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Why Is Religion Invisible To The Media?

A 12-year-old girl wrote herself a note before she died. It contained an amazing message of hope and redemption. That was before the media got to it.

Seven in 10 Americans identify as “very religious” or “moderately religious,” according to a recent Gallup survey. Each week, hundreds of millions of Americans go to houses of worship, pray, or just ponder the higher things related to our religious views. But it’s not news that this religious reality is not well reflected in our media.

There is some great work being done by mainstream media outlets, but much room for improvement. For those of us who are religious, we notice the weird way the media handles religion news and religious topics. We see it every time a broadcaster interviews someone live and stumbles when the subject mentions something religious. We see it in the egregious mistakes the New York Times makes about basic teachings of the Christian faith. We see it in the unmasked disdain for religious people.

But usually the media treatment of religious people and their religious views isn’t so much hostile as absent. We may not be invisible to them, but our religious views certainly are. I thought of this when I came across an interesting BuzzFeed post titled “After The Death Of Their 12-Year-Old Daughter, Parents Find The Letter She Wrote To Her Future Self.”

BuzzFeed is known for posting images with brief commentary. It’s wildly successful and has even spawned sites such as “Buzzfeed Articles Without The GIFs.” In tribute to that site, here’s what BuzzFeed had to say about the girl and her beautiful letter minus the images:

Taylor Smith, a 12-year-old girl from Tennessee, died last week of complications from pneumonia. She had flu-like symptoms in the days leading up to her death, like achy legs and a sore throat, but according to Taylor’s father Tim, she tested negative. “We did the usual flu/cold thing and got her prescription, loaded up on popsicles and soup and brought her back to rest,” Tim said. After Taylor died, her parents began sorting through her things. And that’s when they found a letter she had written to her future self. Tim shared Taylor’s letter with BuzzFeed on Thursday. The letter, which Tim said is addressed to future Taylor, perfectly captures what kind of girl Taylor was. As he put it, she was awesome. “She was random, she was smart,” Tim said. “She was super funny and super fun.” Not to mention nerdy. Past Taylor wanted to make sure Doctor Who was still on the air. And if not at least wanted to know what number regeneration they ended on. And if it wasn’t on TV anymore, she wanted her future self to go watch it right away. After she finished reading the letter, of course. “She liked doing quirky things and she liked doing meaningful things, she always created stuff,” Tim said. “The fact that she wrote this letter wasn’t a surprise, but what she wrote was.” Also, attached was a photo her future self could use to explain what a first-generation iPad looked like. Earlier this week, Taylor’s classmates were asked to wear blue in her memory. Her family is also setting up a memorial fund in her name.

This tells us what BuzzFeed found important in her letter and in the story. Now let me share a portion of the fairly brief letter from Taylor to her future self, as edited together from various images in the post:

“I didn’t get to go to that party, though, because I was in Cranks, Kentucky for my first mission trip. I’ve only been back for 6 days! Speaking of, how’s your relationship with GOD? Have you prayed, worshipped, read the bible, or gone to serve the lord recently? If not, get up and do so NOW! I don’t care what point in our life we’re in right now, do it! He was mocked, beaten, tortured and crucified for you! A sinless man, who never did you or any other person any wrong! Now, have you gone on any more mission trips?”

The difference between the Buzzfeed text and the text of the letter was so striking to me that I tweeted out about it. More on that in a bit. I asked a fellow reporter who I know to be savvy about religious matters what he thought about the piece. Here’s his response:

Buzzfeed gives you a picture of a sunny, creative, precocious girl. The girl, in a remarkably self-conscious act of self-definition, gave a picture of herself as a Christian. It’s so self-conscious, it’s actually designed as witness to herself, in case she is no longer this way. And that’s probably why she wanted it sealed for 10 years. She wanted it to be a distinct voice to her 22-year-old self.

OK, so it’s not just me. It seemed like such an obvious point that BuzzFeed had downplayed the role that God played in this young lady’s life. So I tweeted:


BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith responded:


Talk about moving the goalposts. I never accused anyone of hiding, just downplaying. Or as I put it:


My original tweet was understood by many, to judge from feedback. But some didn’t like it. One person took the time to issue a personal complaint that, well, I had complained. Another wrote:


I suggested “a single word” might do the trick. Finally, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith tweeted:


He added, “We write about religion a ton. You should read the site :(” and “Do check out @ellievhall’s Pope Francis coverage before making assumptions about what we do” with a link to the October 29 story “Boy Wanders Onto Stage To Hang Out With Pope Francis.”

I have little idea what Pope Francis has to do with a 12-year-old girl’s confession of faith but he’s got me on one thing. I’m not a regular BuzzFeed reader. So I perused the listing of Ellie Hall’s coverage over the past month. There were six religion stories (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), each on Pope Francis (he hugs sheep! he leaves voicemails for nuns! etc.).

This is all well and good, as far as coverage of the world’s most famous Catholic goes. I’m sure there are many other good examples, as well.

But rather than get defensive, it would be nice to see just a bit more reflection on the part of journalists.

Certainly it is not the worst thing in the world that two of the four things highlighted in the letter were about Doctor Who and zero of the four were about her strong Christian views. The global Christian community can easily survive this slight. But, as I said in my initial tweet, this is just a nice case study in how religious views are downplayed.

As important as Doctor Who is, I can’t help but think this girl and her grieving parents have been infinitely more comforted and informed by the words and actions of Christ. A news media that could regularly grapple with the real lives of religious adherents would serve us all well.

UPDATE: Looks like my hunch about the importance of religion to this family was right on and that BuzzFeed took the wrong angle, if this CNN report is any indication. And on that note, good work to the media who didn’t shy away from the religion angle.

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