Bobby Ross Jr.

5Q+1 interview: From God and guns to Death Row salvation, JoAnne Viviano excels reporting on faith and values

5Q+1 interview: From God and guns to Death Row salvation, JoAnne Viviano excels reporting on faith and values

JoAnne Viviano covers faith and values for the Columbus Dispatch, a central Ohio newspaper with a daily circulation of 120,000 and an average Sunday circulation of about 230,000.

Her Godbeat writing earned her the 2014 Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. That award honors excellence in religion reporting at mid-sized newspapers.

"I grew up in suburban Detroit, where my mom fostered in me an early love for books by taking me to the library regularly and teaching me to read as a kindergartener," Viviano said.

She received a bachelor of arts degree in English and communication from the University of Michigan ("not very popular here in Columbus!") before starting working as a reporter. She recalls "an amazing mentor there named Jon Hall, who helped me find the confidence I needed to turn my writing abilities into a career as a reporter."

Her first writing job came with her Michigan hometown weekly, The Romeo Observer, followed by stints with The Macomb Daily in Mount Clemens, Mich., the New Haven Register in Connecticut and The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. Along the way, she covered beats ranging from general assignments to municipal governments to state courts to education to crime.

Shortly before a strike hit The Vindicator, she left an earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. That led her to The Associated Press, where she worked for several years, starting in the Detroit bureau before moving to Columbus, eventually serving as a breaking-news staffer.

"I came to The Columbus Dispatch in 2012 because I missed beat reporting and being part of a metro newsroom," Viviano said. "It was a scary choice, with the way the industry has been, but I’m glad I made it. The Dispatch has remained strong and is a supportive, positive place to work."

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Is it a fact? Catholic-bred beheading victim James Foley converted to Islam, New York Times reports

Is it a fact? Catholic-bred beheading victim James Foley converted to Islam, New York Times reports

After James Foley's beheading by the Islamic State militant group two months ago, the American's Catholic background made headlines.

But in a massive, 5,000-word story Sunday, The New York Times reported that Foley converted to Islam soon after he was taken hostage.

The Times quoted 19-year-old Jejoen Bontinck of Belgium — identified as "a teenage convert to Islam who spent three weeks in the summer of 2013 in the same cell as Mr. Foley":

Mr. Foley converted to Islam soon after his capture and adopted the name Abu Hamza, Mr. Bontinck said. (His conversion was confirmed by three other recently released hostages, as well as by his former employer.)
“I recited the Quran with him,” Mr. Bontinck said. “Most people would say, ‘Let’s convert so that we can get better treatment.’ But in his case, I think it was sincere.”
Former hostages said that a majority of the Western prisoners had converted during their difficult captivity. Among them was Mr. (Peter) Kassig, who adopted the name Abdul-Rahman, according to his family, who learned of his conversion in a letter smuggled out of the prison.
Only a handful of the hostages stayed true to their own faiths, including Mr. (Steven J.) Sotloff, then 30, a practicing Jew. On Yom Kippur, he told his guards he was not feeling well and refused his food so he could secretly observe the traditional fast, a witness said.
Those recently released said that most of the foreigners had converted under duress, but that Mr. Foley had been captivated by Islam. When the guards brought an English version of the Quran, those who were just pretending to be Muslims paged through it, one former hostage said. Mr. Foley spent hours engrossed in the text.
His first set of guards, from the Nusra Front, viewed his professed Islamic faith with suspicion. But the second group holding him seemed moved by it. For an extended period, the abuse stopped. Unlike the Syrian prisoners, who were chained to radiators, Mr. Foley and Mr. (John) Cantlie were able to move freely inside their cell.

Given the circumstances, however, should Foley's "conversion" really be presented as a fact? That was my question as I read the story.

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Ebola-free nurse Nina Pham thanks God, and The Dallas Morning News takes notice

Ebola-free nurse Nina Pham thanks God, and The Dallas Morning News takes notice

At first glance, nurse Nina Pham's return home to Texas after beating the often-deadly Ebola virus failed to raise my GetReligion antenna.

A medical story? Definitely.

A political story? Perhaps, given Pham's Oval Office hug with President Barack Obama. 

