Jim Davis

Of Catholics, RNS and Zika virus: Questions of original reporting

Of Catholics, RNS and Zika virus: Questions of original reporting

Like mosquitos that carry the disease, a story by the Religion News Service buzzes with Catholic concerns over how to address the Zika outbreak currently coursing through Latin America. The article strains mightily to provide a many-sided view of the matter, but not always successfully, and not always originally.

The headliner is a warning this week by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras not to use abortion in the fight against the virus.   As RNS says, Zika is a prime suspect in microcephaly, in which children are born with small heads and brains. If a pregnant woman is bitten by a mosquito that's carrying the virus, children may be born with the defect.

Apparently, Maradiaga read someone recommending so-called "therapeutic abortion," or terminating a pregnancy for risk of abnormalities like microcephaly. That freaked him, according to RNS:

"We should never talk about ‘therapeutic’ abortion," the cardinal said in his homily, according to Honduran media reports.
"Therapeutic abortion doesn’t exist," he said. "Therapeutic means curing, and abortion cures nothing. It takes innocent lives."

It hasn't come to that yet, but RNS notes that the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency. And some Latin American officials have recommended women there to delay pregnancy for up to two years.

RNS is right to highlight his words; as it says, he is a top adviser to Pope Francis as well as chief shepherd of Honduras. It could have added that Maradiaga was also considered a papabile, or papal candidate, in 2005 and 2013. That's especially rarefied atmosphere.

But the cardinal'ss comments were just the first few paragraphs of this article -- what we in journalism call a shirttail lede -- for a more indepth treatment:

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Digital warfare: RNS and PBS report anti-jihadi campaigns on social media

Digital warfare: RNS and PBS report anti-jihadi campaigns on social media

The real battlefront against ISIS and other terrorists isn’t the Middle East. It's on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media -- where jihadis are made and recruited. And two articles this week tell of a corps of new warriors familiar with the terrain.

The Religion News Service yesterday told how a West Point team won second place in a contest for most effective online presence against radical Islamist influences. The so-called Peer to Peer (P2P) competition, sponsored by Homeland Security, involved teams from several nations -- including one from a Pakistani college, which took first place.

Each team got $2,000 to spend on their entries, and they used the cash shrewdly, according to RNS:

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Separation of mosque and state: In covering anti-Shariah bill, media muddy issues

Separation of mosque and state: In covering anti-Shariah bill, media muddy issues

Those intolerant South Carolinians have gotten a lot of people upset -- in a lot of lands -- starting with their home state press. A bill in the state house would ban use of the Islamic legal code known as Shariah, an issue that has been thrashed out in at least 16 other states. In this edition, though, most media have produced biased, fragmentary coverage. They’ve also given the most space to the protesters.

The apparent start was a story in the Columbia Post and Courier on Friday:

COLUMBIA — A national group that lobbies for Muslim civil liberties asked the S.C. Legislature on Friday to drop a bill that would ban Sharia law from being used as a defense in state courts, saying it is unconstitutional.
Council on American-Islamic Relations attorney William Burgess said the bill violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause on religion because it is designed to attack Muslim religious principles.
Sharia law is the legal framework where the public and some private aspects of life are regulated under legal systems based on Islam.
“This legislation is very similar to the Oklahoma anti-Sharia constitutional amendment that was struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause in a federal court challenge brought by CAIR,” Burgess wrote.

At least they took a stab at defining Shariah. But it doesn't clarify why anyone would find Shariah objectionable.

The Post and Courier quotes the CAIR letter that cites the Oklahoma case, in which a federal judge ruled the anti-Shariah law breached the separation of church and state.  Finally -- at the end of the article -- the newspaper allows Rep. Chip Limehouse, the bill sponsor, to give an example of what the bill might prevent: “(With this law) an attorney can’t go into state court and say that the defendant that beat up his daughter for going on a date with a non-Muslim was within his rights according to (Sharia law)." But Limehouse doesn't get to answer Burgess' assertion that the bill is unconstitutional.

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Young anti-terrorist Muslims: NPR says why they do what they do (But what do they do?)

Young anti-terrorist Muslims: NPR says why they do what they do (But what do they do?)

In a kind of techno-jiujitsu, younger American Muslims have started using the same social media as ISIS terrorists -- in their case, as a counter-weapon.

This is the kind of enterprise reporting at which NPR often excels. Alas, that is not the case with the shallow, incomplete report that ran this week on Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Nearly all the trendy elements are there. You’ve got a little-reported interface of two socially hot topics, religion and terrorism. You have the coveted demographic of American millennials. And you’ve got Facebook and other forms of new media -- more familiar each year, but still radiating a cachet.

All the story lacks is what these young anti-terrorism Muslims are actually doing, when they do what they do. Isn't that rather basic information to include in a story of this kind?

