Before we get to this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in) there’s something else we need to do, if readers want to understand the mild sense of grief they will hear during this edition of “Crossroads.”
First, we need to discuss a few journalism cliches. Let’s start with a short exam, in a true and false format. This all falls under the heading: “What do readers really want to see in the news they consume?”
Have you ever made the following statement(s) — or variations on these themes — about the journalism business, and not in jest?
(1) “Well, you know, if it bleeds, it leads.”
(2) “I really wish they would report more good news, instead of just telling us the same bad news over and over.”
(3) “Pay no attention to that story: They just print that kind of bad-news stuff to sell newspapers.”
(4) “There’s so much good that happens in the world of religion. Why do journalists spend so much time covering scandals? If journalists covered more inspiring, ‘spiritual’ stories, they might win me.”
(5) All of the above. And many people end every one of those statements with this refrain: “Journalists are so biased, you know.”
If you answered “All of the above,” then I may have run into you at one time or another during my decades of work defending the vocation of journalism inside religious institutions, including college and seminary classrooms.
How many stars are there in the heavens? I think I’ve heard just about that many religious believers offer one or more of those “I’m tired of journalists doing this” statements, followed by a claim that “If they only ran more positive stuff” then things would be better in America, etc.
So that brings us to this week’s podcast. It was grew out of paying close attention to some statistics about GetReligion traffic — focusing on what kinds of stories people read and forward, and what kinds of stories, it appears, most readers just don’t want to read.
Please know that I really appreciate people who read this site all the time. I also understand that, with our “The press … just doesn’t get religion” mantra, lots of people come here to find out how mainstream journalists struggle to cover religion news. I get that, but we run just as many positive/educational pieces as we do negative critiques.
Anyway, I wrote a positive post this week that I really hoped would gain traction in social media, especially among “evangelical” readers.
Why? Well this was a story built around a man who had been through hell, but regained his Christian faith. The story even contained an altar call and an Easter sermon.
The headline on the post proclaimed: “The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life.” Here’s a key moment, as Gary Christian wrestled with his grief and fury after the hellish torture-rape-murder of his daughter:
It’s about 24 miles up Pellissippi Parkway from the church to the cemetery. The whole ride that last April Sunday, Christian says, “the Lord was tearing me up.”
When he got off his bike at Channon's grave, "I was just so tired. I just couldn't do it anymore.
"I went down on my knee, and I asked him, ‘Just like you did with Peter, restore me.’ And he did.”
You don’t see language like that very often in a mainstream newspaper — but that spiritual rebirth was a crucial part of a major news story in this region.
So how many GetReligion readers read this positive piece and passed it on to others?
The bottom line: In terms of social-media stats, this post is on its way to being one of the worst performing posts we have run in a month or so. In fact, in the three days after it ran, it had less than half as many readers as one of those “scandal” posts.
Let me be clear: In the same three days this week, the positive, “inspiring” post had less than half as many readers as “She kept stacks of journals: Bill Hybels drama enters a shocking new #MeToo chapter” — a post that ran a month ago (all together, that post has 10,000-plus readers). I don’t remember seeing a retweet of the “inspiring” post.
Meanwhile, I don’t need to mention the kinds of click numbers we’re seeing on posts about coverage of the ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick scandal.
Again, let me be clear: I know that people click “forward” when they are mad about something. But we also know that people click forward on items that inspire them, and I’m not just talking about bites of social media involving cats. Maybe inspiring only works with short videos.
So what’s going on here? Do news consumers — religious-news readers in particular — want to see more “positive,” “inspiring” and “spiritual” stories or not? Do they call their local editors and TV producers to praise accurate, informed coverage of spiritual issues in daily life?
P.S. For a more in-depth discussion of some of these issues — including what religious leaders and laypeople should do, when responding to good and bad coverage — check out my presentation a year ago at a Lutheran Public Radio conference near St. Louis.