George Conger

The Aftenposten and abortion in Norway: All the news that's fit to print

The Aftenposten and abortion in Norway: All the news that's fit to print

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” first appeared on the cover of the New York Times on October 25, 1896. The newspaper’s publisher Adolph Ochs adopted the slogan for professional and business reasons.

Ochs wanted to set the Times apart from its more sensationalist competitors, filling the market niche of New York’s quality newspaper. Pursuing high quality journalism not only was a moral good, it could make money also, he believed.

The business model adopted by Ochs and other “quality” newspapers at the start of the 20th Century guided the empirical practices of the mainstream press for most of the last century, though tabloids in the United States and the “red tops” in the United Kingdom have never followed this code.

Over the last 25 years the Ochs model has been challenged by the advocacy press approach, where a newspaper reports on a story from an openly avowed ideological perspective. A French newspaper reader knows that when he reads about the same issue in LiberationLe MondeLe FigaroLa Croix and L’Humanite he will be presented with left, center left, center right, Catholic and Communist perspectives of an issue.

In and of itself, such an advocacy approach is not a bad thing.

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Asahi Shimbun offers a lovely report on the making of saints

Asahi Shimbun offers a lovely report on the making of saints

The Asahi Shimbun (朝日新聞), one of Japan’s five national newspapers with a circulation of roughly 8 million, ran a story this week that could serve as an example of how to report on religion for an audience unfamiliar with a complicated topic.   

The article entitled “Vatican to beatify Christian warlord Takayama Ukon" reports that the Catholic Church is expected to recognize as “blessed” a 16th Century warlord who converted to Christianity. 

Writing for a Japanese, and presumably highly secular audience, the Asahi Shimbun’s correspondent Hiroshi Ishida has crafted a lovely little story that succinctly tells, the who, what, when, where and why -- and leaves out any editorializing, preaching or “snark”.

The article opens:

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Journalists go rabbit hunting while covering news about Catholic doctrine

Journalists go rabbit hunting while covering news about Catholic doctrine

Who gets to define Catholic doctrine? That should be an easy one -- the Catholic Church defines doctrine for itself through its catechism, liturgy and through the statements of its magisterium.

This truism gets tricky for newspapers when individuals who are Catholic make claims about Catholicism that do not square with the church’s formal teachings. It is the problem of self-definition. I may believe myself to be the pope and call myself the true Bishop of Rome, but does that make it true?

Newspaper reports of female Catholic priests or of same-sex Catholic blessings are being faithful to the facts when they stated the participants claim to be Catholic and that their actions are in accord with Catholic teachings (or should be in accord if the teachings were only brought up to date). Yet these assertions conflict with the truth claims of the institutional church.

These Pontius Pilate-like musings were prompted by an article in the Limerick Post about animal cruelty and Catholicism. The story entitled “Anger over priest’s ‘offensive’ blessing of coursing club grounds in County Limerick” has animal rights activists defining the church’s teaching on animal cruelty. 

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Heavens above! Doing a good job of covering a British religion survey

Heavens above! Doing a good job of covering a British religion survey

Reporting on religion surveys can be a perilous business, but journalist Jonathan Wynne-Jones shows how the job can be done well.

His article in The Independent titled “Two per cent of Anglican priests don't believe in God, survey finds” invites the reader into the story with a catchy lede, yet it offers a sober and balanced interpretation of the results.

Some expecting a story bashing the Church of England might cry foul, and claim Wynne-Jones was engaging in a bait and switch -- offering a story that appeared to confirm the pottiness of the local vicar. But he reports the situation has improved -- that the Church of England clergy are becoming more robust in their faith, not less.

The story opens with a strong rhetorical flourish:

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The protest beat at The New York Times? Silence from Paris

The protest beat at The New York Times? Silence from Paris

News reports on political demonstrations and protest marches have kept the New York Times busy this past week.

In the print and on the web it has run a least three dozen articles on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while also covering civil rights protests in Ferguson, Mo., student protests in Egypt, pro-Kurdish protests in Ankara, and Shia protests in Yemen.

Perhaps this surfeit of protests was what led the Times to ignore demonstrations in that far off place called France. 

Paris police reported that over 78,000 “pro-family” demonstrators (organizers claim several hundred thousand) marched through Paris on Oct. 5, 2014, with tens of thousands marching in support in Bordeaux, denouncing the Socialist government’s support for same-sex marriage and IVF and surrogacy rights for same-sex couples.
 
