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RIP John S. Carroll: Author of classic memo defending old-school, balanced journalism

RIP John S. Carroll: Author of classic memo defending old-school, balanced journalism

The late John S. Carroll was known, among American journalists, as a strong advocate of investigative journalism, a famous Vietnam War correspondent, a White House beat reporter, a great headline writer and, in the end, a man who was willing to be shown the exit door at The Los Angeles Times rather than obey a Tribune Co. order to radically cut his staff.

Carroll was an old-school American journalist, by all accounts, who led The Baltimore Sun before heading to Los Angeles. He also spent time as the metro editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, among his many jobs in the top ranks of his craft.

The Sun began its obituary like this:

John S. Carroll, former editor of The Baltimore Sun and The Los Angeles Times who became a seminal figure in American journalism and operated on the principle that no detail was too small when it came to producing a great newspaper, died Sunday at his Lexington, Ky., home of a rare, non-treatable disease. Mr. Carroll was 73.

Here at GetReligion, however, Carroll is remembered for another reason -- one that I should have mentioned 11 years ago in our "What we do, why we do it" overture on Day 1. It was Carroll who, in 2003, wrote a memo to his staff about media bias that inspired me to start thinking about creating a site about the mainstream press and its struggle to, well, "get religion."

The memo -- dated May 22, 2003 -- focused on the editor's concerns about media bias in a Los Angeles Times story focusing on debates about alleged links between induced abortions and breast cancer. Carroll sent the memo to his section editors, but the full text soon surfaced in The LA Observer. Here is the heart of the letter.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision. 

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Concerning GetReligion and our history of openly biased commentary on news

Concerning GetReligion and our history of openly biased commentary on news

Anyone who has ever taken the time to read the first essay published at this blog more than 11 years ago -- "What we do, why we do it" -- or who knows how to use a mouse and a search engine well enough to reach Wikipedia knows that one of my closest friends in journalism is a writer whose byline, back when she was a nationally known religion-beat professional, was Roberta Green.

Roberta and I were on the beat during the same era, primarily when I was at The Rocky Mountain News and she was at The Orange County Register. Then, in the pre-Internet era, she vanished from the beat when she married someone she met in a church Bible study. Our paths crossed again a few years later, at a Columbia University conference on religion-news issues, linked to the famous Freedom Forum study called "Bridging The Gap (.pdf here)."

As it turned out, Roberta had married a philanthropist named Howard Ahmanson, who at times has been a controversial figure in Southern California cultural and political life. At this point, I will simply say that if you want to know more about his evolving views on a host of subjects, you should check out his blog -- "Blue Kennel." For those who know political symbolism, it's logical to note that blue kennels might house blue dogs, a label Ahmanson embraced a few years ago when he left the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat.

For the past two decades, Roberta and I (and a host of other journalists and academics) have been involved in many journalism-education projects working with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Global Media Project, Poynter.org, Oxford University Press and now The McCandlish Phillips Journalism Center, a project at The King's College in New York City that honors the legacy of the great New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips. My work with GetReligion.org has been part of all of this, for 11 years.

Like I said, these connections were put into print the day this blog opened. Still, I was not surprised when the GetReligion reader named "Jay," or whoever resides at the lambda98 address at Hotmail, had this response to my recent post about GetReligion, Religion News Service and debates about "church" and "state" conflicts in newsrooms.

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What are the biggest Christian flocks in America these days?

What are the biggest Christian flocks in America these days?

RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

What are the major Christian denominations in the U.S.?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Numbers. Numbers. Numbers.

The Pew Research Center snagged some headlines April 2 with projections on world religions as of 2050 that are worth pondering. Among other things, we’re told high birth rates will make world Islam almost as large as Christianity, India will surpass Indonesia as the nation with the biggest Muslim population, Muslims will constitute 10 percent of Europeans, and will surpass the number of religious Jews in the U.S.

Rachael’s question brings us back to the present day, to just the United States, and to Christians only. This has long been an easy topic thanks to the National Council of Churches and its predecessor, the Federal Council, which since 1916 issued yearbooks stuffed with statistics and other information. These annuals became more vital after 1936 when the U.S. Census stopped gathering data from religious groups.  Unfortunately, the N.C.C. hasn’t managed to issue its “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches” since 2012 due to shrinking staff, budget, and program, and has no firm plans for any future editions. Any volunteers out there to produce this all-important reference work?

