Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

All school shootings force journalists to wrestle with images from hell and the information that poured out of Peshawar, Pakistan, was tragically familiar. Here is part of the barrage from the top of a long report in The Los Angeles Times:

When it was over, 132 children and nine staff members were dead ... at an army-run school in this northeastern city in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s troubled history. Many were shot in the temple at close range. One 9-year-old told his father that a classmate’s head was nearly blown off.

Seven assailants wearing explosives-laden suicide vests fought a daylong gun battle with Pakistani soldiers and police commandos, trapping hundreds of students and teachers in the Army Public School compound where the attackers planted bombs to deter the security forces.

The story is packed with the kinds of details news consumers expect in live, dateline reports from major news scenes. If you want the "who," "what," "when," "where" and "how" of this story, you are going to find it in this Los Angeles Times report and in many similar reports in the mainstream media.

But the "why" is another matter. Many journalists seem to assume that readers already know the "why" part of the equation and leave this crucial information unstated.

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Washington Post offers nuanced look at celibacy among gay Christians

Washington Post offers nuanced look at celibacy among gay Christians

Celibate gay Christians -- those who feel the pull of same-sex attraction, yet abstain in order to stay faithful to their faith -- get a sensitive, nuanced look in the Washington Post. Though with a couple of flaws.

This gentle 1,600-word feature examines quiet emergence of gays like Eve Tushnet in Catholic and evangelical circles. Ace religion writer Michelle Boorstein explores their feelings toward churches, right or wrong. And the feelings of church folk toward them.

Here's an excellent "nut graph," actually two paragraphs:

Today, Tushnet is a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate. She is busy speaking at conservative Christian conferences with other celibate Catholics and Protestants and is the most well-known of 20 bloggers who post on spiritualfriendship.org, a site for celibate gay and lesbian Christians that draws thousands of visitors each month.
Celibacy “allows you to give yourself more freely to God,” said Tushnet (rhymes with RUSH-net), a 36-year-old writer and resident of Petworth in the District. The focus of celibacy, she says, should be not on the absence of sex but on deepening friendships and other relationships, a lesson valuable even for people in heterosexual marriages.

The Post article is timely enough. World magazine, a Christian news journal, on Dec. 11 posted an in-depth story on issues surrounding Julie Rodgers, a gay celibate counselor for students at Wheaton College.

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Fa la la la la, la la la la -- 'Tis the season (as always) for 'news' reports that debunk the Gospels

Fa la la la la, la la la la -- 'Tis the season (as always) for 'news' reports that debunk the Gospels

“Hail the new, ye lads and lasses. Fa la la la la, la la la la,” says that old carol. The journalism angle in that?

During the Christmas and Easter seasons, journalists have come to expect -- and perhaps to hail --  new, sensationalized and commercialized bids to debunk the New Testament Gospels, the earliest and best source we have about Jesus’ life. The Religion Guy himself has played that game, hopefully with some balance and accuracy.

The most lucrative example by far was “The Da Vinci Code,” an odd novel issued for Holy Week of 2003. In 2014 that  fictional tale about Jesus marrying his disciple Mary Magdalene has been supplanted by alleged non-fiction. Before Easter, a Harvard University press release announced: “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient.”  To the contrary, the testing showed this fragment wasn’t “ancient” but dates from the 7th or 8th Century A.D., and as for the “wife” business, see below.

Then, timed for Christmas the media have publicized a book entitled “The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.”

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After the horrors in Sydney: How do journalists report the motives of a truly radical, fringe Muslim believer?

After the horrors in Sydney: How do journalists report the motives of a truly radical, fringe Muslim believer?

The horrors that surround hostage dramas are confusing enough on their own. Throw in complex questions about religious faith and terrorism and journalists and this kind of story pushes journalists -- in real time, under unbelievable amounts of pressure -- to their intellectual and personal limits.

Looking back on the Sydney crisis (following the early post by Bobby Ross., Jr.) I am struck by one interesting question that journalists faced and, for the most part, ducked: What was the motive? Why did gunman Man Haron Monis -- the most frequently used of his many names -- do what he did? Lacking the ability to read his mind, what concrete clues were offered during this act of symbolic violence?

A news report from The Daily Beast offered this interesting information, which I did not see repeated in most other mainstream reports:

Monis walked into the café on Monday and took everyone inside hostage. He used some of the captives as human shields and forced others to hold a black flag with white Arabic writing against the window. ...
Monis had been convicted on charges related to offensive letters he sent to the families of Australian soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan. He was out on bail as an alleged accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, as well as a string of 50 indecent and sexual-assault charges in connection to his time as a self-proclaimed spiritual leader.
Monis used a YouTube account to post a series of videos showing hostages reciting his demands, which included the delivery of the black flag of ISIS. He asked “to please broadcast on all media that this is an attack on Australia by the Islamic State,” and to speak to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (YouTube has since removed the videos from the account.)

Yet at the end of this same report, readers were told:

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Listen now: How a fake story about Pope Francis landed the New York Times in the doghouse

Listen now: How a fake story about Pope Francis landed the New York Times in the doghouse

At first glance, the New York Times story sounded like a pet lovers' dream. Upon closer examination, however, it wasn't even fit for lining a birdcage. 

In the latest GetReligion podcast, I talk about why, in my post here last Friday, I had a bone to pick with the Times story that claimed Pope Francis suggested pets go to heaven. Among other errors, the article included a made-up quote that the reporter attributed to John Paul II.

