AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1993

Visitation Rites   

When confronted with reports of visits by the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other mysterious religious phenomena, journalists rarely ask the tough questions.

By William Triplett
William Triplett is a Washington, D.C.-basedwriter whose articles have appeared in Playboy, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and other publications. He is coauthor of Drug Wars: An Oral History From the Trenches (Morrow, 1992).      

"Some drivers see image of Christ in spaghetti ad" was the headline that caught Roy Peter Clark's eye. It was in late May 1991, and Clark, dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, was leafing through the front section of the St. Petersburg Times. The Associated Press story referred to a roadside Pizza Hut billboard that dozens of Georgia motorists were claiming bore the image of Jesus amid the sauce. The people quoted, like the story itself, seemed to Clark to be nutty at best. After smirking, he didn't give it another thought until the next day when he was driving home.

He was listening to a National Public Radio reporter interview a motorist who claimed to have seen the Spaghetti Savior. To Clark's surprise, the woman "was not a wacko at all. She was very articulate and thoughtful," he says. "It taught me a lesson on the dangers of prejudging people's religious experiences."

Clark also noticed something else. Though the reporter playfully contended the "face" on the billboard might not be that of Jesus but of Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello's character from "Saturday Night Live"), he never directly questioned her basic claim. The interviewer treated the woman's story with respect, but like the AP story, he had no critical perspective.

According to several press observers, his approach was typical.

"I think we [the media] continue to be overly enamored and less than properly skeptical of these kinds of stories," says Art Nauman, ombudsman for the Sacramento Bee, who says that claims of religious miracles get the same kind of coverage claims of the supernatural get. In a February 1989 column, Nauman noted, "When it comes to covering the serious world of government, law, war, peace, poverty and such, journalists generally can be trusted to raise questions and demand verification in their quest for the truth in the news. But when it comes to another universe of human interest – stories of the paranormal, of the other-worldly, of things that go bump in the night – they often seem to suspend critical judgments."

Another columnist, Jack Smith of the Los Angeles Times, devoted an October 1990 column to the subject of a haunted house, noting that the majority of stories on the supernatural tend to accept the bulk of quotes "at face value."

A database search shows that among the more than 40 stories about mysterious religious events either published or broadcast in the mainstream media between March 1990 and March 1993, only a half dozen pieces fulfilled the journalist's basic mission of telling the other side – in these cases, including a possible interpretation of events that differed from what the principals claimed. What makes this so peculiar is the fact that charlatans have been very un mysteriously rigging statues to cry or icons to bleed since the Renaissance, and incidents of "visions" very often have turned out to have simple explanations.

In their defense, reporters tend to plead a tight deadline or a narrow assignment focus. But lack of depth on stories involving religion is hardly new. Indeed, the Summer 1993 issue of Nieman Reports included 15 articles examining why religion coverage historically has been so poor. According to Clark, the often shallow coverage of mysterious religious phenomena can be seen as the media's tacit acknowledg-

ment of its mediocre work in the overall field of religion. "These [unquestioning] stories," he says, "are compensatory behavior by people who know they do a shitty job of covering the spiritual lives of Americans."

Visitations I and II

In the summer of 1992 in Cold Springs, Kentucky, a local pastor said he was told by an Ohio mystic, whom he refused to identify, that the Virgin Mary would appear at a specific time and day. Print and broadcast reporters converged on the scene – along with an estimated 6,000 others.

The report by Beverly Bartlett of Gannett News Service in the August 31 Louisville Courier-Journal was a simple recitation of events. "People from across the country gathered Monday in the parking lot here [because]..the visionary from..Ohio reportedly said people here would receive a message from Mary, the mother of Jesus, at midnight or early Tuesday."

Much of Bartlett's story was devoted to unquestioned claims of rapture in anticipation of the visit: A Cincinnati real estate agent insisted that "her rosary turned gold Monday – maybe more silver with a gold cast... And [the agent] says she can see the sun spinning... Her sister, Eileen Schell, also says her rosary changed color."

After Mary apparently failed to show, a point duly reported in press accounts, the media nonetheless reported some witnesses' claims of having seen or felt a holy presence. Reuters' September 1 piece was the most reserved account, basically recounting the non-event. However, Gannett, the Chicago Tribune and National Public Radio relied heavily on statements from those who said they had had a religious experience.