Some data were outdated or rough estimates, but it’s what we’ve had and, on the whole, reasonably representative. Here were  “inclusive” memberships for U.S. groups reporting at least 2 million members in that latest and perhaps last yearbook from 2012:

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Pew Forum does its thing again: Gazing into a global crystal ball of religion stats

Pew Forum does its thing again: Gazing into a global crystal ball of religion stats

Pew has spoken. And the world of religious affiliation will be forever changed.

I refer, of course, to last week's blockbuster report from the Pew Forum's Religion and Public Life project on what global religious affiliation might look like in 2050, and, in at least one key indicator, by this century's end (more on this below). I say blockbuster not because of its immediate impact but because of the many interesting projections it contained.

The report's projected changes in religious affiliation harbor potentially monumental geopolitical ramifications. That's why I found it at least mildly surprising that most of the media attention so far has been restricted to first-day stories. Two such examples are here, at Religion News Service, and here, at The New York Times.

But perhaps I should not have been surprised. As a specie we're far more reactive than proactive -- as are the preponderance of our mainstream news providers, trapped as most are in the 24/7 rat race. Excuse me. I meant news cycle. Though I bet think tanks, security agencies, religion watchers, multinational corporations and entrepreneurs, and even some savvy novelists will pore over this report for some time to come.

The report was careful to limit its political projections -- a wise choice, I think, given how iffy this all is -- about the possible consequences of its numerical projections.

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Cheers for Peter Steinfels: A liberal defends both religious liberty and traditional journalism

Cheers for Peter Steinfels: A liberal defends both religious liberty and traditional journalism

If you know the history of mainstream religion-news coverage in the late 20th Century, then you know the byline of Peter Steinfels in The New York Times. As an old-school Catholic progressive, he is now known for his work at Commonweal.

The meltdown in Indiana inspired a piece from Steinfels the other day that GetReligion readers simply must read, from beginning to end. I have literally nothing to say to frame this essay except to say this: What. He. Said.

Here are two key passages. However, like I said, please read it all. The headline: "Any liberals for religious freedom?" It opens like this (with the journalism angle very obvious):

Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom? I don’t know whether the religious freedom bill passed and signed in Indiana last week -- and now reportedly up for revision -- is a good measure. I do know that, however one precisely balances out the pros and cons of the bill, it does involve religious freedom. 
That was not the perspective of the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which framed the bill as one more tactic for discriminating against gay couples. Conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage were “invoking ‘religious freedom’ as their last line of defense.” ...

The Times news story devoted almost two thirds of its coverage to these critics, far more than to any supporters or to Indiana’s governor.

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Has the Associated Press hierarchy officially changed its style for references to 'God'?

Has the Associated Press hierarchy officially changed its style for references to 'God'?

Flash back with me, if you will, to my recent GetReligion "guilt file" post on the religious-liberty showdown between an Assemblies of God chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, and the principalities and powers at the modern U.S. Navy.

There was a reference in the Military Times account to a Navy document listing the chaplain's offenses, one of which was that he:

Told a female that she was "shaming herself in the eyes of god" for having premarital sex.

I raised a style question about that claim, asking if the lower-case "g" on the reference to "god" represented a change in news style for Gannett or if the modern Navy has now changed to using lower-case references to the Deity.

After posting that, I had a kind of nagging sensation that I was forgetting something. Perhaps there was another news item related to this Godtalk issue buried even deeper in my massive folder of GetReligion guilt material?

Sure enough, there was, one dating back to the Academy Awards coverage. A film critic friend of mine sent me this note:

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You have $1.25 million: Who gets that check if the goal is basic, balanced religion-news reporting?

You have $1.25 million: Who gets that check if the goal is basic, balanced religion-news reporting?

Here at the Washington Journalism Center, the full-semester program I lead at the DC center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we have a number of sayings that are repeated over and over that they turn into journalism mantras. I imagine that will be true when we reboot the program next year in New York City at The King's College.

