Long on generalizations, short on concrete sources: CNN tackles a school prayer dispute in Louisiana

I like some things about a long piece CNN published last week concerning a school prayer dispute in Louisiana:

1. It's conversational and easy to read.

2. It devotes a substantial amount of space to a religion issue.

3. It delves into an interesting church-state case.

But the more of the story I read, the more frustrated I became: This is one of those stories that  falls into the category of "a mile wide and an inch deep."

That is, for all the words used, there is not a whole lot of real meat to the story. Readers hear mostly from a 17-year-old student upset with her school starting the day with the Lord's Prayer.

Please don't misunderstand me: Based on the facts presented by CNN, I can understand that student's concern from a constitutional perspective.

But the journalistic problem is this: The 17-year-old's perspective is weaved around vague, generalized characters who — especially through the first big chunks of the piece — don't have names. They are cardboard-cutout figures lacking the nuance and complexity one would expect to find in real life.

Here's how the piece opens:

Webster Parish, Louisiana (CNN) Kaylee Cole walks into school each morning and has breakfast with friends.
Every day starts the same: Announcements, birthdays and school events are broadcast over the public address system. What comes next is what she dreads.
"They say, 'Please stand for the Prayer and the Pledge.' And then we move right into it. And it's the Lord's Prayer," Cole says.
Cole sits down. Raised as a Christian but now agnostic, she doesn't want to hear it.
Nearly every other child, in every classroom, stands as a student reads the prayer.
"Our father, who art in heaven..."
Cole is silent, respectful, she says.
"Hallowed be thy name..."
Her classmates glare at her. One, she says, has even muttered, "Devil be rid of me!" at her.

OK, the nameless classmates are the villains. Do they have any response? Not in the CNN story. 

Keep going, and there is more generalization — but not specific naming or quoting — of the other side:

But Cole, 17, has faith in her actions. She doesn't believe this kind of prayer is how her day should start at school -- a public one in Webster Parish, Louisiana. If that's what she wanted, she'd have gone to a private or parochial school.
That puts her at odds with residents of this self-professed "Christian-based" town in the northwest of the state near Shreveport. They don't dispute that prayer happens. They are proud of it. They defend it with vigor. They explain their love for God runs through their veins. It grounds them. It makes this community what it is. It isn't something they can leave at the door, even that of a public school.
"For ever and ever. Amen."

Later, readers learn that the school district declined to comment for the story. That is important to note.

CNN does quote various townspeople as the story goes along, but not in any precise way that allows apple-to-apple responses to the positions and approaches described in such generalized ways up high.

All in all, the story is too one-sided, too short on real depth — about the specific case and the larger questions raised — to be taken seriously.

Home page image via CNN

Please respect our Commenting Policy