Same-sex Marriage

Pope Francis and the trendy new world of 'omniscient anonymous' journalism

Pope Francis and the trendy new world of 'omniscient anonymous' journalism

It may be time to introduce a new term into the world of writing, and alleged hard-news journalism in particular.

First, a few notes about news craft. Normally, hard-news journalism is written in third-person voice in past tense, with a heavy emphasis on the use of clear attributions for quoted materials, so that readers know who is speaking. That crucial "comma, space, said, space, name, period" formula is at the heart of traditional, American Model of the Press journalism.

The bottom line: It's a key element in retaining the trust of readers. Traditional journalists are, as a rule, going to tell the reader the sources for the information they are reading. If something comes from the Family Research Council, say so. If something comes from Planned Parenthood or a company linked to Planned Parenthood, say so.

This is less crucial in opinion-based writing, since writers -- usually in first-person voice -- are sharing their own biases, beliefs, etc. The world of journalism needs both, in my opinion, but it is impossible to have good, healthy public discourse without lots and lots of basic, accurate, fair-minded, balanced hard-news journalism with clear, concise attributions.

In fiction, people can be very creative in terms of the point of view used in telling a story. In journalism? Basically, it's clear third-person or first person.

This brings me to what I see as a disturbing trend in journalism -- the creation of a point of view that could be called "omniscient anonymous" voice. Here is a sample from a new story in The Washington Post. I ask readers to look for the source of these stated facts about, yes, Pope Francis and his upcoming visit to the United States:

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The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

A few years ago, I got out a notepad and wrote a list of the "seven deadly sins" of religion writing in the modern mainstream press. 

Right near the top of the list is the tendency among reporters to assume that all religious issues are, in reality, political issues when push comes to shove. It's a kind of militant materialism that assumes the political life is the ultimate reality for all people, since that happens to be the case for legions of people (but not all) in elite newsrooms.

It is especially easy to see this principle at work in mainstream news coverage of the African-American church. Am I the only person that has noticed that major news organizations have started omitting the term "the Rev." when printing the names of many black clergy?

Of course, it must be noted that clergy have -- for generations -- provided crucial public leadership for the entire black community, including in politics. The fact that this is true does not, however, mean that the work these pastors do in the public square has nothing to do with their faith and their role as church leaders.

This brings us to the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal preacher turned Baptist whose high-profile work in politics and mass-media career have made him a controversial figure, including among African-American clergy. It is common to hear his critics say that he doesn't deserve the title "the Rev." -- which, in my opinion, only makes it more important for journalists to provide basic facts about who this man is, what he believes and to whom he relates as a minister. The bottom line: He is ordained and he is making faith claims, as well as political claims, when he speaks and/or preaches.

The Los Angeles Times times recently offered up a lengthy news feature on Sharpton that is a perfect, five-star example of all of this. Click on this link and do some searching. Here are some words you will not find in this piece -- "God," "Jesus," "faith," "religion," "Bible" and "ordained." The only reason "church" appears is that there are descriptions of rallies held in churches.

Is this a comment about Sharpton, the Los Angeles Times or both?

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Does 'death with dignity' actually involve indignities for doctors and patients?

Does 'death with dignity' actually involve indignities for doctors and patients?

This notable and quotable line from William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” is a good slogan for religion newswriting: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The U.S. Supreme Court supposedly settled the abortion issue in 1973, but -- to the astonishment of many including the Religion Guy -- in 2015  it remains unsettled, all entangled with the presidential campaign, the U.S. Congress and several state legislatures. Will the court’s similar legalization of same-sex marriage be settled, or still unsettled, 42 years from now?

Another issue that’s stirring renewed media interest is physician-assisted suicide, a.k.a. “death with dignity.” Reasons for wariness about this growing practice are raised in two important recent articles that journalists interested in this topic should know about.

New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv offered “The Death Treatment: When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?” Her even-handed 8,700-worder in the June 22 issue largely treated the experience in Belgium. Stateside, an August 18 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by William L. Toffler, professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, had  this strong headline: “A Doctor-Assisted Disaster for Medicine.”

Anticipate more of this. In the wake of the planned suicide in Oregon last Nov. 1 of young brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard, featured in People magazine and other media, legislators in 23 states have introduced new bills to let doctors help patients kill themselves.

Thus far, U.S. doctors have gained that power by legislation only in Oregon (in 1997), Washington state (2009), and Vermont (2013), while a 2009 court edict shields Montana physicians from prosecution.

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Concerning green frogs, fish stories and Christians who keep falling for faux news

Concerning green frogs, fish stories and Christians who keep falling for faux news

Long ago, when I worked on The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette copy deskthe news editor quickly discovered there was one unpleasant newsroom task for which I was uniquely qualified, as a Southern Baptist preacher's kid and would-be religion-beat professional.

Every now and then an angry reader would call and accuse the newspaper of being prejudiced against all religious people or of deliberately screwing up facts in a story about religion. You might say that some readers were convinced that the editors simply did not "get religion."

However, there was a problem. Even when these readers had a valid point to make -- especially concerning errors -- they tended to go completely over the top in their criticism of the staff at the newspaper. In voices that would get more and more enraged, they seemed determined to accuse the editors of sins against God, as opposed to sins against the standards of journalism.

