Believe it or not, news consumers, journalists really do not like to make mistakes. Reporters and editors are also trained to be skeptical, to say the least, when it comes to accepting statistics provided by activist groups.
In practice, this leads to two syndromes: (1) Using language that fudges the numbers, making sure readers know that they are estimates and (2) trusting statistics from trusted organizations that fit the newsroom's editorial template, while distrusting statistics from organizations that the newsroom, well, doesn't trust.
Case in point: In a story on abortion, which organization to you think the editorial team at The New York Times will trust when it comes time to offer statistics on, let's say, abortions (or perhaps mammograms) -- Planned Parenthood or the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?
However, there may be another explanation from time to time for some of the strange factual statements that one encounters in news copy. Call it "bizarre caution." This can happen when journalists do quick, hurried work in unfamiliar territory. For example, consider the overture on a new Times report that ran with this headline: "Heirs to 2 Evangelical Empires Take Different Paths Into Political Fray."
OK, the goal is to spot the two #LOL references -- think cautious, fudged language -- in this copy about the Rev. Billy Graham.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One, the president of the Christian university his father founded, raised eyebrows and provoked an outcry among some evangelicals when he endorsed Donald J. Trump before the Iowa caucuses.
Another, a son of perhaps the nation’s most celebrated evangelist and the successor to his father’s ministry, has drawn attention for his scathing comments about Muslims and is in the midst of what he describes as a 50-state tour “to challenge Christians to live out their faith at home, in public and at the ballot box.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., whose father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founded Liberty University and the Moral Majority movement, and the Rev. Franklin Graham, whose father, Billy Graham, is estimated to have preached the Gospel to millions of people, now find themselves forces of their own. Both are trying to balance their own identities, and their father’s legacies, at a time when religion is playing a powerful role in American politics.
The first one is just strange. I am referring to the statement that Billy Graham is "perhaps the nation’s most celebrated evangelist."
Stop and think about that for a moment. Why the word "perhaps"?
Now, remember that we are talking about the term "evangelist" in this sentence, not "evangelical," "religious broadcaster" or even "minister." No, the term used was "evangelist," which in America in the past couple of centuries has primarily referred to a person who does evangelism in large-scale events.
Now, name two or three evangelists in or from America who are even in the same ballpark as Billy Graham, when it comes to the impact of their "celebrated" careers. Having trouble coming up with logical names? Billy Sunday? Aimee Semple McPherson? George Whitefield? Jonathan Edwards? Mordecai Fowler Ham?
Let's just say that there is a reason for the struggle. Is there any debate about whether Billy Graham is the most famous, the most celebrated, the most successful (in terms of cultural impact, at the very least) American evangelist ever?
What is the purpose of the word "perhaps" in that sentence? I think it's safe to say that it was extreme caution, to the point of being silly.
Now, the second statement about Billy Graham that caught my eye was the one that said Franklin Graham's father "is estimated to have preached the Gospel to millions of people."
Now, I TOTALLY understand reporters needing to be skeptical when dealing with crowd and audience estimates (click here for an interesting Washington Post photo essay on this topic).
However, this statement about Billy Graham is, to be blunt, so cautious as to be bizarre.
Why do I say that? Well, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has long claimed that the evangelist has spoken, in person (as opposed to on television or via satellite connections) to 215 million people. That is an estimate, of course.
Back in the 1980s, I asked a public-relations professional for Graham how they arrived at that statistic. Well, they started off with some hard numbers. They know how many large-scale crusade he preached -- which is 400-plus, depending on how one defines a "crusade." In the early days, some were more like tours of a region. They know how many services were held.
Since most of these Graham events where in auditoriums or stadiums, the ability to estimate crowds -- day by day -- was better than in large-scale, open-field events. Billy Graham also, of course, did his share of giant events out in the open (see the photo from Seoul, Korea at the top of this post). The crowd estimates there would be less precise.
The scholars who have studied this man's career can do the math. But let's say that the estimates are WAY off -- maybe even 25 or 30 percent off. So let's say that he only preached, in person to, 150 million people instead of 215 million.
So is it a factual statement that Graham preached to 215 million people? I would call that an estimate.
But is it a fact that he preached to "millions of people"? If the goal is accuracy, instead of a wink-wink caution, why do we need the word "estimated" in front of that factual reference?
Now, the rest of the article is pretty good and focuses, in a vague way, on a crucial subject -- which is that Falwell the younger has, as an individual minister, taken the highly unusual step of endorsing a candidate BY NAME.
Franklin Graham, on the other hand, is barnstorming the country talking about specific ISSUES, as opposed to candidates. Does this help some candidates more than others? Yes. What the younger Graham is doing -- often using ideas and statements linked to his father -- is very similar to "educational" political projects, on the left and right, linked to non-profit groups tied to labor, the environment, women's issues, etc.
I liked this clarifying quote from a solid source:
“The Grahams and Falwells across generations have chosen different tactics, but the tactics could be equally influential,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an author of “The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.”
He added: “I don’t see Franklin Graham as deeply involved in partisan politics the way Jerry Falwell Jr. is with his endorsement of Trump. But he’s much more active in politics in the broader sense.”
Read the whole story. Yes, you can question the fact statements all you want -- some more than others. It's clear that some Times editors are not familiar with some of this material.