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Religion in the News
June, 1998  Vol.1, No.1

Table of Contents

Promise Keepers

Religion and the Post-Welfare State

Charitable Choice

Islam in Virginia

The Pope in Cuba

Patriarch's Visit

Religion in a Cold Climate

Clinton Scandal

The McCaughey Babies:   Covering Miracles
by Andrew Walsh

Last November, the first birth of living septuplets in recorded history electrified the world. After quickly exploring the world of fertility drugs and selective abortion procedures, the news media turned to the stunning physical reality of the seven McCaughey infants and the immensity of their demands.

Four hundred feedings a week. Untold diaper changes. Imagine, wrote Melissa Fay Greene in the cover story of May’s Life, "seven crawling babies are going to get interested in electrical outlets and kitchen cleansers at around the same time. Seven toddlers will require toilet training. Seven little kids are going to want two wheelers and will need their mom or dad to run down the street after them. The mind boggles at the thought of mittens and snow boots. And what about socks?" Oh, the horror of it all. That was the easy part. Comprehending and conveying the mysterious world of an evangelical Protestant faith community was a far greater challenge. The McCaugheys, their extended families, their doctor, their pastor, and their neighbors all insisted on placing and keeping God in the foreground. At the heart of the story lay the rhetoric of the miraculous, the meaning of faith and prayer, and the stunning mobilization of a church to support a family in extraordinary and extended need.

To a profession committed to reporting facts, coverage of manifestations of supernatural forces presents some challenges. Miracles are tough to double check. One way to handle them is to emphasize the faith of believers rather than the objectivity of their beliefs. In the mainstream American media, supernatural claims tend to be registered with little explicit comment or evaluation from journalists, and this, by and large, is what the journalists closest to the McCaughey story have done. "We’re trusting in God," Ken and Bobbi McCaughey proclaimed from the cover of the December 1 issue of Newsweek.

On April 8, when ABC’s Good Morning America visited the McCaugheys in Carlisle, Iowa, to assess life at home after all seven babies had been released from the hospital, reporter Peggy Wehmeyer simply quoted Bobbi McCaughey’s frequent assertion that her Christian faith gets her through the problems and challenges she faces. "I don’t know how anybody could do it," McCaughey told Wehmeyer. McCaughey found it comforting "just to have the daily assurance that nothing’s going to happen today that God hasn’t already planned for me."

The only television network reporter assigned to cover religion full-time, Wehmeyer had been assigned to cover the McCaughey story at the outset because of her presumed ability to establish rapport with a deeply religious family. Most other reporters followed Wehmeyer’s lead in accepting and reporting the central role of Christian belief in the story. Typical was Ken Fuson’s March 11 story in the Baltimore Sun, which carried the headline: "Seventh Heaven: The miracle continues in Iowa. The McCaughey septuplets are all home now." Fuson interviewed Bobbi McCaughey’s peri-natalogist, Dr. Paula Mahone, and discovered yet another fervent evangelical Christian who was comfortable mixing high-tech science with a strong reliance on God’s action in the world. "I attribute the success of the pregnancy to God blessing Bobbi McCaughey," Mahone told Fuson. " We would have trusted him if every baby had died. We trusted him no matter what happened." When asked why the McCaughey babies survived when so few others had before them, Mahone replied, "This is not because she prayed harder than anyone else. It’s a question I will be looking forward to having answered when I see God face to face."

If reporters have tended to take the words of the members of the McCaugheys’ Missionary Baptist Church at face value, it’s partly because they can see the extraordinary commitment displayed by that religious community. Seventy volunteers organized by the church help care for the babies in shifts around the clock. "This is just the normal, everyday way this body of believers works," Craig Milligan, an area cattle farmer, told ABC.

Reporters even seemed to accept with good grace the special relationships that the McCaugheys developed with some of them. For example, Wehmeyer of ABC and Greene of Life each spent extended periods in their home. That both journalists openly sympathized with the family’s religious style clearly improved their access. Wehmeyer spoke at length with both the McCaugheys’ pastor and Bobbi McCaughey’s father about the story and her own approach to it before she approached the couple themselves.