NPR's September 1 story, reported by Maryanne Zeleznik, news director of the NPR affiliate in northern Kentucky, quoted a 12-year-old girl saying that "at midnight she felt faint and the hair stood up on the back of her neck." The girl then described at length her vision of a white, glowing Mary. She also said she saw Jesus, bearded and wearing a red cloak. A Louisville woman was then quoted as saying she saw the Virgin "circling the area."

The next day Beth Menge of Gannett filed a report quoting witnesses who said they had seen images of Mary either in a tree or along a church wall. The Chicago Tribune published breathy descriptions of people experiencing mysterious chills and tremblings. Scripps Howard News Service focused on the campy aspects, reporting on a radio disc jockey distributing free T-shirts with "Eat, Drink and See Mary" printed on the front and "Virgin Mary World Tour" printed on the back. Not one report carried a comment from a social scientist, psychologist, debunker, skeptic or theologian for an alternative explanation.

Besides the six balanced stories done during the three-year period, there were another six that had traces of an alternative perspective. Take, for example, New York Times reporter Ari Goldman's September 6, 1992, report on another predicted appearance of the Virgin Mary, this time in Marlboro Township, New Jersey. Mary was supposed to visit the backyard of a local man, as she allegedly had done twice before. In the fourth paragraph of a nearly 1,500-word piece, Goldman wrote, "Psychologists and others studying the Marian visions speculate that the recent increase [in alleged sightings] could be connected to a variety of factors, including the poor economy and the approach of the year 2000."

Goldman seemed to be suggesting that people may have been seeing what they wanted or needed to see to reassure themselves – a valid alternative reading of the events. But the balance of his piece is reflected in its headline: "When Mary Is Sighted, a Blessing Has Its Burdens." Goldman gave ample evidence of how the swelling crowds were straining the small town's resources.

As in Goldman's story, hints and suggestions are often the stand-in for useful analysis, but they can raise more questions than they answer. Karen Burnes of ABC News reported a short piece that same night from the same angle: the strain on Marlboro Township. Near the end of her story, she quoted a university theologian who told her that "one of the possibilities for all of this is that people are kind of searching for security..." So this was collective wish-fulfillment? Burnes did not ask the theologian to elaborate.

The next day, September 7, Robert Hanley of the New York Times followed up on the increasing strain angle, and then let the faithful dominate the story. "Kathleen Cully, of Maplewood, N.J., said: 'A lot of these things are fraud. I don't think this one is a fraud. There's a feeling of presence.' " Further down in the story, Hanley quoted a Staten Island man saying, "You can't stop the power of God... Just because it's 1992, it doesn't mean miracles can't be happening."

What exactly was this feeling of presence? How might experts define it? What made the Staten Island man so sure this was the power of God? Hanley didn't address those issues.

Weeping Madonna

The events at a Northern Virginia church near Washington, D.C., that began around Thanksgiving 1991 and ended the following August drew more national media attention than the Marlboro and Cold Springs events combined. Seventeen broadcast and print stories – including a U.S. News & World Report cover story last March 29, seven months after the phenomenon ended – reported claims of weeping statues.

According to news accounts, statues of Mary would weep in the presence of Father James Bruse, a local priest. At first only the church's statues were involved, but later pilgrims from all over the country swore that statues they brought along began to weep after Bruse blessed them. Bruse also was said to have experienced stigmata, the wounds of Christ, on his body.

The media often dodged the question of authenticity by letting the participants be their own skeptics. Several pieces could be cited here, but Pierre Thomas' March 9, 1992, story in the Washington Post's Metro section was typical: " 'When [stigmata] first started, I thought it was some kind of skin disease,' Bruse said. Asked about the possibility of a hoax, he said: 'I would be just as cynical. I would be questioning this.' " Four paragraphs later Thomas quoted Bruse's superior, the Rev. Daniel Hamilton: " '[Bruse] came to the ultimate cynic,' Hamilton said. 'I don't believe in these kinds of things. I told him it must be the result of atmospheric conditions.' "

The Catholic Church hierarchy was noncommittal. As both the Washington Post and United Press International noted, the church hesitates to endorse something as divine that may later prove to have very earthly explanations. Also frequently pointed out is that the Roman Catholic Church has recognized only 14 Virgin sightings and weeping statue occurrences in the past 200 years.

Neither the Virginia church nor the diocese conducted an official inquiry. A spokeswoman at Bruse's church says it did not allow scientific tests because "we wanted to protect the integrity of what was happening. We didn't want this to become a circus. You either believed or didn't believe it was happening." Father Curtis Clark, an official with the local Catholic diocese, says the diocese discerned no theological message and therefore did not investigate. "As far as the [Catholic] Church was concerned," he says, "the evidence was compelling that there was no hoax going on."

