Readers get hot and bothered about 'Sin Burger' reports

GetReligion is almost a decade old and, from the very beginning, many readers have struggled to understand a very basic fact about this blog. To state the matter bluntly, many readers think this is a religion blog.

Sorry, but this isn't a religion blog and it isn't a religion-news blog, either. GetReligion is what it is. This is a blog about the mainstream news media's efforts -- good and bad -- to cover religion news.

Because of this misunderstanding, readers often send us stories and they want to know what we think about the news event or trend described in the story. Most of the time, this happens when a news story describes something that readers find outrageous, heretical, stupid or all of the above.

Thus, it didn't take long for your GetReligionistas to receive emails asking us to comment about a particular hamburger being served at an edgy or outrageous joint up in Chicago.

A news story about a hamburger?

Sigh. This Forbes story was one of the better examples of the coverage, and here is how it starts off:

In Chicago, Kuma’s Corner, a heavy metal-themed beers-and-burgers restaurant, has ignited a debate over a burger that unites beef and the Eucharist.

The hamburger of the month is the Ghost, named for a Swedish metal band known as Ghost or Ghost B.C., the lead singer of which wears a Roman Catholic cardinal’s robe on stage. The burger features a 10-ounce beef patty accompanied by slow-braised goat, a “Ghost chile aioli,” white cheddar cheese, a pretzel bun, a red wine reduction, and an unconsecrated communion wafer.

Yes, you read that right. And the management claims that this hamburger is some kind of act of devotion:

The restaurant’s Facebook announcement deems the burger in “the spirit of our undying reverence for the lord and all things holy” and “a fitting tribute to the supreme blasphemous activities carried out by the band itself,” describing the red wine reduction as “(the blood of christ)” and the communion wafer as “(the body of christ).” The call to action: “Come pay your respects!” The cost: $17.

Now, as you would imagine, some readers seemed anxious for your GetReligionistas to be outraged and to strongly condemn this rather stupid PR stunt.

The problem, of course, was that most of the coverage of this alleged news event was rather pedestrian. The MEDIA COVERAGE was rather ordinary -- not too hot, not too cold. Reporters described the restaurant. Reporters described people being outraged by this product. It was pretty clear that this stunt was meant to outrageous. Surf around in this Google News search file and you'll see what I mean.

Now, here is the journalistic key to this situation.

Note that this first-person Forbes report clearly stated, right up front, that what was being served atop this burger was an "unconsecrated communion wafer." Repeat: "unconsecrated."

Without that word, it understandable that readers would be tempted to think that this was a genuine act of sacrilege.

However, with that crucial fact in place, the Forbes story showed that this hamburger was meant as a kind of hip, snarky, mocking editorial statement of some kind about Catholicism, faith, religious authority or something. The too-cool-for-school members of the joint's management probably thought they were being edgy.

What journalists needed to find was a soundbite friendly voice of Catholic authority who could make the facts clear and explain why believers could be offended by this PR stunt, but that they didn't need to turn it into a matter of life and death.

Cue the obvious source, Father James Martin, the Jesuit best known among hipsters as the chaplain of The Colbert Report:

“Technically, an unconsecrated host is just that -- unconsecrated and, basically, just a piece of bread,” he replied in an email. “So, on the one hand, it may be just one burger joint’s desperate attempt to attract customers and stir up some controversy, which always increases sales. On the other hand, as a Catholic, I find this kind of needless sarcasm annoying -- would they pull a stunt like this mocking Judaism or Islam? I doubt it. Anyway, Chicago is more known for its hot dogs: I’ll stick to that.”

So was this (I'll say it again) PR stunt a major story or not? I vote "no," because of that word "unconsecrated." Any journalist who omitted that key word was just adding gasoline to a tiny PR fire.

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