In the world of modern, short-attention-span journalism -- let's call it the post-USA Today era -- 1,300 words or more is a lot of room in which to explore the crucial details of a news story.
So I was pleased when the Army Times managed to drop several hints -- even in the lede -- about the role that religious faith has played in the life of a soldier who recently won a major medal for his bravery in tense, dangerous situations -- outside of combat. However, this was one of those stories that started out fine, when it comes to spotting the religion angle, and then never delivered the goods.
Like I said, the lede opened the door.
Staff Sgt. Bret Perry was raised to help those in need.
He keeps a tow rope in his truck (in case a motorist needs pulled out of a ditch), and he never hesitates to engage when encountering a dicey situation. It's a good thing, too. Bad things keeps happening to people in his vicinity, and he keeps saving the day.
Now, I realize that all kinds of people -- religious and secular -- can have all kinds of motivations for helping "those in need." That statement doesn't automatically point toward a religion hook. There doesn't have to be a God-shaped hole in the heart of this story.
No, what intrigued me was the reference to Perry's family history as part of his motivation for jumping into danger, over and over, in order to help people. I expected to see the story return to that theme and give readers some details. Like I said, this is a long story -- so there was room.
Of course, readers get the essential details of his heroic acts, and there are plenty. Perry, who works as a military recruiter in Iowa, broke into a burning house a year ago -- making three trips into the smoke and flames -- to save the residents. He saw smoke as he was making his morning commute into the office.
Perry once jumped into a bloody brawl in Italy to save some off-duty soldiers. He pulled a mother and her baby out of a "smoking overturned car."
Why does this stuff keep happening to this guy? Close to the top of the story there is this:
Perry said he’s "honored and humbled" to be associated with the Soldier’s Medal. He doesn’t know how he ends up in dangerous situations so often, but said he’s a Christian and he believes things happen for a reason.
“My dad always told me, ‘you’re going to end up in a movie the guy who dies trying to help somebody,’” the former scout sniper with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team told Army Times.
So the Army Times team had a chance to interview Perry and also his father, which means there were opportunities to get the details on the hero's faith and his family background. So how much of that made it into the story, delivering on the hint in the lede and the specific reference to Perry's belief that his faith plays a crucial role in helping him do that thing that he does?
A GetReligion reader, in a note with the URL for this story, noted that there is "a holy ghost near the beginning of the story" and then pointed toward Perry's statement about his faith and his belief that "things happen for a reason.* However:
This is treated as a throw-away remark, and is not expanded upon at any point in the rest of the article.
Precisely. This is a long feature that includes many wonderful and essential details, but never returns to deliver the basic facts on the subject that Perry himself says is at the heart of this story.
Just to give you an example, spot the nice details in this passage, when Perry arrived at that house fire and saw that there were no fire trucks on the scene.
He decided he had to get into the house, and got a gentle shove: the fire caused some damage to power lines over him, and some sparks rained down on him.
“It kind of encouraged me to get into the house,” Perry said. “[Breaking through the door] took me like three tries.”
The former community college football player who’s since dabbled in rugby finally broke through the door, but then tumbled down half a flight of stairs in the split-level home. The neighbor followed him in and helped him up.
Perry went back upstairs to the upper of the two levels, and told the neighbor to check downstairs. The fire, burning through the roof, had filled the upper level with smoke so Perry had to low-crawl through the main room to a locked bedroom door clearly threatened by the fire coming through the roof. He broke that door down too, and found a young adult woman.
“She was completely sleeping. … I’m sure she was pretty shocked,” Perry said. “She posted something on Facebook like: ‘Some bad ass army guy kicked in my door and shattered it all to pieces. Best surprise I’ve ever seen,’ or something like that.”
Former football player. Check. Still plays rugby, the ultimate tough-guy sport. Check. Nice quote from Facebook. Check.
Like I said, there are plenty of details. You want to read about the mother and the baby, too.
But the story never returns to the subject of Perry's faith.
Was Perry raised as a Catholic? A Baptist? A Mormon? Was he raised as a Methodist or as a Lutheran, there in the heart of the Midwest? Is his local pastor -- the story notes that Perry works in his old hometown -- surprised that he keeps risking his life for others?
Sorry. Here is what readers get in the rest of this feature story: (Cue: crickets).
Why didn't someone ask a few detailed, factual questions and fill this hole?