Critics say it's not in the church's interest to actively investigate such incidents. "The church naturally wants people to believe the statue is crying and keep up the mystery because it brings people into the church and fills the collection plate," says James Randi, who has spent a lifetime investigating claims of the paranormal. "It's a little game they're playing."

Sources like Randi, who could offer a critical perspective, are least often quoted. Of the half dozen more or less balanced stories mentioned earlier, four concerned Father Bruse, with one of the more evenhanded and fully rounded dispatches coming from People magazine. In the third paragraph of Mary Esselman's 1,200-word piece in the April 27, 1992, issue, she made the point that "clearly something is happening, but for now no one can say for certain quite what it is. Skeptics abound." She then quoted at length independent critics, such as Randi and a member of the National Capital Area Skeptics.

To its credit, the Washington Post ran an 1,800-word piece by Sue Anne Pressley and Avis Thomas-Lester on April 5, 1992, that devoted five paragraphs to explaining how statues can be rigged easily to cry (e.g., animal fat smeared on a statue eventually liquefies and runs as it warms to room temperature; calcium chloride draws moisture out of the air until it similarly liquefies). Last March's U.S. News cover story, by Lynn Rosellini, included four paragraphs of skeptical comment and was accompanied by a sidebar on hoaxes. Rosellini also cited a chemical analysis of one statue's "tears" the magazine obtained surreptitiously that showed "no evidence of the salt and proteins present in human tears."

These stories, however, are the exception. Joe Nickell, author of several books that investigate claims of the paranormal, says that if he's quoted at all, "it's as a token. I'm usually brought in at the end of an article or a TV show for a line or two." Randi says he no longer responds to the calls he gets from reporters unless he can inspect the phenomenon in question. "What happens is they call me for a negative point of view," Randi says, "and I say that I have no evidence that [the phenomenon] is real. What ends up in the paper? 'James Randi, the arch skeptic, has no explanation for this phenomenon.' So I make no comment now."

The most common theories explaining why these reports tend to be uncritical include the love of a good story and the fear of offending people on a very touchy subject. As Barry Karr, executive director for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, says, "Newspapers are in the business to sell newspapers, and people love a mystery."

The market is certainly there. According to a 1989 Gallup survey, 83 percent of Americans believe in the possibility of divine miracles.

The public's acceptance of miracles also has apparently cowed the media. "You see how the political columnists are more than ready to go after those they disagree with, but religion is sort of off limits," says Paul Boyer, author of "When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture" and a historian at the University of Wisconsin. "It's a kind of misreading of the tolerance doctrine. Because we tolerate all religions, they're therefore off limits in terms of even discussing them." Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, says claims of religious miracles are "really in the category of flying saucers... But because this is religion, it gets a lot more kid glove treatment."

Winking Skepticism

What do journalists covering these miracle stories have to say? "I think [the skeptics' complaints are] just special pleading on the part of a..minority," says Kenneth L. Woodward, religion editor for Newsweek. Woodward refers to the 1989 Gallup survey on miracles and asks, "Who's out of phase here? There's already a reception on the part of the people that these things happen, so I doubt if some debunking would make a lot of difference."

Woodward asserts that the reporting in virtually every story of this kind is laced with a sly, winking skepticism. "What is really the subject of these stories?" he asks. "It's often not the phenomenon itself. The subtext is: We're going to describe in detail the frenzy and controlled fanaticism of people climbing into somebody's backyard to look at a statue. Implicit is this attitude of 'Can you believe this?' All you have to do is tell it straight, it almost doesn't require another point of view."

Skeptics are divided over whether this is an appropriate way to approach the subject. "The media do seem to take an objective, just-report-it stance that lets it look like the circus it really is without saying so," says Joe Nickell. "They sort of let the story ridicule itself." But Randi and Dennis disagree. "The media know that enough people believe this and will be clipping the articles and depending on them," Randi argues. The very act of covering the event or claim, adds Dennis, "tends to give it credence. By not treating it skeptically enough, it tends to endorse it."

Maryanne Zeleznik, who reported on the Cold Springs incident for NPR, says she approached the story with no preconceived notions. "I know I didn't see anything myself, but there's no doubt in my mind that the little girl I interviewed was convinced she had seen something." Would a comment from someone who knows how the mind can sometimes influence the eye have given the listening audience more information? "I agree it would have been a good idea," Zeleznik says. "It would have added to the story. But..I really didn't have a lot of time."