One of these sayings goes like this: Everybody in this city knows more stories than you do. I also like to stress this: The most important skill in journalism is the ability to accurately state the views of someone with whom you disagree. And then there's one that is discussed here frequently, in this Keller-istic, Twitter-driven age in which the digital line between newswriting and editorializing is often quite faded and hard to spot: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive.

Then there is another WJC mantra that moves us closer to some news sure to intrigue those interesting in religion-beat coverage in the mainstream press. This one isn't very snappy, but it's a concept that is crucial for young journalists to grasp. Here it is: In the future there will be no one dominant business model (think newspaper chains built on advertising, mixed with the sale of dead-tree pulp) for mainstream journalism, but multiple approaches to funding the creation of information and news.

I warned you that it wasn't short and snappy.

Obviously, one of the crucial emerging models right now is the growing world of non-profit and foundation-driven journalism.

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Concerning that RNS newsletter: 'Two steps forward ...' means what, precisely?

Concerning that RNS newsletter: 'Two steps forward ...' means what, precisely?

It doesn't take a doctorate in Mass Communications to grasp that the Internet and other forms of digital technology that have emerged in recent decades have changed many elements of "journalism" as we know it.

Your GetReligionistas have written about this many times during the past 11 years. I guess that's because -- as a guy with a mass-comm master's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- I am pretty obsessed with the whole "technology shapes content" idea.

What changes? You know what I'm talking about.

The WWW is great at narrow-casting information into niches, as opposed to offering broadly stated information for debates in one mass culture. Also, the Internet is open for business 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- yet a business model built on digital advertising cannot sustain the larger newsroom staffs of the past. Thus, there are fewer scribes doing more and more work as they try seize the attention of readers who are surfing past on waves of digital ink.

What to do? Many believe that it's crucial for these digital journalists to write with a sharp "edge" that helps to define their social-media "brands" in order to appeal to loyal readers who agree with their editorial worldview. Thus, the line between news and analysis and old-fashioned editorializing is becoming harder and harder to see.

Meanwhile, information is expensive (think old-school reporters) while opinion is much cheaper (think armies of bloggers, freelance columnists and think-tank public intellectuals). Thus, more opinion and less basic reporting, with on-the-record interviews with articulate voices on both sides of hot-button debates.

This leads me to the following headline, which stopped me dead in my tracks as I marched through my stack of morning emails.

Two steps forward ... then all this

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Welcome Julia Duin: Home in the Northwest and still watching the religion beat like a Seahawk

Welcome Julia Duin: Home in the Northwest and still watching the religion beat like a Seahawk

EDITOR'S NOTE: Veteran religion-beat reporter Julia Duin – now a journalism professor who is active writing books and in magazine journalism – is joining us here at GetReligion. She will focus her work on the American West, which is her home territory. Make her welcome, please. -- Terry Mattingly.

*****

You might say I got into religion reporting while a high school student in the Seattle area. I saw the huge readership -- and tons of letters -- that Earl Hansen received for his religion columns in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and I thought, I can do that. And so my first religion piece ever was for the Covenant Companion, a denominational magazine, about my bike trip around Puget Sound with the youth group from a local Evangelical Covenant church.

While majoring in English at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, I came to know the religious community in western Oregon pretty well. I also could not believe what a poor job the local papers did of covering the religion beat. I soon got a job as a reporter at a small daily just south of Portland where the editor told me I had to choose one page to edit: agriculture or religion. I chose religion and have not stopped covering it ever since. I also began corresponding for Christianity Today at that point in an era when women rarely wrote for that publication. 

I then moved to south Florida for a few years, covering religion among other beats and my work at CT and a first place in an RNA competition for religion reporting for small newspapers caught the eye of The Houston Chronicle. They hired me as one of two full-time religion writers in 1986. Those were the salad days of covering the beat: the Jim-and-Tammy-Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart "Pearlygate" scandals, Pat Robertson running for president, a local United Methodist bishop dying of AIDS, Pope John Paul II’s swing through the southern USA and Oral Roberts’ claim that God would “take me home” if he was not able to raise $4.5 million. It was rich. 

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