The starting point -- the old saw that all Muslims get blamed for the actions of a tiny few -- threatens at first to sink the story into mediocrity:

Tired of being called a terrorist, Ranny Badreddine, a youth from Evansville, Ind., joined other young teens to create World Changers, an initiative that uses the cyberspace to combat misconceptions about Islam.
"Kids have to be worried about...going outside and being scared that someone is going to beat them up because they're Muslim," Badreddine says. "As a 13-year-old kid, I don't want to live my life being scared of Americans trying to hurt me because of what I am and my religion."
Many younger American Muslims say their parents and grandparents have long been reluctant to speak out and risk drawing attention to themselves. But Badreddine and his peers want to take a different approach. They want to use technology to push back against what they see as false portrayals of Islam.

The scapegoating complaint is hardly news anymore.

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A flag on the pray: Florida media cover prayer controversy at public stadium

A flag on the pray: Florida media cover prayer controversy at public stadium

Football players pray all the time -- especially in a school like Cambridge Christian in Tampa -- but what if their headmaster wants to do it over the loudspeakers of a publicly-owned stadium?

Cambridge is "tackling" that issue, as Florida media put it, after being denied the right to pray at a championship game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando last December. Local media are hot on this story, yet they leave several questions unsettled.

The Tampa Tribune has produced one of the best stories thus far through its Tampa Bay Online, adding context and digging into legal issues. The lede gets right to it:

TAMPA -- A Christian school in Tampa has signaled it will file a federal lawsuit against the Florida High School Athletics Association after the school’s headmaster was told he couldn’t say a public prayer before a state championship football game.
Administrators from the Cambridge Christian School, a K-12 institution at 6101 North Habana Ave., sent a demand letter to the FHSAA Tuesday with help from the Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm from Texas that specializes in religious liberty rights.
The letter asks for an apology for unlawfully censoring the school’s private speech, as well as formal recognition from the FHSAA that students in Florida schools have a right to pray in public. If the FHSAA doesn’t respond in 30 days, the school will take the issue to Tampa’s federal court.

The newspaper explains that Florida law "deems the FHSAA a 'state actor' prohibited from sanctioning prayer." It says also that the Citrus Bowl is Orlando property and paid for largely with taxes. So I read a variety of sources, including executive director Roger Dearing of the FHSAA, headmaster Tim Euler of Cambridge, lawyer Jeremy Dys of the Liberty Institute, even a place kicker for Cambridge.

Dys' contribution is especially noteworthy. He says the association ruling would set a "dangerous precedent for government censorship of free speech." And the Tribune takes it further:

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Charleston paper covers first sermon by Mother Emanuel's new pastor, except for what she said

Charleston paper covers first sermon by Mother Emanuel's new pastor, except for what she said

Mother Emanuel AME Church has been through more than you know, even if you’ve seen many of the news reports about the horrendous shootings of nine members there in June. But yesterday, the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier wisely concentrated on the first sermon of its new pastor.

It's a heartfelt, moody news feature that gets inside the thoughts and feelings of the pastor. But while reminding us of the terrible events that brought the church there, the newspaper somehow leaves out most of what her sermon said.

And that wasn't so wise. From reading the overture to this report, the sermon was supposed to be the main topic of the story. For starters, it has the Rev. Betty Deas Clark "trembling and scared" her first time in the pulpit at Emanuel:

She’d had less than 24 hours to prepare the first sermon she would deliver to her new congregation. She wrote from the heart but agonized over every word -- praying she would be able to minister to the needs of people she had yet to get to know.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, addressing a congregation, but there was something different about this time. Maybe it was because members of Mother Emanuel were still healing after the June 17 slaying of nine worshippers during a Bible study by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. Maybe it was because the church had been in a type of “limbo” for more than half a year in the aftermath.
Either way, Clark knew there was one message everyone could relate to: hope.
"In my heart I felt that it was the right word," she said after the church service. "I did not want to dwell too heavily on the past, but I wanted to embrace the reality of the present and the future."

As one nitpick, we'll note that it doesn't say why Clark had less than 24 hours to prepare. The reason is that she was appointed just the previous day; that was explained on Saturday but not in this story. The main question here is: How did she develop the theme of hope? What did she offer to help the congregants move forward? One would assume that this sermon had something to do with a passage of two from the Bible?

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On coverage of evangelical refugee conference: Applause for RNS, with reservations

On coverage of evangelical refugee conference: Applause for RNS, with reservations

We at GetReligion have had occasional differences with the Religion News Service. But in its coverage of the GC2 Summit, a caucus of evangelical leaders on how to help Middle Eastern refugees, RNS does itself proud.

Not that the coverage is spotless, but more on that later.