In his New York Times piece on the Marlboro Township case, Ari Goldman wrote that psychologists speculate that alleged sightings of the Virgin Mary may be connected to the approach of the millennium. But he says he was not trying to suggest mass delusion or hysteria. "I was trying to take a broader view," he says, "and provide a more theological reason" why people were expecting to see Mary.

Goldman's colleague, Robert Hanley, who reported the follow-up on the next day, says, "I didn't see my job as trying to debunk the claim. That's why the story doesn't contain a [skeptical] comment." His assignment was "more the sociology of it," he says. "How was this small town handling this?"

Lynn Rosellini, author of the U.S. News cover story on Father Bruse, says her assignment was to "pick one of these types of occurrences, do a really good yarn, and let people decide for themselves. We also wanted to try and get into the minds of the believers, to find out why there is this yearning" to believe. She says that she and her editors were "very conscious about trying to walk right down the middle on the story because people like this can be an easy target."

Her piece gave both skeptics and believers fair treatment, but it began with the provocative subhead, "Are the extraordinary events in a Virginia suburb a miracle or hoax?" The question was not answered. "I wasn't convinced either way, and that was frustrating because usually you have a real take on things after you're done," Rosellini says. "But this was like a murder mystery where they haven't gotten the guy yet. Is that backing away, or just reporting what you know at the time?"

At 3,600 words, Paul Hendrickson's March 13, 1992, Washington Post story on Father Bruse was among the longest. In the beginning, the tone of the article is openly dubious of Bruse's claims: "It's done with mirrors and blue smoke..or computers..or it's atmospherics..." But the piece turns dramatically when Hendrickson witnesses a statue shed tears during his interview with Bruse. Gradually Hendrickson's dubiousness yields to a sense of awe.

Weston Kosova, now managing editor of the New Republic, criticized Hendrickson in the Washington City Paper, a local weekly, for having been suckered into ignoring evidence suggesting a priest playing tricks to get attention, and for failing to include a skeptical point of view because he was so wowed by what he saw.

Hendrickson, a former seminarian, admits he was shaken by the sight of the tears. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this explains everything, there is a God!' " he says. "But after 24 or 36 hours, that passed." Furthermore, he says, "It was not my mission to tell the other side. I was sent down to see what I saw, describe what I could, and report."

Hendrickson maintains "there is a real healthy dose of skepticism and jaundiced eye in my piece." But he acknowledges he could have done more had he not been assigned a long story on Monday that was to run Friday. Moreover, Hendrickson works for Style, the Post's feature section. "Something written in Style is a little different [from the way] the national desk might cover it," he says.

Blind Spot

Critics say the fact that such a story is handled by a lifestyle section is precisely the problem: It's not viewed as hard news. Nickell recalls that a local reporter phoned him shortly before Halloween several years ago to ask about haunted houses. "She asked me if I'd ever found one that I could not explain, and I told her no. She then said, 'Well, I guess I don't have my story yet.' " Nickell says that after lecturing her about double standards, she testily replied, "I don't have to have reasonable standards for this, it's entertainment." The attitude is a common one. Says Woodward of Newsweek, "Reporters cover [weeping statues and the like] the same way they cover religion in general – as a kind of comic relief from the real world."

To many reporters, that approach serves as the laughing-into-the-notepad brand of skepticism Woodward has described. But to the critics it shows how stories about alleged religious miracles reveal a larger problem. "Religion as a subject in general tends to be ghettoized by the press," says Paul Boyer. It either ends up splashed across the feature page or buried in the once-a-week religion page. Martin Marty, who teaches history of Christianity at the University of Chicago, says, "Historically religion has been undercovered and miscovered." Syndicated political columnist David Broder agrees: "Religion has been the biggest blind spot in newsrooms that I'm familiar with."

This suggests that the media should cover religion better, not necessarily become debunkers – science, after all, doesn't always have an explanation. For example, Father Bruse's weeping statues, which stopped crying in August 1992, have yet to be explained .

"But there's a difference between 'unexplained' and 'unexplainable,' " says Randi. "Just because something doesn't have an explanation at this moment doesn't mean it's unexplainable. All the story needs is one line on the end saying, 'There has been no investigation, no tests conducted, and no evidence to indicate that this is a supernatural event.' People will go on making assumptions, but at least the story will be complete."

Nor, as the Sacramento Bee's Art Nauman says, does it mean "that these yarns..shouldn't be published. Far from it. It does mean the press has an obligation to itself and its customers to keep them all in sensible perspective. In short, apply the same scrutiny..as you do to the politicians." l