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Take the Pope Francis and the cardinals journalism test: Which story is news? Which is analysis?

Take the Pope Francis and the cardinals journalism test: Which story is news? Which is analysis?

It is getting harder and harder to explain to many GetReligion readers why we see a bright red line between basic hard-news journalism and advocacy/analysis journalism.

In the latter, select journalists are allowed to make obvious leaps of logic, to use "editorial" language that passes judgment, to lean in one editorial direction (as opposed to being fair to voices on both sides) and to use fewer attributions telling readers about the sources that shaped the reporting. In other words, analysis writing offers a blend of information and opinion. Reporters who are given the liberty to do this tend to be experienced, trusted specialty reporters.

In the past, editors tended to be rather careful and let readers know what they were reading -- flying an analysis flag or logo right out in the open so that readers were not confused. (For example, I am a columnist with the Universal syndicate. By definition I do analysis writing every week.)

The problem is that the line between hard news and advocacy journalism is increasingly vanishing and editors have stopped using clear labels. Your GetReligionistas are constantly sent URLs for stories that are clearly works of advocacy journalism, in which no attempts have been made to quote articulate voices on both sides of hot-button issues, yet they are not clearly labeled as analysis. We are left asking, "What is this?"

Want to see what I mean?

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Memory eternal: Arne Fjeldstad and his efforts to help (global) media get religion

Memory eternal: Arne Fjeldstad and his efforts to help (global) media get religion

There is really no way to tell the story of GetReligion.org without talking about the veteran journalist and pastor who for years led The Media Project -- the Rev. Dr. Arne Fjeldstad of Norway. It is very unusual to find a Lutheran clergyman who also had a 30-year career as an editor in the mainstream press, including senior positions in the leading Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. For his doctoral dissertation, quite early in the Internet age, he wrote about the potential growth of online churches.

Although his byline rarely appeared here at GetReligion, that was because he felt his management skills were best used behind the scenes. Trust me when I say that his gifts were many and they have been essential. Click here to read his global perspective on the 10th anniversary of this weblog.

Arne died very suddenly Sunday afternoon at his home in Norway, hours before he was scheduled to depart for a journalism conference in South Korea. Over the past decade, his travels took him around the world on almost a monthly basis, meeting with at least 600-plus journalists face to face at one time or another. In the photo above, he is seen -- earlier this month -- with journalists from nine different African countries gathered in Lusaka, Zambia.

My former Washington Journalism Center colleague Richard Potts, who worked with Arne on many conferences in Latin America, wrote this morning: 

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Let's stop and ask a few questions about religion and that Republican romp

Let's stop and ask a few questions about religion and that Republican romp

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: If you were working on the religion beat these days, especially if you were still new on the beat, wouldn't you welcome advice from someone who had excelled at this work at the highest levels for decades?

I recently had a long talk in New York City with Richard Ostling -- by all means review his bio here -- to ask if, along with his Religion Guy Q&A pieces, he would experiment with memos in which he offered his observations on what was happening, or what might happen, with stories and trends on the beat. He said he might broaden that, from time to time, with observations on writing about religion -- period.

To which I said, "Amen." -- tmatt

*****

Grumble  if you wish, but in this era of perpetual campaigns it’s nearly time for the usual news media blitz assessing evangelical Protestants’ presidential feelings about the Republicans’ notably God-fearing 2016 list.

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CNN offers readers an atheist veteran, smiling down from heaven after his suffering ends

CNN offers readers an atheist veteran, smiling down from heaven after his suffering ends

If anything has changed, over the 10 years-plus your GetReligionistas have been doing what we do, then it has been the number of questions we hear from readers about that blurring line between basic news writing and commentary.

At first we tried to ignore this, saying that we just write about hard news -- period. Eventually, this rising tide of journalistic confusion became impossible to ignore, in part because readers kept asking us about it.

So what we have here is a perfect example, a CNN feature under the headline, "Soldier broken by war silenced by death." A longtime GetReligion reader who closely follows atheist issues sent it in, basically asking, "What the heck?" or words to that effect. I agree that this is a strange one.

For starters, this article was located in the U.S. news section and it is not flagged as an analysis piece. Yet, right in the lede, the writer -- Moni Basu -- breaks into first-person voice and frames the story in terms of direct contacts with the subject, paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young. First person? That would normally mean that this is a column, right?

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Your weekend think piece: Former GetReligionista discusses anti-Catholic story up in Seattle

Your weekend think piece: Former GetReligionista discusses anti-Catholic story up in Seattle

This is one of those stories that could have shown up with a "Got news?" notice in a GetReligion headline. It's rather amazing that this Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog item -- it's hard to tell if it was given serious news treatment -- did not receive more attention from the national press.

It's a classic example of a "mirror image" story. Try to imagine the coverage if a liberal Catholic or a traditional Muslim had been the target of this kind of ad. 

Here's the top of the PI report:

A website erected by local Democratic activists mocked the Catholic faith of Republican state Senate candidate Mark Miloscia, showing a cartoon of Miloscia waring a bishop’s mitre and holding a rosary and claiming that Miloscia represents “the Vatican.”
Democratic opponent Shari Song asked that the posting be taken down. It was, but has been replaced by an equally crude posting entitled “Pope Francis vs. Mark Miloscia,” which appears to argue that Miloscia is opposing the pope by being pro-life and upholding church teaching on same-sex marriage.

