This is not a generic prayer story: A flooded cave, 12 Thai boys and a former Buddhist monk

When it comes to emails from GetReligion readers, the notes I have received about the ongoing drama in the flooded Thai cave have been quite predictable.

Of course, people are concerned. Of course, readers are following the dramatic developments in the efforts to rescue the 12 young members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach. Click here for an evolving CNN time line of the rescue.

But there is a rather logical question that people are asking, one that goes something like this: We keep reading about people praying for the boys. What kind of prayers are we talking about?

Ah, another case of generic-prayers syndrome.

Actually, there have been a few interesting religion-angle stories written about this drama, with the Associated Press offering a feature that must have run in some publications (we can hope). Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.

However, here is a piece of a rather typical faith-free news report -- care of the New York Times -- similar to those being read by many news consumers.

Many family members have spent every day and night at the command center near the cave, praying for the boys to come out alive.
Relatives said they were not angry with the coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, for taking the boys into the cave. Instead, they praised his efforts to keep them alive during the ordeal.
“He loves the children,” said Nopparat Khanthawong, the team’s head coach. “He would do anything for them.”
The boys got trapped in the cave on June 23 after they biked there with Mr. Ekkapol after practice. The vast cave complex was mostly dry when they entered. But the cave is, in essence, a seasonal underground river, and rain began falling soon after they arrived. Within hours, they were trapped by rising water.

You can see a similar story at The Los Angeles Times, only with zero references to faith.

Let me stress that most of the reporting on this story has been gripping stuff, with lots of human details and technical information about the challenges linked to the rescue efforts. One former Thai navy SEAL has already died, trying to rescue the trapped team.

You also knew that Donald Trump had to slide into this picture at some point. The Los Angeles Times notes that the boys, and their coach:

... were found more than a week later by a pair of British volunteer divers who were part of a rescue mission that has drawn divers and experts from around the world -- including U.S. military personnel from Japan, bird’s nest collectors who hunted for shafts in the rock face and members of Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture.
The Americans on site include an Air Force rescue support team of about 30 divers, survival specialists and medical and logistics experts.
On Sunday, as news of the first rescues flashed worldwide, President Trump tweeted for the first time about the soccer team, saying the U.S. was working “very closely with the government of Thailand to help get all of the children out of the cave and to safety.” 

I mention this LA report because it did include an interesting image from Facebook:


Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 8.42.00 AM.png

Now, if you know anything about Thailand then you probably know that about 94 percent of the population is Buddhist. (See this U.S. Department of State report for details.)

Thus, it's no surprise that members of the rescue team are wearing what certainly appear to Buddhist prayer beads. Also, note the red strings. That's another link to centuries of Buddhist traditions linked to prayer.

Maybe, in this case, many journalists just thought that it was logical to assume that the Wild Boars and their coach are Buddhist. Thus, Buddhists are gathered near the cave to pray for them. Why mention these ordinary details?

Well, in this case the religion details are far from ordinary.

Here is the top of an AP feature, that ran on the Washington Post online site with this headline: "Buddhist meditation may calm team trapped in Thai cave."

MAE SAI, Thailand -- At a gilded temple in Thailand’s mountainous north, Ekapol Chanthawong honed a skill that will serve him well as he sits trapped underground in a dark cave: meditation.
Before the 25-year-old was a coach to the young boys on the Wild Boars soccer team -- 12 of whom are trapped alongside him -- he spent a decade as a saffron-robed Buddhist monk. He still stays at the temple from time to time and will meditate with the monks there each day.
“He could meditate up to an hour,” said his aunt, Tham Chanthawong. “It has definitely helped him and probably helps the boys to stay calm.”

Later on in the same story, there is this additional background information and commentary. I think this is highly relevant material that would interest readers:

“Adolescents are especially social creatures, and having friends with them as well as their coach would be a tremendous help,” said David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University’s medical school.
The boys and their coach are known to be a tight-knit group who go on adventures, including swimming in waterfalls, cycling trips through the mountains, river rafting and cave exploring.
Experts say Ekapol’s meditation -- a mainstay of the Buddhist faith -- likely served the group well.
“I’d speculate it could be helpful -- even if it functioned solely as a way for the children to feel like their coach was doing something to help them,” said Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “Feeling loved and cared for is paramount.”

This is not your ordinary praying-in-distress religion angle, the kind that the late Peter Jennings of ABC News used to describe as a symbol of the religious disconnect between far too many journalists and the ordinary people whose lives end up in the news.

The coach spent a decade as a Buddhist monk? What's the journalism logic for omitting that detail, in a tense, dramatic story of this kind? Kudos to the AP for devoting a story to that angle.

But what about television? I don't watch a lot of TV news, so I have not seen many reports on this story. Are TV producers settling for generic prayers or no prayers at all?

Please respect our Commenting Policy