U.S. Christians have shared the anxieties of other Americans over resettling 10,000 people fleeing the Syrian civil war. While not ducking that issue, RNS also reports the conference of 500 leaders to ease those fears and muster aid.

For that job, RNS chose Timothy C. Morgan, a Godbeat veteran who knows the evangelical community. This is important in a day when many reporters are clearly out of their depth in religion stories. Morgan shows his savvy high in the article:

"We are having the wrong conversation about refugees," Richard Stearns, head of the aid group World Vision, told a meeting of evangelicals. "We have managed to make the suffering of millions all about us. God wants us to share their pain."
Around 500 people attended the GC2 Summit at the Community Christian Church, a Chicago-area megachurch. GC2 is a reference to the Great Commandment and Great Commission in the New Testament, which require Christians to love God and their neighbors, and to evangelize.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical polling organization, called it "the largest gathering of evangelicals on refugees ever." He said his latest survey of Protestant pastors indicates that 45 percent sense fear in their churches over refugees and immigration, yet 85 percent believe Christians should "care sacrificially" for this group.

That, my friends, is known as a seasoned eye. Morgan also perceptively compares the initiative with the evangelical outreach to people with HIV and AIDS 15 years ago. And there's a couple of touching quotes by a Pastor Raed Awabdeh of Sacramento, himself an immigrant from Syria:

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Rubio and the atheist: For the best coverage, look to the media inside Iowa

Rubio and the atheist: For the best coverage, look to the media inside Iowa

It's starting to look like local media do better reporting on religion and politics -- i.e., less pejorative, viewpoint-tainted reporting -- than national outlets.

Case in point: Marco Rubio's exchange with an atheist in Iowa. From what I saw, the farther from Iowa, the more breezy and/or sarcastic the story -- and the harder to tell it from commentary.  Consider first the Des Moines Register:

Forgive me for the six-paragraph string here at the start, but the story is almost a perfect model for writing what you see and hear, not what you think of it. This is essential reading:

WAVERLY, Ia. -- Confronted by an "activist atheist," Marco Rubio said he’ll champion a country where "no one is forced to violate their conscience."
"No one is going to force you to believe in God, but no one is going to force me to stop talking about God," said the Florida senator, prompting applause and a whistle of support from the crowd.
During a town hall on Monday morning, Justin Scott, 34, of Waterloo asked about Rubio’s new ad, explaining that atheists such as him are "looking for somebody that will uphold their rights as Americans, and not pander to a certain religious group," he said.
In the commercial, Rubio does not mention specific political policy but discusses how "our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our creator for all time. To accept the free gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ."
"You have a right to believe whatever you want," said Rubio, a Roman Catholic, in response. "You have a right to believe in nothing at all."
Rubio went on to explain how his faith has been the "single greatest influence in my life, and from that I’ll never hide."

Nor is it a mere puff piece.

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Fighting Boko Haram: 'Ghosts' haunt otherwise fine New York Times report

Fighting Boko Haram: 'Ghosts' haunt otherwise fine New York Times report

Applause for the New York Times for keeping an eye on Nigeria, which has been struggling for years with Boko Haram terrorists. But the clapping is a bit muted because of the religious "ghosts" in the latest story.

As the most populous nation in Africa -- the Times puts it at 190 million -- Nigeria can be seen as a bellwether for the rest of the continent. And rather than a dry recital of official stats and statements, the 1,370-word Times story captures the dread under which many Nigerians live:

DAKAR, Senegal — A sense of fear nags at Hauwa Bulama every time she leaves home.
She worries that suicide bombers might be lurking at the vegetable stand where she shops for her six children. They could turn up at the hospital where she takes her relatives. Any woman in a hijab could have a suicide belt under her clothes, she fears. The frequent public announcements to avoid crowded areas in her northern Nigerian city only heighten her anxiety.
"You are always afraid," said Ms. Bulama, who lives in Maiduguri, a frequent target of the ruthless Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram. "When you take your child to be immunized, you don’t know who is seated next to you. You don’t know who is hiding what."
For Ms. Bulama and countless others in northern Nigeria and across the Lake Chad region, the victories scored by President Muhammadu Buhari’s multinational campaign against Boko Haram since taking office in May have mattered little to their daily lives.

The article acknowledges that the government of President Buhari has killed many Boko Haram fighters and shrunk their areas of control. An international fighting force, which includes Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon -- with armored vehicles from the United States -- has pushed back and scattered the terrorists. Buhari has even boasted that "technically we have won the war."

Yet the conflict has created more than 2.4 million refugees, the Times reports. The 200-plus schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 are still missing, a clear sign of poor intelligence gathering. And the suicide bombings have continued -- two more in the last two weeks.

The newspaper praises Buhari for replacing ineffective army commanders and moving headquarters into the battle zone of northeastern Nigeria. But rebuilding the military will take money, something in short supply in the wake of the slump in oil prices.

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