The marches have dominated the headlines of the French newspapers and animated political discourse. The Friday before the rally organized by the Manif Pour Tous coalition, Prime Minister Manuel Valls caved into one of the groups key demands.

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Why the press silence about persecution by radical Islamists in the West?

Why the press silence about persecution by radical Islamists in the West?

The harassment of Christians of Middle Eastern extraction in the West by immigrant Muslim extremists appears to be one of the unexplored angles in the unfolding Islamist story.

While the press is quick to run stories warning of a backlash against Muslims in the West in response to the actions of their coreligionists here and abroad, we seldom see serious reporting on incidents that are happening in Europe, America and Australia.

A wire service story from the AAP (Australian Associated Press) run by the Guardian last week left me frustrated by its lack of detail. The story entitled "Two teens charged after death threats allegedly screamed at Christian school" reported:

Two teenagers have been charged after death threats were allegedly screamed at a Christian school in Sydney’s west. A 14-year-old was in the front passenger seat of a red hatchback when he allegedly began yelling abuse outside the Maronite College of the Holy Family in Harris Park on 16 September. Onlookers said the boy and the car’s driver threatened to "kill the Christians" and slaughter their children while brandishing an Islamic State flag out the window.

The article goes on to say the two were arrested, but offers no further details. What is the Maronite College of the Holy Family? Who attends this school? Who made these remarks? 

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Caste in India reporting: Did a politician play Reuters for a fool?

Caste in India reporting: Did a politician play Reuters for a fool?

Did a politician play Reuters for a fool last week, using claims of religious bigotry toward India's untouchables (Dalits) to bolster his political fortunes?

Comparing stories released the same day by Reuters and The Hindu on reports that Hindu priests cleansed a temple defiled by a visit from a lower caste politician suggest Reuters may have been too quick to see religious motivations at work in what was a political story.

Newspapers often suffer from a journalistic schizophrenia when reporting on religion. Either they ignore the faith element in a story entirely, or they are too deferential to religion and religious leaders, taking at face value their truth claims. This article from Reuters exhibits the second tendency -- when religion is offered as the motivation for an action, it stops asking questions.

The Reuters story entitled “Indian temple 'purified' after low-caste chief minister visits” opens with the statement:

The government in India's northern state of Bihar has ordered an investigation after reports that a Hindu temple was cleaned and its idols washed after a visit by the state's chief minister, who belongs to a lower caste community. Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, a member of the Musahar community, said he had been told the shrine in Bihar's Madhubani district was "purified" after he visited it last month.

The story then quotes Manjhi as saying:

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Outing Britain's gay (whatever that means) Anglican bishops

Outing Britain's gay (whatever that means) Anglican bishops

The Daily Telegraph ran a story this week under the headline “One in 10 Church of England bishops 'could be secretly gay' -- says bishop” that suggests the term means an individual who is sexually attracted to members of the same sex and who acts upon those attractions. Yet in the context of the story it could just as well mean an individual who is sexually attracted to members of the same sex but who lives a celibate life.

Temptation is not sin, the Church of England teaches. It is immoral to act upon homosexual desire, but the desire itself is not immoral.

That point escapes theTelegraph, which reports that in a forthcoming book the Bishop of Buckingham Dr. Alan Wilson charges his episcopal colleagues with hypocrisy for opposing same-sex marriage even though a dozen of them are “gay.”
 
The article quotes him as saying:

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Say what? The Catholic church now officially backs same-sex unions?

Say what? The Catholic church now officially backs same-sex unions?

Sometime -- was it this summer when I was away? -- homosexual acts lost their sinful character according to the Roman Catholic Church.

Surprised? So was I when I read an article published on Sept 15, 2014, in Brazil’s largest daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

True, the article Mais tolerante igreja cobra compromissos de candidates is in the paper’s Elections 2014 section. It looks at the interplay of politics and religion in the forthcoming presidential elections and not at the moral doctrines of the church. However, some of the assertions made by Folha de São Paulo presume that change is in the offing, if not already here.
 
Folha de São Paulo is not unique in assuming that a change is in the air. 

From the beginning of his papacy Francis has had an unusual amount of support from journalists in the secular press, who have contrasted his comments on morals with his predecessor. However, comments to reporters in the back of airplanes do not define doctrine and not everything a pope says or does is assumed to be without error.

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