But a religion story? Probably not.

The straightforward lede of The Dallas Morning News' front-page story on Saturday gave no indication of a faith angle: 

Nurse Nina Pham, the first person to contract Ebola in the U.S., returned home to North Texas late Friday with a clean bill of health, reassurance from President Barack Obama and the promise of a reunion with her dog, Bentley.
CareFlite pilot Jason Davis confirmed about midnight Friday that Pham had arrived at Fort Worth's Meacham International Airport: "She seemed good -- super nice family. She's in good spirits."
Pham, one of two Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas nurses who caught Ebola while treating Thomas Eric Duncan, was declared virus-free and sent home by the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. Officials also confirmed Friday that her colleague Amber Vinson has tested free of the disease, but they said they didn’t know when she’d be ready to leave Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Before Pham visited the Oval Office and got a hug from Obama, she expressed gratitude as she left the NIH facility.

But then I read Pham's own words — the next two paragraphs of the story.

 

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Southern evangelicals dwindling?: RNS blogger examines the numbers behind The Atlantic's claims

Southern evangelicals dwindling?: RNS blogger examines the numbers behind The Atlantic's claims

Is the South losing its "cultural Christianity," as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler describes it?

New research indicates that "the percentage of Alabamians not affiliated with a specific religion surpasses the percentage of white mainline Protestants, ranking it third among 'religious' groups," Alabama Godbeat pro Carol McPhail recently reported.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic made a big splash on social media this week with this provocative headline:

Southern Evangelicals: Dwindling—and Taking the GOP Edge With Them

However, the stats reported by Jones made Religion News Service blogger Tobin Grant's "spidey-sense start buzzing," as he put it. Grant decided to examine the numbers behind the numbers.

 

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'Magic underwear' is offensive term, but AP uncritically accepts church's PR spin on Mormon undergarments

'Magic underwear' is offensive term, but AP uncritically accepts church's PR spin on Mormon undergarments

On the positive side, an Associated Press story this week on Mormon underclothing — sacred attire derided by critics as "magic underwear" — handles the subject matter with discretion and respect.

On the negative side, the widely distributed wire service report uncritically accepts the church's public relations spin.

Let's start at the top:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon church is addressing the mystery that has long surrounded undergarments worn by its faithful with a new video explaining the practice in-depth while admonishing ridicule from outsiders about what it considers a symbol of Latter-day Saints' devotion to God.
The four-minute video on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' website compares the white, two-piece cotton "temple garments" to holy vestments worn in other religious faiths such as a Catholic nun's habit or a Muslim skullcap.
The footage is part of a recent effort by the Salt Lake City-based religion to explain, expand or clarify on some of the faith's more sensitive beliefs. Articles posted on the church's website in the past two years have addressed the faith's past ban on black men in the lay clergy; its early history of polygamy; and the misconception that members are taught they'll get their own planet in the afterlife.
The latest video dispels the notion that Latter-day Saints believe temple garments have special protective powers, a stereotype perpetuated on the Internet and in popular culture by those who refer to the sacred clothing as "magical Mormon underwear."

The video contains 90 seconds of explanation about the underclothing and does not address the markings on the garments. I'm not certain I would characterize that as "explaining the practice in-depth." 

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Religious liberty in Idaho: Going to the chapel, and we're going to get married ... maybe

Religious liberty in Idaho: Going to the chapel, and we're going to get married ... maybe

Earlier this month, I dinged Reuters for a "two-sided news story" that really only told one.

I argued that the piece on "a new battleground of religious freedom" was framed almost entirely from the perspective of same-sex marriage activists.

This week, Reuters reported on two Idaho pastors opposed to gay marriage:

(Reuters) - Two pastors in Idaho, who fear they could be penalized for refusing to perform newly legal gay marriages at their private wedding chapel, have filed a lawsuit, saying an Idaho anti-discrimination law violates their right to free speech and religious liberty.
Donald and Evelyn Knapp, who run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d'Alene, are asking a federal judge to temporarily bar the city from enforcing a local ordinance that bans discrimination tied to sexual orientation in businesses that are used by the public, their attorney said on Monday.
The couple, both ordained Christian ministers, say that under the ordinance, they could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine each time they decline to wed same-sex couples in line with their religious beliefs.
"The government has no business compelling ministers to violate their beliefs and break their ordination vows or risk escalating jail time and fines," said the Knapps' attorney, Jeremy Tedesco.

