ABC News. Yes, this was a classic case of "How did you survive this ordeal" syndrome. Here is a slice of the online ABC news text.

Hang on, because we will get to the "Finding Nemo" angle in a moment.

Tiffany Stoker and Tylinn Tilley credit their friendship with helping to keep them alive. ...
The Utah girls, both 13, survived a deadly boating accident that claimed four lives after they swam for hours, singing songs and shouting prayers as they fought exhaustion in the 53-degree waters of Bear Lake.
The teens were on a ski boat with family friends Lance Capener, his wife Kathy, their two daughters and another friend from school. The weather took a turn for the worse, bringing 76-mph winds and 10-foot waves.
The boat capsized, throwing all seven people into the water. All on board were wearing life jackets, but the waves separated Tiffany and Tylinn from the group. The two tried to swim the 6 miles to shore, treading water for hours. They chanted songs and said prayers, even massaging each others' cramps.

The key to Evensen's column, and the sense of outrage felt by the families of these girls, is what appears to a fictional addition to the actual video report featured on Good Morning America (see the video at the top of the post).

The girls, apparently, shared with the ABC News team details of the prayers they said and the hymns that they sang, over and over, for hours. It appears that one of the girls also said that they were determined to "just keep swimming."

You got it. This factual reference to their determination turned into a bizarre reference, in the Good Morning America report, to the girls actually singing the Dori mantra from "Finding Nemo." All of those references to specific hymns and prayers? Left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak.

This brings us back to my Jennings anecdote, which Evensen used in his column. Here is a clip from my original column about Jennings:

Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: "How did you get through this terrible experience?" As often as not, a survivor replies: "I don't know. I just prayed. Without God's help, I don't think I could have made it."
What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. "Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don't come right out and say it, goes something like this: 'Now that's very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?' "
For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry -- with good cause -- about the future of the news.

So what happened in this case? Yes, it's easy to assume that this was, in someway, linked to ABC News being owned by Disney.

But the details in this case really are fascinating. Evensen writes:

From the girl’s point of view, however, there were unseen powers at work. Tylinn Tilley described feeling someone grab her life jacket and pull her away from danger when the boat capsized, threatening to trap her beneath it. She and Stoker became separated from the rest, and they kept each other going by saying prayers -- sometimes yelling prayers so each other could hear over the waves, wind and thunder -- and singing songs they knew from the Primary organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
They told all of this to the crew from "Good Morning America." But when the segment aired, it didn’t mention a single word about faith, prayers or Primary songs. Instead, it credited the girls’ survival to a song from the Disney movie, “Finding Nemo,” using a clip of the animated character Dory saying, “Just keep swimming.”
After a Facebook post about the segment generated several outraged responses, including phone calls and texts to the network, the show updated its website so the headline read, “Utah teens credit friendship and prayer for keeping them alive,” although the video itself didn’t change.

The network PR department offered a simple "no comment," he added.

What's the bottom line? Anti-religion bias? Pro-entertainment bias in a fuzzy television story about kids? The discomfort -- as described by Jennings -- that many journalists feel when dealing with claims of religious experience? All of the above?

Evensen ended with a reference to another quote that I use all the time. As commentator Bill Moyers once told me, far too many journalists are "tone deaf to the music of religion."

That may be the best way to describe the gap between Bear Lake and "Good Morning America." It’s an unfortunate tone deafness. It certainly did a disservice to two grieving girls who, as Mattingly put it, were calling on a higher power than an animated fish.

And all the people said?

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