Thursday, June 05, 2008

Passive aggressive resistance

P-Zed points us to this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer. A local business man and atheist has put up a billboard for the local rationalist community. It reads: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." Steve Rade wanted to start a group for atheists in his area to get together with like minds. When he looked into it, he found that there were several atheist, skeptic, and humanist groups in the region, but that they had little contact with one another. He brought their leaders together and proposed forming an umbrella group called the Greater Philadelphia Coalition of Reason. He also offered to bankroll a director and put up the sign for a recruiting drive.

What I find unusual about the story is the angle the writer took. The story is about Rade and how he came to in this position as a leading light of the local rationalist community. The billboard is only mentioned as a hook to set up the question, what sort of person would put up a sign like that? The short profile of Rade is informative and fairly neutral in tone. Ninety percent of the newspapers and virtually all of the television stations would play the story as one of controversy. You know the type: "Local churches offended by billboard. Film at eleven." Yet the writer not only took a different tack, he avoided the controversy angle altogether. There are no quotes from local pastors or startled drivers con or pro. He even avoids mentioning the controversy where it might have fit into the story. For example, Rade mentions how many phone calls the billboard has generated for the group; that would have been a natural place to mention haw many were positive and how many negative. But the writer, David O'Reilly by name, avoided the easy story and stuck to talking about Rade.

This wasn't good enough for someone in the office. Like many news outlets, the Philadelphia Inquirer wants its website to be an interactive experience. O'Reilly's story is presented with an instant poll and blog-style comments. Whoever set those up wanted to see the controversy angle covered and set up the reader participation to invite the believers to air their wounded feelings.

The poll asks "Do you believe in God?"* The vast majority of Americans believe in some form of deity. That's not news. It's also not especially relevant to the article. Relevant would be a question phrased to tease out interest in Rade and his group, such as "Would you attend the meeting of an atheists' group?" or "Do you know any atheists?" The do you believe in God question adds nothing to the story except to allow the uncomfortable majority to reassure themselves that their numbers are still unassailable enough that the Rades of the world pose no threat to them. Giving comfort to the powerful is a contemptible way for a newspaper to behave.

The comment board is even more obviously slanted toward controversy and bringing out those opposed to Rade and his group. The link reads: "Your thoughts: Does the billboard bother you?" It's not just set up to provoke controversy, it is clearly encouraging those offended to use the comments to air their feelings of grievance.

It is possible that these sidebars are nothing more than the work of an unimaginative low level editor or webmaster with no ax to grind. But, given the obvious slant, I'm more inclined to see it as a passive aggressive attempt to undermine the message of the article--that atheists are normal people--by encouraging outrage and providing a rallying forum for those hostile to that message of tolerance. But whether it was the result of hostility or incompetence, it is bad journalism.

* The Pharyanguloid hordes are swamping the poll. It was running two to one against God when I read the article.

No comments: