05 December 2010

The good and the godless

Paul Tobin of the Humanist Society is outraged with The Straits Times Saturday feature on 27 November 2010, "God Wants You: Making faith cool".

With all due respect, Paul Tobin is barking up the wrong tree when he complains the feature expresses a "prejudice against those without any religious affiliation".

Pro-religious article or bad journalistic writing?

As a rule of thumb: never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. As a further rule of thumb: Straits Times journalists - even if they're not Dr. "I don't need no stinking research" Andy Ho - are generally incompetent even when it comes to journalistic standards.

All you need to do is to read through the entire 16-page feature from last Saturday. One will then invariably make the following observations and conclusions:

1. The author has a 16-page, multiple article feature written on youth outreach by religious groups.

1a. This is not a 16-page feature on youth and violence, or solving youth problems through religion.

2. However, the editor sees more readers being interested to read the 16-page feature if the lead article suggests the outreach is tied to the rise in youth gang violence and the current moral panic.

2a. In other words, the lead article of the feature has been tweaked to be 'relevant' to 'current issues'. Hence the throwaway references to youth violence and gangs. Even Matthew Matthews, the pastor-sociologist interviewed here, says *nothing* about violence and gangs, but about religiosity as a youth phenomenon.

3. But anyway, that's why the lead article states early on that the youth outreach efforts have been going on for years to engage gang-prone youth - even though the reports in the next 14 pages mention nothing about reaching out youths and gangs - merely reaching out to youths in general.

4. My proof? How about: the list of interview questions Lee Siew Hwa sent to one of her correspondents in her feature article - which would have been the same set of questions she sent to everyone else.

But what about the line about "losing a generation to godlessness", or losing youths to "cynicism, violence and even fanaticism" in the absence of religion?

If this were Lee Siew Hwa's own words, then we have a case for her apparent bias against atheism and whatnot. A more likely explanation: journalists of The Straits Times - following certain bad practices in second-rate newspapers from the west - do not feel the need to indicate that a particular line or lines of thought are actually quotes or paraphrases from interviewees.

So think: which interviewee(s) would have made a remark about generations being lost to godlessness? Which interviewee(s) from which religious group(s) covered in the feature would have equated the absence of religion to an absence in morality?

[Hat-tip to AngryDoctor]