Shortly after I gave the interview and published the post, David Gibson did some more digging and found that the error I had noted was just the tip of the iceberg.

The headline of Gibson's story says it all: "Sorry, Fido. Pope Francis did NOT say our pets are going to heaven." I'm surprised, though, that RNS didn't go with the headline he used when he tweeted the story:

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Your non-weekend think piece: Australian scribe Scott Stephens yearns for serious religion news

Your non-weekend think piece: Australian scribe Scott Stephens yearns for serious religion news

Care to read some provocative thoughts on the state of religion-news coverage, care of pastor and theology teacher Scott Stephens, who is now the Religion and Ethics editor at ABC Online, way down under? I hope so.

You see, Stephens once stuck his finger in the eye of the mainstream press with a blunt working hypothesis that he says has guided his journalistic work ever since. It went like this, and he has unfolded it a bit:

The more widely reported the remarks of a significant religious leader are, the less consequent they are likely to be.
I've since come to the conclusion that the likelihood of this hypothesis being true increases exponentially if the religious leader in question happens to be the pope.

The perfect example of this (no, no, no, this was before the dogs go to heaven row), he argues, was the remarks by Pope Francis on the Big Bang, science, evolution and faith -- all of which were completely compatible with the statements of earlier popes. The key is that most journalists seem to have decided that the pope's words are "newsworthy" to the degree that they can be framed in such a way as to confirm the "putatively progressive agenda they've assigned to him." Wash, rinse, repeat.

Now, Stephens has flipped his theory inside out

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The real 'Exodus': media coverage that goes beyond the dollar signs

The real 'Exodus': media coverage that goes beyond the dollar signs

Ridley Scott mustered $140 million for Exodus, his epic on the biblical Passover story, only to see it reap a mediocre $24.5 million last weekend. But the real-life plagues struck media reports: plagues of blindness and deafness to the religious and spiritual causes for the tepid opening receipts.

But we'll start with the two bright spots I saw.

To my surprise, the best report appears in Variety, not your typically spiritual journal. Its 500-word story reads like an indepth, but refreshingly without blatant opinion or obvious attempts to steer our viewpoint. Its three expert sources prove the points of the article.

Noting that this was supposed to be "the year that Hollywood found religion," writer Brent Lang traces the uneven record for faith-based films in 2014. Big-budget spectacles, like Exodus and Noah, have stumbled, while smaller films like God's Not Dead and Heaven is for Real have triumphed. And Lang asks his sources why:

With 77% of Americans identifying as Christians, Hollywood sees a big audience for these kind of films.
“The Bible is a hot commodity,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “The secret is to start small, keep the budget manageable and get into grassroots marketing.”

Nor is this a new trend. Variety notes that The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's 2004 film, grossed $612 million on a $30 million budget. And its opening weekend reaped $83.8 million.

Again, an expert source explains:

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Hezbollah, Israel, media silence and the PCUSA

Hezbollah, Israel, media silence and the PCUSA

Nowhere has it surfaced in mainstream American press that an Israeli civil rights organization filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS, accusing the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) of violating its tax-exempt status through overt political lobbying, and by violating US anti-terror laws through links with Hezbollah.

Reports have been printed in the religious press (Jewish and Christian), but save for English-language stories in Israeli press, Arutz Sheva 7 and the Jerusalem Post, this story has not captured the interests of editors. 

Perhaps the extensive coverage of the Catholic Church and conservative Protestant lobbying against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) or the Houston sermon scandal has satiated the editors' appetites for First Amendment church/state stories. But it remains odd nonetheless that no one else is discussing a politics-and-religion story that has arisen this time from the “left."

What has been written is pretty good, however. The Jerusalem Post story is a well-crafted piece that shows how one writes a story when one side will not play ball, the reporter has limited information, and is working within space and deadline constraints.

(As an aside, I wrote for the Jerusalem Post for a number of years as one of their London correspondents, but am not now affiliated with the newspaper and do not know the author of the article in question.)

The kernel of the various stories comes from the same, not very well written, press release

Where the Jerusalem Post stands out is in the value it added to the press release. It begins its story in a matter-of-fact tone.

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Islamic extremism role in Australia? Facts sketchy in Sydney hostage crisis

Islamic extremism role in Australia? Facts sketchy in Sydney hostage crisis

As I type this, the possible role of Islamic extremism in the Sydney hostage crisis remains unclear.

 

The latest from The Associated Press:

SYDNEY (AP) -- Five people escaped from a Sydney cafe where a gunman took an unknown number of hostages during Monday morning rush hour. Two people inside the cafe earlier held up a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith that has often been used by extremists, raising fears that a terrorist incident was playing out in the heart of Australia's biggest city.
The first three people ran out of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney six hours into the hostage crisis, and two women sprinted from a fire exit into the arms of waiting police shortly afterward. Both women were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.
As the siege entered its 12th hour Monday night, basic questions remained unanswered. Police refused to say how many hostages were inside the cafe, what they believed the gunman's motives might be, whether he had made any demands or whether the hostages who fled the cafe escaped or were released.
"I would like to give you as much as I can but right now that is as much as I can," New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said. "First and foremost, we have to make sure we do nothing that could in any way jeopardize those still in the building."

The AP report notes:

Television video shot through the cafe's windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.
The Shahada translates as "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger." It is considered the first of Islam's five pillars of faith, and is similar to the Lord's Prayer in Christianity. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, including the green flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have used the Shahada in their own black flag.

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