It’s the question that I have been trying to answer for 40 years or so: Why do news organizations ignore basic religion facts and trends when it is clear they are relevant in a major news story?
Ever since the first GetReligion post, back in 2004, we’ve been talking about religion “ghosts” in mainstream news coverage. Some “ghosts” are rather subtle and, frankly, it’s easy to understand why journalists with zero religion-beat experience would miss some facts and trends linked to religious law, history or doctrine.
But then you have “ghosts” — super ghosts, maybe — that are much, much more obvious and harder to explain. Consider, for example, the Associated Press story that came out the other day with this headline: “Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts suffer huge declines in membership.” Here’s the overture:
America’s most iconic youth organizations — the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA — have been jolted by unprecedented one-year drops in membership, due partly to the pandemic, and partly to social trends that have been shrinking their ranks for decades.
While both organizations insist they’ll survive, the dramatic declines raise questions about how effectively they’ll be able to carry out their time-honored missions. … Membership for the BSA’s flagship Cub Scouts and Scouts BSA programs dropped from 1.97 million in 2019 to 1.12 million in 2020, a 43% plunge, according to figures provided to The Associated Press. Court records show membership has fallen further since then, to about 762,000.
Other than the COVID-19 crisis, what else caused this massive drop?
Reasons for the drop include competition from sports leagues, a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned, and busy family schedules. The pandemic brought a particular challenge.
Wait a minute. Parents were worried that the Scouts are “old-fashioned,” which implies that Scouting would be growing if its leaders made more efforts to modernize their methods and beliefs?
Then again, maybe it would help if the story mentioned decisions by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to cut ties to the Boy Scouts (click here for AP story on that bombshell) because of changes linked to gender and sexuality in the name of becoming more modern and, well, woke? Not that long ago, LDS congregations hosted 37% of all Scout troops. At the same time, many — perhaps most — Southern Baptist Convention churches have dropped out of Scouting for the same reasons.
Maybe these decisions had something to do with the falling numbers? A GetReligion reader, who identified himself as a former Eagle Scout, noted the departing Latter-day Saints and added:
What about mentioning that the BSA begun accepting girls into the program during the last few years? Some data shows that girls may already account for 5-10% of the scouting program. What about BSA’s recent policies permitting gay and transgendered scouts and leaders? I would argue that these recent developments played a large role (perhaps the largest role) in causing a decrease in BSA’s membership numbers. But even if I am wrong, it baffles me that these developments would not even be mentioned in the article as contributing factors to the decline in membership. To the LDS Church and other religious groups and individuals, many of these policy changes were the driving force for departure from the BSA.
Should the article have mentioned, and even quoted, the views of critics of Scouting who once were among the movement’s strongest supporters?
It’s hard to make a case that these critics are not relevant in a story about these shocking membership trends in Scouting.
Should they have dominated the article? I would say “no,” since its clear that the leaders of Scouting have made up their minds and they are moving on — backed by leaders in more liberal Mainline Protestant denominations (which face stunning membership declines of their own).
Now, you could make a case that the departure of major religious groups took place AHEAD of the time period covered in this story — especially the collapse of SBC participation. Here are the statistics in the current AP story:
Membership for the BSA’s flagship Cub Scouts and Scouts BSA programs dropped from 1.97 million in 2019 to 1.12 million in 2020, a 43% plunge, according to figures provided to The Associated Press. Court records show membership has fallen further since then, to about 762,000.
That’s amazing, when you consider that membership in the core Boy Scout programs topped 6,000-plus in 2000 and had been above 5,000 since the early 1960s. Now those numbers are down to 762,000?
The AP report did mention this obvious problem:
The Boy Scouts’ problems are compounded by their decision to seek bankruptcy protection in February 2020 to cope with thousands of lawsuits filed by men who allege they were molested as youngsters by scout leaders. The case is proceeding slowly in federal bankruptcy court as lawyers negotiate creation of a trust fund for victims that will likely entail hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from the BSA and its 252 local councils.
To provide those funds, some councils may have to sell cherished camp properties, the BSA’s president and CEO, Roger Mosby, told the AP.
“We understand that this is a difficult and often emotional decision, but in some instances may be a necessary step as we work toward our shared imperatives of equitably compensating survivors and continuing Scouting’s mission.” Mosby said in a written reply to AP’s queries.
The pandemic, the membership drop and rising costs of liability insurance have strained BSA finances. A disclosure statement in the bankruptcy case says its gross revenues dropped from $394 million in 2019 to $187 million last year.
Hard times, indeed.
But the journalism question remains. Why produce a story on this specific topic — a catastrophic collapse in Scouting membership totals — without a single sentence of material about Scouting losing support from religious flocks that had been numbered among the movement’s strongest supporters?
What is the journalism logic here?
FIRST IMAGE: Drawn from earlier Scouting promotional materials for use in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.