Ethics

Pod people: Talking scare quotes, red flags and other 'controversial' tools of religion journalism

Pod people: Talking scare quotes, red flags and other 'controversial' tools of religion journalism

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In a couple of recent posts, I've delved into the nitty-gritty of religion news writing.

In one post, I focused on the specific language used in a USA Today story on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

In another post, I tackled the subject of scare quotes — a term that is familiar to regular Get Religion readers.

On this week's episode of "Crossroads," the GetReligion podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss both those posts. Click here to tune in.

Besides addressing those posts, my interview with Wilken turns into a conversation about another recent post — this one on the use of the adjective "controversial" in journalism.

Trust me, it's fascinating stuff.

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'Physician-assisted suicide' gets scare quotes, but 'aid-in-dying' doesn't. Why?

'Physician-assisted suicide' gets scare quotes, but 'aid-in-dying' doesn't. Why?

Let's talk scare quotes for a moment.

Regular GetReligion readers know what we mean when we use that term.

But in case you're new to this nerdy journalism site focused on mass media coverage of religion news, click here to review past examples.

I bring up this topic again today because of a note I received from a regular reader, who opined:

Notice how whenever the Left invents a new phrase, the media adopt it immediately and uncritically, while well-known, long-understood and uncontroversial words and phrases get scare quotes? Oh, of course you do.
"Aid-in-dying" gets no scare quotes, while "religious freedom" always does? 

The reader included a link to a San Francisco Chronicle story.

Actually, the Chronicle lede does include scare quotes — just not around the phrase 'aid-in-dying":

SACRAMENTO — The California Medical Association has become the first state medical association in the nation to drop opposition to what has long been known as “physician-assisted suicide,” it said, acknowledging a shift in doctor and patient attitudes about end-of-life and aid-in-dying options.

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Controversy over Serra sainthood: Not all media settle for reporting

Controversy over Serra sainthood: Not all media settle for reporting

Ever hear people arguing past each other? Each makes seemingly good points, but doesn't answer those raised by the other.

If they only had someone -- oh, like a reporter, for instance -- to put some questions to them. Then, they could understand each other, and the rest of us could understand them both.

Mainstream media fill that function -- partly -- with the fallout over Pope Francis' speech about Junipero Serra this past weekend. Francis praised the 18th century California missionary, scheduled for sainthood in September, as a "founding father" of American religion. Reporters also looked up historians and Indians who branded his work genocidal.

But how the articles treat and background the speech varies vastly.

For some reason, the Associated Press ran two stories on the topic, and on the same day -- Saturday. One is AP's typical overly brief item that raises more questions than it answers.

That story first has Pope Francis praising Serra's "zeal"; then it quotes a native American leader who says the missionary "enslaved converts" and tried to destroy Indian culture. Here's the run-on lede:

Pope Francis on Saturday praised the zeal of an 18th-century Franciscan missionary he will make a saint when he visits the United States this fall but whom Native Americans say brutally converted indigenous people to Christianity.

AP then quotes Ron Andrade, who fires several salvos like:

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Tweet revenge: New York Times reports Twitter's efforts to keep out ISIS

Tweet revenge: New York Times reports Twitter's efforts to keep out ISIS

When social media do nothing about terrorism, the critics complain. And when the social media do something, the critics complain.

"Some guys do nothing but complain," as Rod Stewart, well, complained.

But it's true with Twitter's fight against terrorism, according to a New York Times story. The microblog firm just announced it had suspended about 10,000 Islamic State accounts for "tweeting violent threats." It's just a tiny fraction of the estimated 90,000 such accounts linked to Islamic State -- which, the newspaper points out, is also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh -- but it sounds like a decent start.

Users who also oppose ISIS, though, accuse Twitter of a weak p.r. stunt that does nothing to halt the hate online.  The objections, and Twitter's answers, are part of this fairly short, 535-word story.

But the Times takes the risky route of using only unnamed sources for this piece. It also risks imbalance in focusing solely on what Twitter is doing and ignoring the kind of hatred Twitter is trying to stem.