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Your weekend think piece: Muslim readers offended by news-you-can-use info bites

Your weekend think piece: Muslim readers offended by news-you-can-use info bites

So you are the New York Times public editor. 

You receive the following in a communication from a reader named Rachel Hall, who is responding -- in part -- to a Times online feature built on a list of violent acts carried out by self-proclaimed Islamic believers, almost always people who go out of their way to link their actions to their faith. You have also received letters from other Muslims protesting the same feature.

Hall writes:

In the article, the author has cherry-picked select cases from across North America, Europe and Australia that have no common threads except that they were planned or perpetrated by a person claiming to be a member of a Muslim community. In today’s world where we are constantly bombarded with a negative narrative about Islam, this kind of reporting only serves to demonize a faith of 1.6 billion people and fuels hate and prejudice against all Muslims who abide not only in North America but around the globe.
The people who perpetrate these acts do not represent me or my faith. They do not represent everyday Muslims, but in reading your article it would be easy to see how someone could be confused and think that all Muslims are terrorists. These extremists have hijacked my faith and yet we don’t hear this reported from news outlets such as yours. Instead, the media perpetually fuels fires of hate by not taking care to differentiate between the actions of a small band of crazy people and billions of average everyday individuals who just want to live their lives in peace.

So you are Margaret Sullivan. Looking at this as a journalism issue, how do your respond? 

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Concerning RNS, monkey business and early decisions made by the creators -- small 'c' -- of GetReligion (updated)

Concerning RNS, monkey business and early decisions made by the creators -- small 'c' -- of GetReligion (updated)

Veteran Religion News Service Editor Kevin Eckstrom has written a lengthy response to Dawn's current post that ran under the headline, "Religion News Service monkeys around with the Pope Francis evolution speech."  Rather than leave his letter in the comments pages, where few will see it, we will do what we have done several times in the past with letters of this sort (from journalism professionals) and pull it out front for all readers to see.

I'll offer a few words of response at the end. But first, let me note that -- due to no fault of her own, it was a software issue -- Dawn's post ran late in the afternoon, rather than at 9 a.m. She was also in graduate school classes during the day and could not do significant changes to her post after the RNS correction ran. Thus, she added a quick reference to that development at the end, several hours later. This timing issue affected content.

All of the GetReligionistas have full-time work in other jobs and that affects when we write and what we are able to write. Alas, that is normal these days. All journalists in the Internet age, especially in small newsrooms, are swamped and stressed and this affects digital journalism in many, many, ways. Many bloggers are swamped in OTHER JOBS and blog when they can. That is certainly the case around here.

Now, here is Eckstrom's comment:

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Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

If you were looking for a quote that perfectly captured the attitude that crusty old-school newspaper editors used to have about religion news (see my 1983 Quill cover story on life in that era), then here it is.

And let's face it, the fact that the quote comes from an NPR piece about the death of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post -- the ultimate symbol of the politics-is-the-only-reality school of journalism -- just makes it more perfect.

"Major regional newspapers mimicked the format he devised for the Post, with a Style section devoted to features involving politics, regional personalities, celebrity and popular culture and highbrow culture alike. He also insisted on a high profile for beats on the subjects he vigorously and vulgarly called "SMERSH -- science, medicine, education, religion and all that s - - -" -- the subjects from which Bradlee personally took little enjoyment."

So the low-prestige beats were covered, but were not on the radar of the powers that be that ran the big-city newsrooms of that day. This is precisely what I used to hear from the Godbeat scribes who were weary veterans in the 1980s, at the time I hit The Charlotte Observer and then The Rocky Mountain News.

Of course, it is also important that one of the key players who helped create the current religion-news marketplace -- in which, all too often, politics defines what is real and religion is essentially emotions and opinion -- is Beltway matriarch Sally "On Faith" Quinn, who was the talented and high-profile wife of Bradlee's mature years.

This brings me to two items of religion-beat news for the day, both care of friends of this weblog. 

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U2 is 'secretly Christian'? Say what? How long must we sing this song?

U2 is 'secretly Christian'? Say what? How long must we sing this song?

It's not a news piece, but there is a lot of chatter out in mainstream media right now about that Joshua Rothman essay in The New Yorker that ran under the headline "The Church of U2."

I'll be honest. I have no idea what that piece is trying to say, just in terms of the on-the-record facts about the band's history. It's like the last three or four decades of debate about what is, and what is not, "Christian" music never happened. It's like Johnny Cash, Bruce Cockburn, T-Bone Burnett, Mark Heard, Charlie Peacock, etc., etc., never happened. 

Here are the opening paragraphs, including the buzz term that everyone is discussing -- "secretly Christian."

A few years ago, I was caught up in a big research project about contemporary hymns (or “hymnody,” as they say in the trade). I listened to hundreds of hymns on Spotify; I interviewed a bunch of hymn experts. What, I asked them, was the most successful contemporary hymn -- the modern successor to “Morning Has Broken” or “Amazing Grace”? Some cited recently written traditional church hymns; others mentioned songs by popular Christian musicians. But one scholar pointed in a different direction: “If you’re willing to construe the term ‘hymn’ liberally, then the most heard, most successful hymn of the last few decades could be ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ by U2.”

Click pause for a moment. 

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