From time to time, your GetReligionistas pause to remind readers that they should not blame reporters for the headlines that appear with their stories.
Sad, but true: There is nothing unusual about seeing a solid news report that gets messed up, for readers, by an inaccurate or misleading headline.
But what should we say when a story has a solid, focused headline, but the story's actual contents leave much to be desired?
Consider the Washington Post report about the speech last week by Vice President Mike Pence at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. I have no problems with the simple headline here: "Pence: America will prioritize protecting Christians abroad."
The key word is "abroad." And the top of the story -- obviously the source of the headline -- gets straight to some of the basics.
Vice President Pence sought on Thursday to reassure Christian leaders looking for the White House to focus more on the plight of persecuted Christians abroad.
“Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration,” the vice president said during a morning address at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians being held this week in Washington. Pence spoke to an audience who are grateful for the Trump administration’s statements of support for that cause but who are starting to question when the administration will take more concrete action.
Advocacy on behalf of people persecuted for being Christian is a topic “of enormous importance to this administration,” Pence said. Turning to speakers at the conference who were there to share their personal stories of persecution abroad, he said: “You have the prayers of the president of the United States. The suffering of Christians in the Middle East has stirred Americans to action, and it brings me here today.”
So far, so good. But if you read the rest of this story its pretty apparent that the Post team thinks that the American political angles in this story are way more important than the evidence that lots of Christians are dying around the world.
Is this a story about American politics or about a global tragedy? Is this another chance to talk about Donald Trump and his strange political love affair with some elements of conservative Christianity or is the global persecution of Christians a subject worth taking seriously?
Obviously, in Washington you probably need to try to cover both of those topics.
So I don't begrudge the Post team some of this material about whether Trump is walking his talk when it comes to religious liberty (worldwide or in America). The Post notes:
A bill signed by President Barack Obama last year and applauded by many of the Christian leaders at the conference tasked the State Department with creating lists of prisoners of conscience so that American officials traveling abroad could advocate on their behalf. It also required Foreign Service officers to participate in mandatory training so that they could work on boosting religious freedom in the countries where they work. But Wolf said he worries that Trump’s understaffed State Department has not implemented the new law.
But the rest of the story is pretty much all Trump this and Trump that. It appears that whether one thinks that this subject -- the persecution of Christians worldwide -- is important is a decision rooted in political opinion, as opposed to hard, bloody facts.
You can see this, ironically, in a story over at The Huffington Post, a website not known for its hard, balanced news reporting. In this case, we have a pretty good story that is marred by a bad headline. That would be this: "Pence Tells Room Full Of Christians In D.C. Their Faith Is The Most Persecuted."
The implication, once again, is that (wink, wink) those crazy American Christians think they are being persecuted -- as in domestic clashes between religious liberty and sexual liberty. Those crazy folks really have a persecution complex. Look at this early note:
... Pence reiterated a common belief among conservative Christians in the U.S. that they are among the most persecuted people of faith in the world.
Oh, conservative Christians in the U.S. think they are among the most persecuted people in the world? That's the story? #REALLY
But, pretty soon, this essay points readers toward some actual facts linked to the actual global topic. The reporter almost seems surprised:
There’s an element of truth to Pence’s sentiments. Around the world, in places like Iraq, Pakistan and China, Christians have experienced high levels of violence and harassment.
According to a recent analysis of data collected by Pew Research Center, both Muslims and Christians face persecution in many countries around the globe.
There is evidence of rising everyday pressures on Muslims in Europe and in the United States. Of course, the flip side of that is an uptick in acts of terrorism (and anti-Semitism) linked to radicalized forms of Islam.
However, if you look at the belt of blood and fire that runs from Nigeria, across Northern Africa and the Middle East, and on to Pakistan, there is no question that Christians in those lands are facing increased, historic levels of persecution. And that's saying something, if you know anything about the history of these beseiged churches.
So it was good to link to the Pew data. However, it would also help if reporters noted that American Christians are not alone in worrying about this topic.
Another Huffington Post analysis, by Kelly James Clark, noted other sources of information:
In early November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Christianity is “the most persecuted religion in the world.” Although met with predictable criticism, Rupert Short’s recent research report for Civitas UK (.pdf here) confirms Merkel’s claim -- we may not want to hear it, but Christianity is in peril, like no other religion. While this is a contest no one wants to win, Short shows that “Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers.” Short is the author of the recently published Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack. He is concerned that “200 million Christians (10 percent of the global total) are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.”
Christianity is facing elimination in its Biblical homeland.
I would also point reporters toward two recent books by well-known experts:
* "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution," by John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux.
The bottom line, there is more to the subject of Christian persecution that what Trump does or doesn't do. There are actual sources of factual information on this important topic that reporters can, with a few sentences, include in their news reports.
If you follow Twitter, you know that more than a few American journalists and pundits think that American Christians are developing an unhealthy paranoia about persecution. That's a topic worthy of serious, balanced coverage.
However, that is not what is driving the news in Nigeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. That's what Pence was talking about the other day. Cover that story, too.