Evidently, the social media giant is increasingly sensitive about its image. According to the Times, the firm has long fought efforts to misuse its system:

The suspensions came against a backdrop of rising criticism that Twitter has allowed the Islamic State to exploit the social network to spread propaganda, glorify violence and seek recruits.
Twitter previously acknowledged suspending as many as 2,000 ISIS-linked accounts per week in recent months.
The Twitter representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, attributed the surge of suspensions in part to a widely publicized effort by ISIS opponents, including some hacking groups and online vigilantes, to expose suspect accounts and report them as violators.

The Times acknowledges a dilemma faced by Twitter, which seeks to promote free speech yet snuff out talk that leads to murder. Curiously, the article doesn't use the term "hate speech," although ISIS' threats would certainly seem to qualify.

I liked the lore in this story, like an alliance of ISIS opponents -- "including some hacking groups and online vigilantes" -- that find and report the online terrorists.  Some of the users worry that the account deletions will make it harder to watch the terrorists, although others applaud Twitter for trying to "deny ISIS a social media platform."

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Plain or with bias? CNN's reporting on gays and law reveal contradictions

Plain or with bias? CNN's reporting on gays and law reveal contradictions

I was just about to hand a bouquet to CNN for a sensitive video about the Indiana pizzeria that closed under a barrage of pro-gay hate. But I feel more like serving them bad anchovies after seeing the same kind of shallow, irresponsible coverage in Georgia.

In one video, CNN takes a close look at Memories Pizza in Indiana and interviews the owner, and looks into how this matter of individual rights mushroomed into verbal violence. In the other video (shared with us by a reader who calls herself TheAnchoress), a CNN reporter ambushes five florists in rural Georgia with a "gotcha" question: "If you had gay customers come in here to buy flowers, and they said, 'We want you to come do our commitment ceremony' -- marriages are not allowed in this state yet -- would you do it?"

But OK, the nice one first. CNN's follow-up tells some of the travails of the O'Connor family after they gave their opinion on catering gay weddings.

"Social media unloaded on the pizzeria ... many too vulgar to share," CNN says. The network also reports the tweet by one Jessica Dooley to burn the place down. Adds the network: "Detectives who investigated have recommended charges of harassment, intimidation and threats."

The story also highlights tweets and Facebook posts in support of the pizza parlor. One calls the harassment "cyber bullying" and a "lynch mob." Another says how ironic it is to threaten in the name of tolerance.

CNN then reports on a GoFundMe campaign to compensate the O'Connors for their loss: donations of $842,387 in three days.  The network also does an on-air interview with Lawrence Billy Jones II, a commentator on the Dana Loesch Show, who launched the fund drive.

In the accompanying video, CNN's Brooke Baldwin asks Jones if the O'Connors would, indeed, decline to cater a gay wedding. He says they would, but he's allowed to qualify that they would serve gays who sat down in their restaurant.

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Blurring news and views: RNS dissects cardinal's quotes on gay marriage

Blurring news and views: RNS dissects cardinal's quotes on gay marriage

A week after praising Presbyterians for endorsing same-sex marriage -- and scolding United Methodists for not doing the same -- the Religion News Service caricatures the views of  a Catholic cardinal about gays.

This week, the target is Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was moved from a powerful Vatican post to patron of the Knights of Malta. When LifeSite News sought him out, he agreed to an interview.

An interview that displeased RNS, which summarized Burke's views in a startling headline: "Cardinal Raymond Burke: Gays, remarried Catholics, murderers are all the same."

Whoa. Keep that guy away from electric chairs, right?

What Burke told LifeSite, of course -- again, after he was asked -- was that the Catholic Church still considers some deeds to be grave sins.  He continues:

And to give the impression that somehow there's something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere taught.
LSN: So when the man in the street says, yes, it's true these people are kind, they are dedicated, they are generous, that is not enough?
CB: Of course it's not. It's like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people…

RNS writer David Gibson acknowledges that the comments "break little theological ground; the church has always taught that sin is sin, and some sins are especially serious." But he presses his case:

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Charlotte Observer offers a mega nice gesture to its local megachurch

Charlotte Observer offers a mega nice gesture to its local megachurch

Is the Charlotte Observer trying to be nice to Elevation Church?

