Looking in a journalism mirror again: Lots of atheists will visit Bible Belt city at Easter


It's time for another look at a mirror-image question linked to religion reporting.

However, before we get to the story of the day (ignore the nearby art, please), let's start by creating a news-mirror option that turns today's journalism equation on its head.

Let's say that Pride Day is just around the corner in San Francisco and, of course, everywhere else in modern culture. But, obviously, San Francisco is at the heart of LBGTQ culture, so let's focus there. Pride Day is a holiday that approaches holy day status.

So, what would happen at some point in the future if a large convention of religious conservatives -- people who believe that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin -- decided to hold a national convention in San Francisco that coincided with Pride Day? What if this group included people who consider themselves (trigger warning) ex-gays?

This mirror-image scenario raises two questions: (1) How would LGBTQ leaders react? And (2) how would this potential conflict be framed in local media?

Now, what about the real news story that we need to look at? Here is the top of a recent Oklahoman story -- "Christian leaders say they aren't fazed by atheists' metro gathering" -- that inspired a note from a veteran GetReligion reader:

Holy Week and Easter Sunday in the Oklahoma City metro area will not be tarnished by a national gathering of atheists, several Christian leaders said recently.
"We ought not to be threatened by people who don't believe," said the Rev. A. Byron Coleman, senior pastor of Fifth Street Missionary Baptist Church, 801 NE 5. "It doesn't reshape the narrative of the Christian Church to have an atheist convention coming to town. We're still going to have Resurrection Sunday and we're still going to eat ham after church."
The Rev. Randy Faulkner, senior pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, 7201 W Britton Road, shared a similar view.
"Their presence in our city will not in any way diminish our joy in celebrating the resurrection of our Lord Jesus," he said.
The preachers referred to American Atheists' plans to host its national convention Wednesday through Easter Sunday at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City.

The reader's comment is a logical one:

"Don't you think this is kind of an odd focus for an article? Can you imagine a "mirror image" headline?"

Actually, I think it's perfectly logical for journalists to wonder how churches in a major Bible Belt city would react to a major atheist gathering in their midst, especially one talking place during the most important days on the Christian calendar (in Western churches, in this case).

Like I said earlier: It would make sense -- mirror-image time -- for journalists to cover, in an advance story, the reactions of LGBTQ leaders to a pro-traditional marriage convention in their midst on Pride Day. I can think of some similar equations, as well.

But there are lots of logical questions in Oklahoma. Did church leaders plan to protest? Organize some evangelistic efforts? Sit at home and be angry? At the same time, it would be totally logical to ask if atheist leaders were making any special plans linked to the zip code in which they had chosen to congregate.

That's Journalism 101. What I do find just a bit odd here is the word "tarnished" in the lede. Let's look at that again:

Holy Week and Easter Sunday in the Oklahoma City metro area will not be tarnished by a national gathering of atheists, several Christian leaders said recently.

I wonder, frankly, if that was a word that a local religious leader used and it just sort of stuck, only without quote marks to alert readers to the fact that this was a quote.

After all, the overall tone of the reactions from clergy is rather upbeat. They don't appear to be worried about this situation at all, as opposed to being threatened or offended. Late in the story, a Salvation Army leader says that the faithful should pray more than normal, and that's that -- basically. I doubt the atheists are worried about extra prayers.

Now, here is a logical question that I wish had been answered in the story: Have American Atheist leaders planned Easter weekend conventions in the past? Has that been an effective publicity strategy? Just asking.

The story does include some very interesting information about events during the convention and I think I would have played that material higher, as opposed to letting the clergy get so much ink at the top of the story. For example:

The convention will include a conversation between the organization's president Dave Silverman and a local pastor Wednesday evening. ...
Other activities include a presentation by actor Hugh Laurie, perhaps best known for the TV show "House," along with movies such as "Tomorrowland" and "Arthur Christmas." .... About 100 people have signed up thus far for a service project set for Sunday that will involve volunteers packing meals to be distributed to a local charity.

Let's go back to the Pride Day mirror-image case for a second: I would hope that mainstream journalists would pay just as much attention to the activities of the religious conservatives (and treat them with respect) as they would to the valid reactions of the LGBTQ leaders in San Francisco. It's just basic journalism.

However, methinks the lede in this Oklahoman story was tarnished, just a little bit, by a rather loaded choice of words. Any other reactions?

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