Time for a Christian Smith flashback: Writing about that whole nailed-to-a-cross thing


If you were going to select a short list of the most infamous articles ever written about the mainstream press and the religion-beat, surely Christian Smith's "Religiously Ignorant Journalists," which ran in Books & Culture (RIP) back in 2004, would be near the top of the list.

As you would expect, it drew the attention of the newly formed GetReligion.org weblog, with an early post under this headline: "Are journalists too ignorant to cover religion news?"

Smith made several interesting points about language on the religion beat, not the least of which was a riff on the many ways that journalists tend to abuse the term "evangelical." His key point: Why don't editors hire more professionals trained to work on the religion beat, the way they do on other highly complicated -- yet respected -- beats?

Yes, the reason I am bringing this up again is that a faithful reader sent us yet another case of a mainstream, national publication offering a unique or shall we say innovative approach to ordinary religious language.

Hold that thought. Here's the famous overture of Smith's piece:

Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about "Episcopals," about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention's approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect "Episcopals." What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no "Episcopals"? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn't even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.
What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance. As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university's PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.
"Evangelicals" is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as "evangelists" -- as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau. ... Other journalists simply cannot pronounce "evangelicals" at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at "evangelics" and "evangelicalists" they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as "them."

Wait for it.

These are the knowledge-class professionals who are supposedly informing millions of readers about religion in America. ... I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the "Democrizer" or "Republication" parties, or about the most recent "Supremicist Court" ruling.

By all means, read it all.

So the goal here today is not to talk about your plain old mistakes in news copy about religion, like that recent case of The New York Times saying that Jerusalem is a crucial site for Christians because that is where Jesus lived and died (period). And we're not talking about something like that interesting story in which the Times said, pre-correction:

"Nearby, the vast Church of the Holy Sepulcher marking the site where many Christians believe that Jesus is buried, usually packed with pilgrims, was echoing and empty."

No, we are talking about an issue linked to church history and, well, the need for a spell-check program, in a USA Today story that ran with this headline: "'Burial slab' of Jesus found in Jerusalem church."

The story currently begins like this:

Researchers recently uncovered a stone burial slab which many believe Jesus Christ's body may have been laid on following his death.
The original surface of the tomb was uncovered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem during restoration work and has been covered by marble cladding since at least 1555 A.D., National Geographic reports. 

The problem is that, when this story first came out, frequent GetReligion reader Thomas Szyszkiewicz read the lede, did a double take, and sent us a copy of it. Originally the story began like this:

Researchers recently uncovered a stone burial slab which many believe Jesus Christ's body may have been laid on following his crucification.


Interesting, to say the least. If you enter "crucification" into a search engine, you get this:

Did you mean: Crucifixion
Neither crucifiction nor crucification is a word in English. Crucifixion is a death by torture practiced by the Roman Empire, and some other regimes since. It involves hanging a person by their outstretched arms until they are dead, and usually includes other physical abuses to cause more suffering and a quicker death.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that the word "crucifixion" is, for me, rather hard to type and it always has been. I don't know why. My rapidly aging hands produce quite a few typos.

However, if you type "crucification" the spell-check gods will immediately produce those tiny-red-dot warnings to let you know that you're out of bounds. I am sure that the same thing would happen if a political-beat specialist, instead of the typing "the election of a new president," typed in "the electionification of a new president."

So, again, "crucification?" #Really

A typo or a mistake? How did that make it into print? I am glad that this was corrected, even if USA Today -- perhaps violating its own highly admirable policies -- did not print a correction on the updated story. I wonder what happened?

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