How to lose friends and alienate people

Catch the Fire Ministries have a knack for getting in trouble. The Christian orthodoxy, myself included, were right behind them in their muslim bashing court case. Religious groups must be free to criticise other religious beliefs – provided we afford those other beliefs the same right to criticise us. That’s true freedom of religious expression.

Perhaps in a most appalling case of nominal determinism “Catch the Fire Ministries” have inflamed the Victorian bush fire situation with the most ideologically inappropriate piece of third party commentary ever released. From the SMH. And here’s their own media release.

“The Catch the Fire Ministries has tried to blame the bushfires disaster on laws decriminalising abortion in Victoria.”

But that’s just editorial from a left of centre anti Christian rag you argue. No. That’s pretty much the sentiment of what Pastor Danny Nalliah had to say.

“Pastor Danny Nalliah, claimed he had a dream about raging fires on October 21 last year and that he woke with “a flash from the Spirit of God: that His conditional protection has been removed from the nation of Australia, in particular Victoria, for approving the slaughter of innocent children in the womb”.”

I’ve mentioned before that I’m anti-abortion. I think God is anti-abortion too. But I don’t think the fires are his judgment on the state for its abortion stance. I think that judgment will come later.

I think the fires are an example of the pain and suffering we’re told we’ll all experience in a world frustrated by sin. Biblically we should expect natural disasters. We certainly shouldn’t run around ascribing God’s judgment to situations like this where everybody, Christian and non-Christian, has been hit.

Here’s some more from Mr Nalliah:

“Asked by the Herald if he did not believe most Australians would regard his remarks as being in appallingly bad taste, he said today: “I must tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

He said it was no use “molly-coddling” Australians.

Asked if he believed in a God who would take vengeance by killing so many people indiscriminately – even those who opposed abortion, Mr Nalliah referred to 2 Chronicles 7:14 to vouch for his assertion that God could withdraw his protection from a nation.

“The Bible is very clear,” he said. “If you walk out of God’s protection and turn your back on Him, you are an open target for the devil to destroy.”

In the New King James version of the Bible, 2 Chronicles 7:14 states that: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

He quoted a headline describing the fires as “The Darkest hour for Victoria”. “A few months ago the news media should have reported `the darkest hour for the unborn’, but unfortunately the `Decriminalisation of Abortion bill’ went through parliament and was passed, thus making many people call Victoria `the baby killing state of Australia,’ ” Mr Nalliah said.

Pastor Nalliah said there may be criticism. But he said he did not send out his media statement thoughtlessly. “We spend two days working on it.”

He had previously said drought and the world financial crisis could be partly blamed on human sin.”

I’m sorry Danny Nalliah, you’ve lost my vote. This is terrible PR and it’s terrible theology. It’s just bad. The Herald does mention that Nalliah is putting a large whack of resources in to fighting the fires and helping those affected. And lest you think my problem is purely that it’s bad PR and he should be out there calling a spade a spade and a bushfire the “judgment of God”… here’s what Jesus had to say about natural disasters and loss of life (in Luke 13:1-5)

“1Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Death hits us all. We all need to be ready. But those who are hit by disaster are no more deserving of it than the rest of us. Nalliah is making a leap of logic that Jesus himself rejected. Funnily enough, just before this bit, in Luke 12, Jesus has a dig at people who use the obvious situations around them to justify particular arguments or beliefs, like say picking an economic crisis or fires to say something profound about God’s judgment…

54He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

Disaster reporting

Stuss has a great post today about news coverage of disasters. With particular reference to the current fires and the saturation of “special news editions” on commercial television.

“This week I am again appalled at the news coverage. As far as I’m concerned, it is just not appropriate to show extended footage of any disaster. Regular updates, fine, good even, but not regular as in replace everything you would normally be showing.”

As a journalism graduate working in PR I’ve got some thoughts on the issue. I reckon these are probably worth posting here – even though they’re pretty much verbatim what I posted as a comment on Stuss’s post.

As a “journalist” I’m in two minds on this. Disasters like this are real news – and there are people who want to know every bit of the story – particularly if they have friends or families in affected areas and haven’t been able to make contact. But, sometimes not a lot is happening and there’s a whole lot of repetition – and then there’s the talking to about 10 secondary sources.

Experts in their fields. So you have the eye witnesses, the firefighters, the fire commissioner, the politician, the police and other involved parties having their say… then you have the behavioural psychologists, the weathermen, the university professor, the opinion columnist, etc, all throwing their opinions into the mix.

If you consider the September 11 story – the news coverage started off reporting just the facts. From and objective point – two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre buildings. There were plenty of “objective” updates. The buildings collapsed. The rescue effort. All of these were newsworthy elements and there were lots of primary sources to be talked to.

Then, in the days following the actual moment of impact there was a heap of other stuff thrown into the coverage. Speculation on why the buildings collapsed, interviews with engineers about the tower’s structure, interviews with people who knew about the effect of heat on steel. That sort of thing. Then there was the “why” element – terrorism experts, politicians. Everyone had two cents worth to throw in. Reporting a disaster is like peeling an onion – you can split a story into layers and layers of complexity.

There’s an inverted relationship between time and newsworthy content – unless new things are happening all the time.

Because of ratings pressure and the desire not to be “one upped” if something significant does happen all the networks are simultaneously peeling the onion. They need to keep doing that to keep the coverage rolling.

There should be a dedicated “disaster channel” and each network should donate resources to a pool of talent – and they could all draw stuff out of that pool for nightly bulletins.

As a viewer, I tend to get sick of the special coverage pretty quickly if nothing new is happening. The fact that I keep watching comes from my inner news addict than from any form of compelling content.

Having dedicated event coverage is also good for continuity of viewing. The nature of big stories is that there are lots of new bits happening all the time. I would be very frustrated if my regular programming was constantly interrupted by updates. At that point I think keeping the “special news bulletin” thing running is less disruptive than otherwise.

Extended coverage of disasters can have a demonstrably large effect on children. I did an assignment on that at uni once.

The other problem with the reporting aspect comes when circumstances are blown up to pad out bulletins. Take the current flooding in North Queensland as a case study.

Ingham is underwater. That’s bad for Ingham. But news bulletins around the country have been featuring journalists based in Townsville in their weather updates. Townsville has had some water. Yesterday’s king tide didn’t help things.

But to use images from the small percentage of streets in Townsville with flooding and tar everywhere with the same watery brush is unconscionable reporting and does significant damage to the city’s reputation and its economy. Tourism bookings to Townsville are being canceled all over the place. We’re in contact with Tourism Queensland’s international offices daily because people think Townsville is underwater.

Overstating the case in a disaster is a spur of the moment decision by news producers with pretty big consequences for those on the ground. This is particularly problematic when secondary source experts with no bona fides are thrown in front of a camera to spread their particular brand of hysteria.

Try being the person who has to fix the idea that Townsville will be closed for the next two months due to flooding.