A corny Jewish joke, Japanese rent-a-monks and why context matters in journalism

Indulge me.

Let's say that you're at a Jewish funeral home service. Some 75 mourners fidget in the pews as a rabbi -- a freelancer hired just to lead the service and a stranger to the deceased -- begins.

"At times like this it's customary to say something nice about the dearly departed," says the rabbi. "Since I didn't know Gantza Turis, I turn to you, his family and friends, to say some comforting words. Who will start?"

Silence, as all eyes avoid the rabbi's.

"I know it's hard to speak at a time like this, but please, someone, stand up and say something nice about Gantza," the rabbi implores. More uncomfortable silence follows. Twice more the rabbi urges the mourners to speak. Twice more no one does.

Finally, visibly upset, the rabbi says, "Look, I'm not going to continue until someone says something nice about Gantza. I'm serious!

At which point a short, elderly man with a hint of a Yiddish accent (picture Mel Brooks wearing a tan zippered windbreaker circa 1975) rises in the back row and blurts out, with a sweeping hand motion, "His brother? Worse!"

Get the old joke? No? Well, sorry; explaining it will just deepen my comedic hole. Ask a friend.

No matter. It's a favorite of mine; classic Borscht Belt stand-up.

Besides, it's punchline underscores the first serious point of this post. Which is ...

We live in an estranged age. Traditional communities are disintegrating. They're being replaced by social media creations. The world of religion -- including personal relationships with clergy -- is suffering this same fate.

I see it in my own Jewish community and within my extended family in the United States and Israel. That's the unfunny truth of the funeral parlor joke.

As this New York Times piece attests, the same phenomenon has happened big time in the world of Japanese Buddhism.

Here's the lede:

SAKAI, Japan -- The stubble-haired Buddhist priest lit incense at a small, cupboard-like altar just as members of his order have done for centuries. As the priest chanted sutras, Yutaka Kai closed his eyes and prayed for his wife, who died last year of complications from a knee replacement.
Mr. Kai, 68, set aside his family’s devout Buddhism when he left his rural hometown decades ago to work in a tire factory. That meant Mr. Kai did not have a local temple to turn to for the first anniversary of his wife’s death, a milestone for Japanese Buddhists.
Cue the internet. In modern Japan, a Buddhist priest can now be found just a few mouse clicks away, on Amazon.com.
“It’s affordable, and the price is clear,” said Mr. Kai’s eldest son, Shuichi, 40. “You don’t have to worry about how much you’re supposed to give.”

Why do this story? After all, the web is replete with sites for hiring all manner of authentic (as well as bogus) clergy for whatever the religious life-cycle event.

So why yet another story on a well-established Western cultural sea change, even one datelined Japan, that fails to note that this same phenomenon has occurred across the globe? It's not as if the Japanese are some isolated culture just discovering 21st Century communications technology.

Frankly, I consider the piece little more than filler copy. I see it as a local story, at best, inflated to international status by virtue of its appearance in the Times.

It's also another example of how news reporting -- domestic or international, on religion or otherwise -- distorts importance by failing to include important context. A mere sentence or two could have refocused the story; the fate of a single tree is never as telling as writing about the health of an entire forest.

There are space considerations to consider, of course, which sometimes accounts for the unconnected dots. That's what editors are for; to backstop writers by addIng and cutting lines for story enhancement. But they're just as prone as writers to leaving out or simply being ignorant of a story's context, aren't they?

Another contributing factor, equally obvious to anyone above a certain age who still follows the news business, is that the loss of seasoned journalists of all stripes, either through downsizing or newspaper closings thanks to ever-shrinking news media budgets, has devastated journalism's institutional memory.

This is as true even at elite legacy media, such as the Times.

Context is the "why" in traditional journalism's quintet of questions to be addressed in every story. It tells the media consumer why they should invest time and energy in a story. In sum, it answers the question, of what importance is this piece of journalism?

Here's how the late, great Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Halberstam once put it (as quoted by the American Press Institute):

Making stories important. A sense of context. And what a journalist has to do in order to get stories into the minds of the people. To show why this particular piece of information, why a profile, is important. Why these things amount to something and provide a way to understand the world that helps you – the context of the stories is often more important than the event itself.

Reemphasizing context seems to me a particularly salient point in today's journalism environment, given the speed at which non-contextual news blasts around the world via the likes of Twitter and other minimalist web news sources.

It's one thing when free floating news bites are about Brad and Angelina, or even Japanese rent-a-monks. It's quite another when we're talking about complex, long-running disputes between nations managed by knee-jerk, only partially informed politicians.

In that context, it's downright dangerous. And that's no joke.

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