Lazy Journalism 101

Welcome to another edition of: “Look what those nutty Christians are up to now.”

NASA photo

NASA photo

Lots of media reported on Tuesday’s blood moon – a lunar eclipse where the sunset glow from the Earth is reflected onto the moon, making it appear red. It was the first of four such events – together called a tetrad – over the next two years.

A USA Today story focuses on an interesting religion angle to this, drawn from Acts 2:19-20:

And I will cause wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below —blood and fire and clouds of smoke. The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red before that great and glorious day of the Lord arrives.

The USA Today headline — Does Tuesday’s ‘blood’ eclipse signal the end times? – violates a standard rule for headline writers: Don’t ask a question that the story doesn’t answer.

“Texas televangelist pastor John Hagee sees the four blood moons as evidence of a future ‘world-shaking event’ that begins to fulfill End Times prophecy,” the story says.

It doesn’t quote Hagee directly. The quotes used are secondhand, from a sermon reported by a UK publication called Christian Today. Hagee’s sermons on the topic can be found on YouTube. He’s a bit, uh, out there.

Tucked about halfway down the story is this line:

A spokesman for the televangelist said tells (sic) USA TODAY on Monday that Hagee “has not associated the blood moons with the end of days.”

Wait. What? Didn’t you just tell us that he does believe that? Isn’t the whole story set up on that premise? Hagee’s sermons sure seem to indicate that he believes it.

No further explanation is given. The story moves on to some general evangelical beliefs about the end times, and a NASA scientist talking about eclipses. It’s interesting stuff, including past dates of these tetrads that have been significant in Israel’s history. But we’re left to wonder whether this end-of-days stuff is widely believed.

This USA Today writer followed the standard template for stories involving both science and religion: Find a nutty pastor or televangelist, preferably from the Deep South, who’s been saying something provocative. Quote him, and don’t worry if it’s secondhand or out of context. Then interview a scientist to balance the nutty guy. Don’t bother talking to any credible evangelical theologians or authors – or Christian astronomers — who might offer a level-headed view of all this. There isn’t time or space for that.

What we end up with are stories that, rather than making anyone think, just push people’s buttons. Science or religion? Readers only get to choose one.

Good journalism searches for the truth. Lazy journalism plucks the low-hanging fruit and simply reinforces stereotypes. Too bad, because with better sourcing this could have been a fascinating story.


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