From the public editor of The Sacramento Bee:
There they were, two stories on the Metro cover last Monday about a common topic: religion and beliefs.
Yet they were as opposite as night is to day.
The headlines said it all.
“Atheists stand proud,” said one. “Church’s members unite to aid schools,””said the other.
The juxtaposition of these stories caused a controversy. Can you guess what it was about?
Having gotten this far into the essay, I expected to read how atheist groups objected to the headlines. Placing atheists standing proud right next to Christians selflessly raising money for area schools could be construed as drawing a contrast between the conflicitng priorities of the two groups.
But no. That wasn’t the problem:
Well, as you might imagine, the juxtaposition caused more than a few Christian readers to complain about how offended they were and ask whether The Bee had lost its way.
More on that in a minute, but let me just say that I think such criticism is wrong and is based on a false premise of what we and journalism are about.
The atheist story described a Sunday gathering of freethinkers, humanists and atheists at Waterfront Park in Old Sacramento on what was dubbed Freethought Day, “a celebration of reason and church/state separation.”
The story was the page’s centerpiece, with a large photo of Michael Newdow singing into a microphone on a lonely stage with nary another human in sight.
Newdow is Sacramento’s famous atheist, a Godless news magnet.
The multitalented Newdow — he’s a lawyer, emergency room physician and minister in the First Atheist Church of True Science — sued to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Supreme Court rejected his suit, and he is now pursuing a second one. He’s also suing to remove “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency.
The other story was about a gathering of 13,000 people at Arco Arena put on by the Bayside Family of Churches to raise money for three schools in the region.
It was the second such event at Arco for Bayside, which placed a full-page ad in the paper the day before asking people to “Join us for the largest church service in America.”
It sounds to me like both of these stories are the sort of milquetoast local fare that is the stock-in-trade of smaller newspapers. You could probably justify putting either story first.
But I can guarantee you that no atheist would have complained if the Christian story had been given top billing. It takes a deeply arrogant religious person to take offense at giving people with a different relgiious view top-billing in a battle of relatively unimportant local stories.
The public editor continues:
“I’m offended by the (Metro) page,” said Robert Cunningham, 42, of Granite Bay and a church member who was at Arco. “The atheists have the front spot, and that makes no sense to me.”
Cunningham said that while the atheists had a right to their opinion, The Bee shouldn’t be their vehicle and that by publishing the story it was siding with “people who don’t believe in God.”
Echoing a sentiment lodged by others, Cunningham said that at the very least, “the stories should have been reversed” on the page, with the Arco event getting top billing.
He, like the others, didn’t quibble about the content of either story, only about the prominence of the play.
Presumably Cunningham would have interpreted the reverse placement as signalling the newspaper’s support for Christianity. That would have made him happy, but no less crazy. No doubt he’d interpret a lead story about a local riot as showing support for the rioters. A newspaper is not siding with the group featured in its lead article.
Anyway, read the rest of the article to find out the reasons for organizing the articles in so controversial a manner. And if you’re curious, you can check out the atheist article here and the Christian article here.
(The links to the two articles I found from a quick Google search on the headlines. However, it now seems that if you follow my links above you get sent not to the story itself, but to a log-in screen for the Sacramento Bee. Likewise for the public editor column. So here’s the rest of the PE story, to save you the trouble:
Assistant city editor Ricardo Sandoval was working last Sunday and was involved in the decision about which story to make the centerpiece.
Sandoval said he knew the decision would be controversial with readers either way. While he liked both stories, he thought the one about the atheist gathering was more interesting from a journalistic standpoint, in part because it wasn’t confined to atheists.
The top of the story, for example, was about a rabbi who took to the stage unexpectedly, thanking God for the sunny day and blessing the crowd. A photo and story also talked about a Christian and a San Francisco atheist debating God’s existence.
Even so, he said, he thought the best photo was of two young girls praying inside Arco Arena and because of that, felt the Bayside story should be the centerpiece.
As usually happens in newsrooms, a discussion with others ensued.
Assistant director of photography Tim Reese was also working that day. He felt strongly that the photos from the atheist event were better.
“The photos from (Arco) didn’t tell me much about the event except that there were a whole lot of people there,” Reese said. “The picture of Newdow told me a lot … no one was there. He was up there all alone, singing to a sparse crowd. That told me about the event and was a more interesting picture.”
Like Sandoval, Reese said he knew the decision would be controversial with some readers.
The large size of the Arco crowd, said Reese, was not in itself enough to elevate the story. He noted that there are many events in Sacramento that attract large crowds the paper doesn’t cover.
Both he and Sandoval noted that the continuation of the Bayside story included the large photo of the girls praying and was placed high on the page, so it wasn’t as if the event was being given short `shrift.
From his view, Reese explained, both the atheist story and photos were simply more interesting and worthy of more prominent display.
“In the end,” said Reese, “the decision is what’s most interesting for our readers, while keeping my personal beliefs out it.”
I couldn’t agree more. That’s the way it should be, decisions made on the merits of a story or photo without regard for baggage such as weighing the beliefs of one group against the another.
Those who criticize the paper for publishing the atheists’ story or for “taking sides” by making it the centerpiece don’t understand what we do. As best it can, the paper tries to reflect what is going on in this multifaceted community without fear or favor.
“In a weird way, it became a yin and yang page,” said Sandoval, explaining he agreed with the final story play decision. “It showed coexistence, how the community lives with that kind of contrast, the mixture of believers and nonbelievers.”