Readers criticize religion page story on atheist camp


I received several angry calls on March 8 from readers upset about that day’s religion pages. TK Barger, The Blade’s religion editor, had written a feature about a children’s summer camp.

Camp Quest, however, is different. It was founded by atheists and is, as its Web site says, “particularly geared towards building a community for children from atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other freethinking families.”

“What is that doing on the religion page? It is an outrage and an insult,” said one caller, who did not leave her name. Another said, “I can’t figure out why that would be there, except as a cautionary tale.”

Yet another said he thought the editors of The Blade should be and would be damned. (This is not the first time I have heard this.)

Your ombudsman’s first reaction was to ask Mr. Barger what his views were — especially since he spends his life thinking about different aspects of religion.

“As religion editor, I try to include much more than ‘church news,’ he told me. “We cover place of worship, we cover holidays and other events, we cover ideas and issues … and sometimes we get to show how people actually ‘do’ religion differently from the way the religious organizations say it should be done.

“Readers of The Blade come from many faiths and no faith. Atheism is one element in religious orientation, and it shouldn’t be ignored just because atheists say there is no God.”

The religion editor went on to tell me that he attempts to approach every faith and its members with honor, respect and dignity, with the goal of getting all of us to see how “we are all people together.”

Your ombudsman totally agrees with that. The old-fashioned combination of church notes and social news that defined religion coverage in, say, the 1950s, is now hopelessly out of date. I think Mr. Barger’s philosophy is a good model for a framework for religion coverage for every newspaper in the land.

● However, speaking of religion …The Blade made what I found to be an embarrassing mistake on March 16 in the story “Middle Easterners assert their own unique identity.”

The reporter wrote about a North Toledo neighborhood that was home to a thriving Arab-American community in the 1940s before “The Arabs moved out and into the white and Jewish neighborhoods.”

“Do you know how stupid you look?” one Jewish woman told me after the story appeared. “Do you know how offensive that is?”

Well, yes, your ombudsman does.

Though not formally Jewish myself, my household belongs to a Reform Jewish temple in Michigan.

Virtually all Jews in Toledo are white. But that’s not the main problem with this reference. Judaism is not a race; it is both a religion and a group of people who share a heritage and ethnic and social traditions.

The “Jewish and white neighborhoods” comment was not the reporter’s but something said by an elderly Arab-American woman.

Nevertheless, it should not have been repeated in The Blade, at least not without an explanation.

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, said he noticed the comment, but “I let it stay in the story because I took it as a point of pride by her that her family and community were successful enough to be able to move into more affluent areas.”

He is convinced that neither the reporter nor the woman being interviewed intended anything that could be interpreted as a slur.

But Mr. Murray said that when he heard that some Jewish readers took offense, it made him “realize once again how sensitive stories about race and ethnicity are. If I had it to do over, I would change the sentence.”

● Reader Jack Kapron of Bowling Green was offended by Keith Burris’ commentary on March 24 about a potential new Costco store in Perrysburg. Mr. Burris thinks the company’s proposed site, at State Rt. 25 and Eckel Junction Road, is a bad choice.

Among the reasons he gives: “A major gas line must be moved. Google ‘gas line explosions’ if you want an eye-opener.”

Mr. Kapron did not like that. “Since when does relocating a gas line [where the] expense will be incurred by the developer become dangerous? Where is the logic in his remarks?”

Well, Mr. Burris’ column represents his views, and not necessarily those of anyone else. That’s why it is always labeled “commentary.” He is entitled to his opinion.

Your ombudsman doesn’t know that area well and has no opinion whatsoever about where any new Costco store should go. But I do think Mr. Kapron has a point.

Moving a gas line can be hazardous and requires precautions. But seeming to suggest it necessarily means an explosion is a little lurid and not really justified by what we know now.

Had I been Mr. Burris, I would have been content to have written “a major gas line must be moved” and left it at that.

● Sensible Suggestion: Readers, don’t think you can’t possibly make an impact. A woman who didn’t want her name used called me earlier this month to ask about our weather coverage. “Why doesn’t the Toledo weather forecast in The Blade include the weather for ‘tomorrow night,’” even though it does for other days to come?

Your ombudsman didn’t know either, so I took it to the editors, who agreed this would be a sensible change.

The Blade is now working with Jay Berschback, who is also the chief meteorologist at WTVG-TV, and the newspaper is in the process of redesigning the page to include tomorrow night in the forecast.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in this newspaper is invited to write me, c/​o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office, 555 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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