Odd, unquestioning AP story misses point on University of Wisconsin's 'religion center'


Once upon a time, the Associated Press could be depended upon to deliver solid, basic, hard-news stories which informed readers about a given event or issue. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known of course as Mark Twain, famously declared: “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe … the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

Reading the AP's report -- perhaps more properly titled an "aggregation" -- on developments at the University of Wisconsin, one wonders if the AP of Twain's day is far less recognizable today. Instead of insights, we get hints and teases of information, and nothing more. I'd call that a journalism problem, wouldn't you?

Under the rather bland headline "University of Wisconsin-Madison starts new religion center," the AP story, seen online at websites for the Chicago Tribune and other outlets, is short on details:

A new center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hopes to spread religious literacy on campus.
The Center for Religion and Global Citizenry comes after the Luber Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions closed last year due to lack of funding, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Neither the AP nor the original Wisconsin Public Radio story shed much light on the questions raised by the reporting. Who funded the now-shuttered Luber Institute? Who is funding the new Center for Religion and Global Citizenry? What do the funders expect from the new project?

Let's remember that the University of Wisconsin system is a state-funded campus. That means the tax dollars of Wisconsonites (including, presumably, those paid by employees of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, who often sue over the allegedly unconstitutional intrusion of faith into the public square) support the University where, now, information about religion is to be shared across the campus. According to both news articles, center director Ulrich Rosenhagen, a lecturer at the school, said an objective for the new center is:

"To grow together as a small group of students who understand how interreligious dialogue might work on a small level and then go out to translate that into the wider campus," he said.

I don't quite know how "interreligious dialogue" will be "translate[d] ... into the wider campus" without discussing specific religions. And if that's done in any way, shape or form on the taxpayer's nickel, will the FRFF sue? #AskingForAFriend

Equally puzzling, frankly, is the word salad offered up by Maddie Loss, a UW sophomore who'll be one of 12 students in the program:

"With the current context that we're living in here on campus with all of the different like graffiti at a synagogue and just micro aggressions [sic], I know that in order to better equip myself to lead different faith communities in the future, I needed to be learning about them now," she said.

Say what? I promise this is the exact quotation, as it appeared in both stories. I have NO idea what "all of the different like graffiti at a synagogue" means, let alone what it means in Madison. If the synagogue graffiti is anti-Jewish, I'd hardly imagine that would be a microaggression. If it's something else, how is it relevant to the topic at hand? The news articles never tell us.

Both stories say Loss is a Christian who is contemplating a "career in ministry," although the Wisconsin Public Radio version drops the "in," making the story's already-gangly phrasing even more awkward.

If Loss envisions herself leading different Christian faith communities, how will her experience at this center help her? If she's desirous to lead groups of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and animists, for the sake of discussion, what would those communities with which she is not affiliated say of her job prospects?

There are just so many unanswered questions here (Follow the money?) that I'm left wondering. They're the kinds of questions someone could and should ask in order to shed light on the actual story and its implications. Someone such as a reporter from Mark Twain's Associated Press, which seems to be AWOL at the moment.

BLOG POST IMAGE: Backdrop for the Interfaith Prayer Service at the Cathedral of the Assumption, Louisville, Kentucky, 2013. (Festival of Faiths image via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

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