Sure looks that way in two articles: a friendly feature last weekend, with a shorter item this past Saturday.

The first one is 1,500 words of mostly "Huzzah!" on the megachurch's 13-campus expansion, 17,000 attendees, weekly income of $484,000, and explosive growth since its first 121 people in 2006. We get stats a-plenty from chief financial officer "Chunks" Corbett. We learn from Outreach magazine that Elevation is the nation's 11 fastest-growing Protestant church and its 15th largest.

And we get some reasons for the growth, starting with Pastor Steven Furtick:

The main draw is Furtick, whose dynamic preaching style, casual persona and fluency with Bible verses and pop culture references are popular with many people, including teenagers and those in their 20s, who are turned off by more formal and traditional churches. Elevation’s congregation also appears to be more racially diverse than most Charlotte churches.
Other attractions: The Christian rock music, its investment in multimedia messaging, and its history of funneling several million dollars and many volunteers to charities such as Crisis Assistance Ministry.
Plus, like a lot of megachurches, Elevation tries to steer its regulars into small groups that meet and pray in homes. Each site has its own full-time campus pastor, its own live band, and a staff that works with children during the weekend services.

The follow-up column, about 350 words, appears to be what people in the trade call a "Reporter's Notebook": bits and pieces that are interesting but didn't survive trims in the larger story. It has bulleted paragraphs on the symbolism of the church logo, the origin of Corbett's nickname "Chunks," and the fact that the newest site was bought from members of the family that launched the Amway company.

Ah, but something is missing in this lovefest: quotes from Furtick himself. As the Observer acknowledges, he hasn't given the newspaper an interview since 2008.

Thereby hangs a tale.

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RNS calls out United Methodists as same-sex marriage holdouts

RNS calls out United Methodists as same-sex marriage holdouts

"Looking at you, Methodists," says yesterday's "Slingshot," the newsletter of the Religion News Service -- about an event that isn't even about Methodism. It's about Tuesday's action of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships.

"With Presbyterians in the yes column, mainline Protestants solidify gay marriage support," RNS says after PCUSA's Tuesday decision. And right from the lede, the story turns up the heat on United Methodists:

(RNS) With the largest Presbyterian denomination’s official endorsement Tuesday (March 17), American mainline Protestants have solidified their support for gay marriage, leaving the largest mainline denomination — the United Methodist Church — outside the same-sex marriage fold.

The story acknowledges that the Methodists are unlikely to accept gay marriage, especially because their African brethren strongly oppose it. But then RNS tries to show how abnormal that's becoming:

But the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and now the Presbyterian Church (USA)  sanctify the marriage of two men or two women. The 3.8 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gives congregations the autonomy to decide for themselves.

The story piles it on, quoting a researcher for the Public Religion Research Institute saying that support for same-sex marriage among "white mainline Protestants" has grown drastically over the last decade -- 67 percent among U.S. Methodists, compared with 69 percent of Presbyterians. And it gets even more vehement:

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When will ‘three-parent babies’ come to the U.S.?

When will ‘three-parent babies’ come to the U.S.?

The headline above is borrowed verbatim from a Feb. 6 Scientific American article (coverage here) after the House of Commons voted by 75 percent to make Britain the first nation to legalize “three-parent babies.” The House of Lords gave the final approval Feb. 24.  Newcastle University researchers are already paying women to be genetic donors, and the first such births are expected next year.

The hope here is to avoid babies with devastating “mitochondrial” birth defects and related ailments like muscular dystrophy.  So these experiments have the best of motives, though scientists and theologians alike question the means.  Reporters should note good online coverage of pros and cons by Sarah Knapton in the London Telegraph.

News media take note: The U.S. debate will gain prominence with a March 31 – April 1  “public workshop” in Washington by the  panel that’s advising the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Institute of Medicine on this. Its delightfully bureaucratic name: “Committee on Ethical and Social Policy Considerations of Novel Techniques for Prevention of Maternal Transmission of Mitochondrial DNA Diseases.” 

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