Alas, Reuters does a much better job this time of fairly representing the arguments of those with religious freedom concerns.

What's missing? Once again, it's the other side.

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As the Hillsong world turns, questions about sex, the media and what a pastor said

As the Hillsong world turns, questions about sex, the media and what a pastor said

Leaders of the Australia-based Hillsong Church — described by Religion News Service as "one of the most influential religious brands across the globe" and by The New York Times as "one of the more influential global megachurches" — held a news conference in New York last week.

The Christian Post apparently didn't like the questions asked by mainstream reporters.

NEW YORK — Brian Houston, senior pastor of Australia-based Hillsong Church, was hit with a series of critical questions during a press conference in New York City on Thursday, just hours before he was to take the stage at Madison Square Garden to preach before more than 5,000 Hillsong Conference attendees.
Houston, 60, appeared visibly nervous as he sat alongside his wife and Hillsong Church co-pastor Bobbie Houston and his son and Hillsong United frontman Joel Houston, who also pastors at Hillsong NYC with Carl Lentz. Lentz rounded out the quartet of church representatives at the press conference, where the group welcomed local media to probe them about the conference kicking off that night and issues related to their ministry work through the multi-city megachurch.
Once the floor was opened up for questions, however, it became clear that some members of the press were more interested in hearing about the sex abuse committed by Brian Houston's father in the 1970s, how Hillsong Church spends its money, and how the senior pastor handles cultural relevancy, specifically when it comes to issues of sexuality.

As regular GetReligion readers may recall, The New York Times just last month published a front-page story on Hillsong's international appeal and its place in the modern American religious scene.

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'Where's the beef!?' in TV station's report on Oklahoma petition asking Muslims to 'go home'

'Where's the beef!?' in TV station's report on Oklahoma petition asking Muslims to 'go home'

"It certainly is a big bun."

"It's a very big bun."

"A big, fluffy bun."

"It's a very big, fluffy bun."

Readers of a certain age will remember the old Wendy's commercial in which two gray-haired ladies admire the size of a hamburger bun, while a third woman asks the obvious question about the tiny patty: "Where's the beef!?"

I was reminded of that question when I saw an Oklahoma television station's report on a purported petition in my home state asking Muslims to "go home." I avoid as much local TV news as I can, so I came across the story link via Tennessee-based Godbeat guru Bob Smietana's Twitter feed.

The top of the story:

DEL CITY, Okla. – A metro woman says fear about her religion led to an unusual encounter this week.
The Muslim woman says a woman asked her to sign a petition asking that all Muslims “go home.”
The run-in took place this week outside a gas station in Del City.
“Muslims are a peaceful people,” said Deb Beneta. “I wish people would see us as humans and not this mythical Muslim monster.”
Unfortunately for Deb, fear of the religion may be near an all-time high.

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Big scoop for Sarah: Former GetReligionista scores exclusive on Mark Driscoll resignation

Big scoop for Sarah: Former GetReligionista scores exclusive on Mark Driscoll resignation

We're proud to say we knew you way back when, Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

The former GetReligionista scored a major scoop Wednesday with her Religion News Service report on the resignation of Mars Hills Church pastor Mark Driscoll:

(RNS) Mark Driscoll, the larger-than-life megachurch pastor who has been accused of plagiarism, bullying and an unhealthy ego that alienated his most devoted followers, resigned from his Seattle church Tuesday (Oct. 14), according to a document obtained by RNS.
The divisive Seattle pastor had announced his plan to step aside for at least six weeks in August while his church investigated the charges against him. Driscoll’s resignation came shortly after the church concluded its investigation.
“Recent months have proven unhealthy for our family — even physically unsafe at times — and we believe the time has now come for the elders to choose new pastoral leadership for Mars Hill,” Driscoll wrote in his resignation letter.

Other major news organizations quickly jumped on the story, including CNN.

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