crusades

The New York Times is very, very, very cautious when describing Billy Graham's career

The New York Times is very, very, very cautious when describing Billy Graham's career

Believe it or not, news consumers, journalists really do not like to make mistakes. Reporters and editors are also trained to be skeptical, to say the least, when it comes to accepting statistics provided by activist groups.

In practice, this leads to two syndromes: (1) Using language that fudges the numbers, making sure readers know that they are estimates and (2) trusting statistics from trusted organizations that fit the newsroom's editorial template, while distrusting statistics from organizations that the newsroom, well, doesn't trust.

Case in point: In a story on abortion, which organization to you think the editorial team at The New York Times will trust when it comes time to offer statistics on, let's say, abortions (or perhaps mammograms) -- Planned Parenthood or the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?

However, there may be another explanation from time to time for some of the strange factual statements that one encounters in news copy. Call it "bizarre caution." This can happen when journalists do quick, hurried work in unfamiliar territory. For example, consider the overture on a new Times report that ran with this headline: "Heirs to 2 Evangelical Empires Take Different Paths Into Political Fray."

OK, the goal is to spot the two #LOL references -- think cautious, fudged language -- in this copy about the Rev. Billy Graham.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One, the president of the Christian university his father founded, raised eyebrows and provoked an outcry among some evangelicals when he endorsed Donald J. Trump before the Iowa caucuses.

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RNS on Billy Graham, Louis Zamperini and a Los Angeles tent revival that changed history

RNS on Billy Graham, Louis Zamperini and a Los Angeles tent revival that changed history

It's a question I have heard outsiders ask quite a few times during my 40 years or so in the news business: How do journalists produce those long, deep feature obituaries so quickly after the death of a major newsmaker?

The answer, of course, is that these lengthy obituaries are written far in advance and then quickly updated when the subject of the profile passes away. This puts reporters in an awkward position, since they often need to call experts and insiders for comment on the meaning of a famous person's life and work, even though this person is still alive.

So when do journalists start producing this kind of feature package? Basically, the more famous the person the earlier newsroom prepare for their deaths. I am sure that The Los Angeles Times already had something ready when superstar Robin Williams died, because of his stature and his history of struggles with drugs and depression.

All of this is to say that major newsrooms have had obituary features ready about the Rev. Billy Graham since -- oh -- 1955 or so. I know that I worked on some Graham obit materials for The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) back in the 1980s. I have known, for several decades, the basic outline of the "On Religion" column I plan to write about his legacy.

You can hear the ticking of this clock in a new Religion News Service feature written by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman, which focuses on the 1949 event when Graham's path cross that of another major figure who is currently in the news -- Louis Zamperini.

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