Academia

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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Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Journalists’ need to nurture professional skepticism should apply to the latest partisan lingo.

Examples from showbiz and advertising are legion. Are drivers of cars other than Subarus unloving? If a TV drama announces that the events and characters are totally fictional, the viewer automatically thinks “this story must be about real events and characters. Otherwise why the disclaimer?”  

Public discourse on politics, morals and religion is full of such word games, slogans, euphemisms and carefully calculated misdirections. 

In politics, during the Great Depression conservatives coined a classic still with us, the “right to work law,” which actually means the “right to refuse union membership or dues-paying,” and in reality “the right to have a weak union.” Ask your Guild rep. The Jan. 17 New York Times Magazine ran down the ways different eras have proudly embraced or shunned “progressive” and “liberal.”  “Left-leaning” becomes cautious journalistic usage when “liberal” is a slur. Has “socialist” suddenly become benign now that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats accept that label? 

In other up-to-the-minute canons, oppressive-sounding “gun control” is now “gun safety.” Insurgent Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio is magically an “establishment” candidate. In current campaign speak, “amnesty” means whatever immigration policy the other guy wants -- or used to want.  Newswriters are now expected to replace “illegal” immigrant with “undocumented.” 

Turning to moral and sexual conflicts, the Stylebook from The Religion Guy’s former Associated Press colleagues has this stumble (unless it’s been corrected in the latest edition):  “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.”

My take: "Anti" sounds negative while “rights” is positive for Americans. Better for journalists to use parallel terms that leaders on the two sides accept as their labels, “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice,” admitting that the latter skirts what action is being chosen. Meanwhile, conservatives borrow that helpful “choice” slogan when it comes to schools.

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Washington Post: Priests have complex views on gay life, but why seek diverse voices?

Washington Post: Priests have complex views on gay life, but why seek diverse voices?

The recent "Social Issues" feature in The Washington Post with the headline, "‘I’m gay and I’m a priest, period'," was pretty much what one would have expected it to be in the age of Kellerism (definition here and here). Still, this essay deserves careful reading.

You see, it does contain one very important and accurate statement of fact that needs to be discussed, if our goal is to read this feature as hard-news journalism about a crucial issue in the Roman Catholic Church, rather than as an advocacy piece or editorial published in support of a cause.

This crucial statement is as follows:

Priests’ views of the church’s handling of homosexuality are not uniform.

That is certainly true and fleshing out that statement with interviews with priests from all over that spectrum of beliefs would have been a good map for producing a solid news story. But that is not what the Post team decided to do.

During my own work as a journalist, I have encountered several different stances among Catholic clergy on issues linked to sexual orientation and the moral status of sexual acts outside of the Sacrament of Marriage. Like what? I'll try to keep this short. I have encountered priests in the following camps.

There are Catholic priests who believe that the church's ancient teachings on sexuality:

* Are correct and that they should be defended. It is crucial to note, when considering this Post article, that there are gay priests (and other LGBT thinkers in the faith) who hold this stance.

* Are correct, but that the church is doing a terrible job of handling same-sex issues at the level of pastoral life and apologetics. Some would say that Catholics need to do a better job of addressing the lives and concerns of single people -- period.

* Are wrong and should be modernized to fit our evolving culture. They believe that this work should be done openly. Some would even be open about how they have embraced some rather loose definitions of "celibacy."

* Are wrong, but that they will have to work behind the scenes to gently push the church toward the modern world, since to do this work openly would be suicide in a homophobic church.

I could go on, but that's a start.

Now, as you read this Post feature -- here is that link again -- look for evidence that the journalists who worked on this piece have included material that demonstrates the truth contained in that crucial sentence: "Priests’ views of the church’s handling of homosexuality are not uniform." Or, is the article dominated by one of these perspectives, or maybe two, with other points of view deliberately left out?

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Essay on CNN.com asks: Should journalists who go undercover doing research be worried?

Essay on CNN.com asks: Should journalists who go undercover doing research be worried?

Yes, this is a post about legal issues linked to the Planned Parenthood videos. But that is not where I want to start.

If you followed the twisting legal arguments surrounding the Westboro Baptist Church protests -- especially the horrible demonstrations at the funerals of military veterans -- you know that most of the headlines focused on freedom of speech.

However, journalists had a lot at stake in this fight, too (whether they felt comfortable about that or not). Why is that? Here is how I described the crucial press-freedom issue in a post -- "Why journalists love Westboro Baptist" -- back in 2010. I asked readers to glance at the coverage of Westboro's arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court and:

Then answer these questions. In addition to telling the story of the grieving family, which is essential, does the report in your local news source tell you (a) that the protests were moved to another location that was not in view of the church at which the funeral was held and that mourners did not need to pass the demonstration? Then, (b) does it note that the grieving father's only viewing of these hateful, hellish demonstrations took place when he viewed news media reports or read materials posted on the church's website? Those facts are at the heart of this case, when you are looking at the legal arguments from a secular, legal, even journalistic point of view. This is why so many mainstream news organizations are backing the church.

