Peggy Wehmeyer

A final thought about coverage of suicide: Peggy Wehmeyer on the pain of those left behind

A final thought about coverage of suicide: Peggy Wehmeyer on the pain of those left behind

This weekend’s think piece offers a look at yet another religion-news story that — for those with the eyes to see — could be linked to America’s current struggles with loneliness, depression and suicide.

If you missed it, please consider listening to last week"‘s “Crossroads” podcast, with ran in a piece with this headline: “Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide.

Much of this discussion, of course, was linked to the suicide of a California megachurch leader, the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, who was the co-founder of a national ministry for those facing issues of depression and suicide. He had been very open about his own struggles and, on the day he died, he led a funeral service for a woman who had just committed suicide.

In the past week or so, GetReligion posts have mentioned several issues linked to this depression and suicide — from cyber-bullying to cellphone addiction, from sky-high college loan debts to sleep deprivation. There has been some frank talk about clergy who are pushed over the edge by stress.

Now, here is a stunningly honest piece by a journalist — former CNN religion-beat pro Peggy Wehmeyer — that ran in the New York Times under this double-decker headline:

What Lies in Suicide’s Wake

Along with everything else, I wasn’t prepared for the stigma of becoming a widow this way.

Wehmeyer’s husband took his own life in 2008, during a struggle with pancreatic cancer. There is no explicit religion angle in this essay, other than the sobering reality that the people who lead religious congregations cannot sit back and ignore the pain that lingers for the spouses and families of those who commit suicide. It’s the crisis that often remains hidden.

The opening anecdote in this piece is long, detailed and agonizing. It’s a dinner party — not that long after her husband’s death — and Wehmeyer is trying to find a way to answer the questions of the woman seated next to her. Are you married? Divorced? No, widowed. The scene unfolds:

I’d always thought divorce signaled a failure in life’s greatest commitment. But in the months and years after my husband’s death, I discovered that there’s something worse than a marriage that ends in divorce — a marriage that ends the way mine did.

My table mate tiptoed further into fragile, off-limits territory.

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Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

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Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

I’ve highlighted it twice this week — here and here — but I’m still contemplating that big Lilly Endowment Inc. grant for religion reporting.

In case you missed my earlier posts, the $4.9 million Global Religion Journalism Initiative — long a topic of speculation — was confirmed this week.

It’ll fund 13 religion journalist positions at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation and create a partnership resulting in RNS content going to AP subscribers.

The Global Religion project has the potential to be really, really awesome (to borrow one of RNS editor in chief Bob Smietana’s favorite adjectives). But the ultimate verdict will rest in the implementation and what happens beyond the initial, 18-month grant period.

Here’s wishing the involved entities all the best in that process!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

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