It's the end of the world as they report it: New York Times listens to echo-chamber voices

Good morning, journalism class. Today's topic is the question of the voice in writing, specifically news writing.

No, we're not talking about active voice versus passive voice, Rather, let's look at the voices -- the "subject matter experts" as the phrasing goes -- selected by a reporter and a media outlet to speak to a given item.

For this question, we can thank The New York Times and their recent feature titled, "Apocalyptic Thoughts Amid Nature’s Chaos? You Could Be Forgiven." While the subject itself is interesting, it was the voices heard in the story -- as well as those not heard -- that caught my attention.

Here we go:

Vicious hurricanes all in a row, one having swamped Houston and another about to buzz through Florida after ripping up the Caribbean.
Wildfires bursting out all over the West after a season of scorching hot temperatures and years of dryness.
And late Thursday night, off the coast of Mexico, a monster of an earthquake.
You could be forgiven for thinking apocalyptic thoughts, like the science fiction writer John Scalzi who, surveying the charred and flooded and shaken landscape, declared that this “sure as hell feels like the End Times are getting in a few dress rehearsals right about now.”

We go on to a survey -- written and published before now-Tropical Storm Irma made its first U.S. landfall as Hurricane Irma -- the thoughts of several experts about the relationship, if any, between environmental disasters and the End of All Things.

Looking over the Times piece, I found an interesting collection of voices therein:

“For so many years, talking about the weather was talking about nothing,” said Terry Tempest Williams, the author and naturalist who is currently a writer in residence at Harvard Divinity School. “Now it really is our survival.”
But how we talk about it is reflective of our worldview – and has been for a long time, said Christiana Zenner Peppard, an associate professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University.
“With unexpected cataclysmic weather events, people across time and space have always looked for explanations,” she said.

Temptest Williams is a "writer and activist," the Harvard Divinity School noted, who believes "our greatest transformation as a species will be spiritual."

At Fordham, a Jesuit school in New York City, Zenner Peppard's "research engages religious ecological ethics at the intersection of Catholic social teaching, ecological anthropology, natural law theory and developments in the earth sciences," that school said.

We also hear from two non-Christian scholars: 

Richard Hecht, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that many believers could indeed see this chaotic summer as a sign of the end of times.
“End of times fantasies have been a central part of American religiosity since the beginning, so it shouldn’t be any surprise” if many people sense its approach, Dr. Hecht said. ...
Ahmed Ragab, a professor of science and religion at Harvard, argues that there is a good reason some people see doom in what’s going on: The pileup of disasters is affecting people. ... “Natural disasters do not happen in a vacuum,” he added. “The reason we are hearing about them is they are affecting humans, and the structures that we are actually building.”

It should come as little surprise to regular readers of this blog that reporters have their routines, their Rolodexes® of sources, even if such files are now digital, rather than on little cards on a wheel.

But stop and think about the principal voices of authority in this story. None have any background in pastoral ministry, certainly not in a congregational setting inclined towards a prophetic emphasis in preaching. (Think Southern Baptist, non-denominational, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist, etc.) How many preachers last Sunday (or Saturday, in the case of the Adventists) were preaching from the Bible in one hand while holding a newspaper in the other? #JustAsking

Instead, we're treated to a rather intellectual, and somewhat dismissive, "analysis" of what seem to be the fevered dreams of doomsday speculators. The bottom line: This all takes place without hearing from any of the speculators themselves (or even their own academics and thinkers).

We're told, condescendingly in my opinion, that speculating about the time of the end in relation to present circumstances is but a "fantasy." That's a charming way to describe central elements of the belief system of many Christians, isn't it?

Of course, the events of September 2017 are not the first ones to be linked to Bible prophecy. The Leonid meteor shower of 1833 was viewed by some as having special significance, most notably by Ellen G. White, a follower of early American preacher William Miller and later a pioneering co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. The Late Great Planet Earth, a 1970s era blockbuster by Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, also cited natural phenomena as a signpost of the end times.

It would have been helpful to readers if the Times would have mentioned some historical parallels to today's headlines. It would have been even more helpful to get some voices of those who take a different view of eschatology than that put forth at the Harvard Divinity School. By the way: If reporters call several evangelical or Pentecostal scholars on these issues, they will hear a wide array of viewpoints. It's called "diversity."

Yes, again, all of this is a question of context. This Times piece offers a sliver of thinking about the apocalypse, but there's so much more that could have been said. A fully orbed picture would do a great service for readers, and the paper missed an opportunity here.

But don't fret. Apparently it's not the end of the world yet, so there's hope The New York Times will treat the subject more seriously next time around.

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