Eventually, Wehmeyer suggested on air that the McCaugheys were willing to work with her because religion is her regular beat. "I think they went with us because ABC covers religion regularly, and they-we try to show some respect toward people of faith and try to develop these stories," she said on Good Morning America.

Following the journalistic convention of showing "respect toward people of faith," reporters covering the McCaugheys in Iowa raised few forceful-or even polite-criticisms. Instead, in accord with another common journalistic practice, they left that work for others more distant from the scene. The first news stories to ask significant questions came in a wave several weeks after the babies were born. For the most part they came from reporters writing new stories that attempted to place the McCaughey "miracle" in the context of other multiple births. At the turn of the year, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Denver Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Sun-Times all published stories quoting medical experts who stressed that the human body is not designed to deliver many babies at once. "If these kids turn out OK, that’s wonderful and God bless them," the Boston Globe quoted Dr. Jonathan Cronin, associate chief of neonatology at the Massachusetts General Hospital, on November 23. "But they’ll have to understand how very fortunate they were because the odds are very much against multiple healthy births."

A front page story by Pam Belluck in the New York Times on January 3 focused on the disastrous experiences of other parents who experienced multiple births and then suffered the pain of seeing their children die or suffer extremely serious health problems. Those interviewed often raised powerful religious issues as well. For example, Jane Simeone of Marana, Arizona, lost two of her three triplets within a few a days of birth. Belluck reported that Simeone, a "dedicated Pentecostal," also faced a religious crisis that was triggered by the McCaugheys’ crediting the success of their pregnancy to God. "After what I’ve been through, I just can’t believe," Simeone said, adding, "Maybe he does miracles for other people but not for me."

Op-ed columns by medical and religious experts hit even harder. In December, the New York Times syndicated a commentary by Diana Butler Bass, a professor of religion at Rhodes College in Memphis, which unsparingly examined the problems of determining God’s will: "If the McCaugheys thought about it, they might notice a glaring inconsistency in their actions. If the existence of seven embryos is God’s will, then why didn’t Bobbi McCaughey accept her own infertility as God’s will. Since she and her husband could not have children without the aid of drugs, perhaps it was God’s will to remain childless. But no. The McCaugheys could not believe that, so they sought science to help God accomplish a divine plan."

"The whole notion of the miracle, after all, hinges upon the acknowledgement that the odds were extraordinarily slim for the infants’ survival in the first place," Nicole Nolan wrote in a Newsday commentary on November 30. "Perhaps when, as perinatal experts avow will almost certainly be the case, we discover that these babies have paid for their role in this exhibition with serious disabilities, we will start to wonder whether that great big fertility doctor in the sky wasn’t trying to tell us that we need to take a serious look at his more fallible human colleagues down here on earth."

To be fair, Peggy Wehmeyer did give full play to discussion of the medical and psychological second thoughts of experts in her hour-long Prime Time special on ABC on April 8. But few journalists working on the ground in Carlisle escaped the prevailing euphoria or seriously evaluated the religious claims made or the community that made them.

Perhaps they couldn’t find local skeptics. Certainly they were not wrong to let the McCaugheys and those around them give the glory to God. But a journalistic approach that doesn’t ask the hard questions when religion is invoked has serious shortcomings. By going easy on religion, reporters shed less light on it. Coverage of the McCaughey story would have been deeper, more persuasive, and more useful if reporters had been willing to apply the standard tools of the trade with less deference. At the very least, journalists should understand that the standard practice of "quoting the believers" but not exploring their claims may damage the credibility and value of their reporting.

Journalists were assigned to cover the outpouring of support for the McCaugheys precisely because it is not "the normal, everyday way" things work in America. So far, few have probed far into the world of Missionary Baptist Church, which kept the McCaughey’s secret for months within its national network. Even fewer have sought answers to questions about the connection between faith and action by assessing how typical Carlisle’s Missionary Baptist congregation is among the tens of thousands of other religious bodies that blanket the nation.

Andrew Walsh is managing editor of Religion in the News and associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.