Reporters miss great religion angle on Southwest Airlines story about a Down Syndrome girl

Every once in awhile, a piece of religion news slips by that shows a writer’s complete ignorance of basic stuff in American religious culture.

For instance, most of you have heard of “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren, right?

There’s a reason for that. This was the 2002 devotional book that was on the New York Times Bestseller List for more than 90 weeks; sold 30 million copies by 2007 and basically broke all sorts of records for a Christian product. We’ve all seen it for sale in the supermarkets.

So when someone involved in a news story says that they are “purpose-driven,” there is a very good chance that this person has some knowledge of that book, yes? It would be worth asking about, at the very least.

You’d think. Recently we found this heartwarming story on — although I believe it originally aired on one of the Sacramento TV stations -- about a stewardess written by a clueless reporter when it comes to such terms. To wit:

This is the tale of a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, whose gesture literally helped a passenger achieve a lifelong dream. The passenger: Tracy Sharp, a Sacramento woman who has Down syndrome. The flight attendant: Vicki Heath.

The two met on a flight Sharp was taking home after visiting family in Houston a few months ago, and they had a conversation in which Sharp shared with Heath that it was her lifelong dream to be a flight attendant herself. … According to news reports, she started making phone calls within Southwest to get permission to bring Sharp on another Southwest flight, and have her work alongside Heath as a sort of assistant flight attendant.

“ …on Friday, Sharp flew with Heath on a flight from Sacramento to Seattle, wearing a red uniform, helping to greet passengers and do a few other things that Sharp thought would be really cool, and even getting flight attendant wings for her service. …

"You're going to make me cry!" Heath replied when a reporter asked how she felt about bringing the whole thing together. "I feel like I'm living my purpose-driven life. And that's huge."

Now where have we heard that before?

Is it possible the stewardess read a certain book and got inspiration from it? But the reporter didn’t get it. It appears that there was no follow-up question. The story went on to say nice stuff about the airline.

Sacramento’s CBS affiliate didn’t get the connection either. In fact, I checked a bunch of media links — most of them broadcast — and no one added anything about “purpose-driven” being a phrase linked to a certain famous faith-driven book. This seems to have been a TV phenomenon, as the Sacramento Bee doesn’t have a word on it.

When a journalist misses a major religion news hook in a story, the members of the team here at GetReligion call that a religion ghost. This term has been part of this site’s work since Day 1.

This religion ghost was an elephant in the middle of the room.

Come to think of it, the story didn’t describe Heath at all. We don’t know her age, hometown, where she’s from, nada. And there’s not much background on the girl, either. I know this kind of story is eye and ear candy for broadcast media; a pleasant drop of niceness to balance out the day’s typically bad or dreary news, but it would have been so nice to have fleshed out the details just a little.

The bottom line: When a player in a news story drops the phrase “purpose-driven” — while explaining why they did what they did that created this news story in the first place — those words might actually mean something.

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