In other words, when push came to shove journalists had to defend their own right to cover these hateful demonstrations. People who thought of themselves as "liberals" kept shooting at Westboro and hitting the First Amendment, instead. As a statement at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press put it, in 2011:

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Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

I was never addicted to the X-Files back in its classic era, but I was almost always aware of what was going on in the series because of updates from my Milligan College students -- especially in my "Exegete the Culture" senior seminar on faith and mass media.

Religious issues kept showing up in the show's believer-doubter format, with plots built on a never-ending search for the supernatural. One semester, a bright youth-ministry major wrote a brilliant paper -- the curricula for a weekend retreat for high-schoolers -- based on three X-Files episodes that focused on prayer, healing and life after death. The show was asking lots of interesting questions, which had to be coming from somewhere.

So I wasn't surprised that the recent Rolling Stone profile of X-Files creator Chris Carter (linked, of course, to the six-episode Fox reboot) explored some religious themes. I was also -- alas -- not surprised when a key religion fact got mangled. More on that in a minute.

But, for starters, wouldn't you like to know more about the roots of the Amazon project mentioned in this section of the story?

Though Carter doesn't admit this, his return to Hollywood (not counting a second X-Files film he wrote in 2007) must have been disappointing for the man who ruled the medium a decade earlier. A series about the Salem witch trials that he created for Showtime never made it to air. Same with an Area 51 drama he worked on for AMC. And ditto for a conspiracy thriller, Unique,which he developed at Fox.

But the toughest hit was his 2014 Amazon pilot, The After, a Sartre-meets-Dante serial drama set in the intersection of Los Angeles and Hades.

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Another press perplexity: So who speaks for Muslims in the United States?

Another press perplexity: So who speaks for Muslims in the United States?

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is an awkwardly but accurately named alliance formed in 1955 to give the nation’s variegated Jews a united voice on key matters. Reportedly the Eisenhower White House either originated or promoted the idea of an umbrella group to make life simpler for everybody. The New York City-based conference encompasses 55 groups, communal, political and religious, and pretty much includes all sectors of Jewish life except the stricter forms of Orthodoxy, Hasidism and the anti-Zionist sects.

With less media notice than it deserves, a similar U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations was established in Washington, D.C., in 2014 with a constituency of 19 religious and communal groups.

At the moment, USCMO is no place for busy reporters to do their one-stop shopping to obtain quick, representative quotes and handy background info. However, if it can consolidate support this is certainly an organization to watch. USCMO says its purposes are “to build an active, integrated American Muslim community,” to “speak with one clear, communal voice” and to “support a national agenda for the entire Muslim community.”

These are tall orders given the numerous ethnicities and fiefdoms.

Founders include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim American Society and The Mosque Cares, led by W. Deen Mohammed II, who is USCMO’s treasurer. Absent are factions seen as heterodox like the Ahmadiyyas, Moorish Science and Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which embraces the black nationalism of Mohammed’s grandfather. The prominent Islamic Society of North America is not affiliated but has joined USCMO events. The list looks to be stronger on Sunni than Shi’a and Sufi representation.

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Interested in a March event with James Davis and lots of other religion-beat talent?

Interested in a March event with James Davis and lots of other religion-beat talent?

This may sound like a strange question, but, trust me, there is a good reason to ask it: Are there any GetReligion readers out there who would be interested in visiting the University of Wisconsin at Madison in mid-March?

Why is that? Well, because of a March 14th conference with this title: "Reporting on Religion: Media, Belief, and Public Life." Click here, pronto, for all of the details. Here is the overture on the home page for the event:

America’s religious landscape is shifting, and, as a result, news coverage of religion has never been more important. “Reporting on Religion: Media, Belief, and Public Life” will give journalists and the general public an opportunity to explore one of the most important, sensitive, and controversial topics in contemporary America.
The one-day conference will feature journalists and scholars who will help participants gain a deeper understanding of the role religion plays in public life and how religion is -- and isn’t -- represented in the news media today.
The conference will culminate in a keynote address, free and open to the public, by television journalist David Gregory, former moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press and the author of How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey.

Yes, that would be David Gregory talking, I am sure, about some of the territory covered in these GetReligion posts by our own Bobby Ross, Jr. -- click here and then here for details.

Glance over the packed program for that day (click here) and you will see many other names familiar to GetReligion readers, beginning with our own James Davis, in the panel called, "How the Press Covers Religion and Spirituality." Other familiar names on the docket include Cathy Lynn Grossman, Jaweed Kaleem, Bob Smietana, Dilshad Ali and Tony Carnes.

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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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