The news editor would bite his tongue and try to listen, as people accused him of taking orders directly from Satan. But after awhile he would roll his eyes, place his hand over the telephone mouthpiece and stage whisper across the news desk, "Mattingly, there's another GREEN FROG on line one. You take this call."

"Green frogs," you see, were religious folks who basically hated journalism.

Now, this unique newsroom term came up this week in the GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast, which focused on my recent "On Religion" column about why religious believers seemed determined to fall for every piece of fake news, or "fish story," that rockets across cyberspace. Click here to listen to my latest chat with host Todd Wilken.

There is a connection, you see, between that "green frog" phenomenon and the tendency for believers to fall for what the online Evangelical maven Ed Stetzer calls "faux news."

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This piece on Episcopal Bishop William Love of Albany contains a big, big, big hole

This piece on Episcopal Bishop William Love of Albany contains a big, big, big hole

Want to see some completely unbalanced reporting in what was, I assume, supposed to be a hard-news story in a mainstream newspaper? Friends and neighbors, this Times Union story -- "Episcopal bishop's opposition to same-sex marriage creates rift" -- about Bishop William Love of the Diocese of Albany may take the cake.

Right up front, let me note that (a) this was an important story that should have been covered and (b) liberal Episcopalians in this diocese had every right to be outraged by their bishop's rejection of his denomination's somewhat limited embrace of same-sex marriage rites. Their voices deserved to be heard.

Wait, "somewhat limited" embrace? 

Ah, there is the rub. This story completely misses a key element of what the Episcopal General Convention did and did not do on this hot-button issue, a fact that made the final action taken quite unpopular with some -- repeat SOME -- liberal Episcopalians.

The bottom line: There is no way to understand the story in Albany without crucial facts that were omitted from this Times Union report. 

So what's the story? Here is the overture:

Episcopal Bishop William Love's opposition to same-sex marriage in defiance of the recent 78th general convention of the Episcopal Church that affirmed marriage equality has roiled the Albany diocese and caused parishioners to quit the Cathedral of All Saints in protest.
In a July 18 pastoral letter in response to last month's convention and June's historic Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing nationwide rights for same-sex marriage, Love cited a Book of Common Prayer definition of marriage as a "solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman."
Love was among just seven out of more than 100 bishops across the United States who flouted the convention's stance and publicly opposed same-sex marriage.

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Wait! Which religious schools teach what about the moral status of gay sex?

Wait! Which religious schools teach what about the moral status of gay sex?

In recent years, I have been amazed -- when reading mainstream religion-news coverage -- to see basic moral and cultural beliefs that have been around in traditional forms of for millennia described as convictions that belong to "evangelical" Protestants, alone.

I understand what is going on when this happens. It's easier to bash away at televangelists for saying that sex outside of marriage is sin, as opposed to noting that these same beliefs have been articulated by popes, Orthodox rabbis, traditional Muslim leaders and others. Evangelical Protestants are popular enemies. The problem is that this presentation skews the facts of history.

Thus, I flinched the other day when I read a Salt Lake City Tribune report, picked up by Religion News service, about a Princeton Review ranking of campuses of higher learning that are opposed to recent trends in gay rights. Here is the top of the story. If you are holding a beverage, please set it aside to protect your screen and keyboard.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Brigham Young University remains one of the most hostile campuses in the country for gay and transgender students, according to an annual college ranking list.
But the private university does not top the list of LGBT-unfriendly schools. In fact, it came in sixth in a list of 10, mostly religious, schools. Grove City College (Grove City, Pa.) a Christian liberal arts school of 2,500 students. and Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Hampden Sydney Va., came in first and second.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but that acting on it is.

And? And? Isn't that an accurate description of the beliefs of millions and millions of other believers in a host of different traditions? 

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Time to tackle a question: Does BuzzFeed do basic, hard-news religion news or not?

Time to tackle a question: Does BuzzFeed do basic, hard-news religion news or not?

This past year, I had a student in Washington who was really into BuzzFeed, for many reasons, including lots of valid ones.

Like it or not, she said, the mainstream press was going to have to come to terms with key elements of the BuzzFeed business model, especially the idea of breaking stories down into humorous and entertaining listicles that force profitable mouse clicks. This concept, she added, could save the news industry by helping young readers develop habits of news consumption.

I asked: But what about basic news? How do these digital-era concepts apply to the coverage of daily hard news about topics that, like it or not, are essential to life and public discourse? Her reply was blunt: That doesn't matter since young readers won't read those kinds of news stories anyway.

I was also worried about continuing efforts to erase the line between news coverage and editorial writing, in the snarky new listicles, first-person features and in the waves of "reported blogging" pieces that are spreading through the websites of conventional newsrooms. Oh yes, and things like the Twitter blast at the top of this post.

Then there was that famous statement by BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith (see my post "From old Kellerism to new BuzzFeed") that bluntly stated:

“We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”

Smith later said, in a Hugh Hewitt interview (transcript here) explained his newsroom's open celebration of the 5-4 Obergefell decision:

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Transgender minister nun gets sympathy piece (aka propaganda) from RNS

Transgender minister nun gets sympathy piece (aka propaganda) from RNS

Same-sex marriage advocates won the day in court, but groups like the Religion News Service have no lack of causes to fight for -- like a nun who ministers to transgender people.

Yes, RNS is fighting for this cause: The story is propaganda thinly posing as a sympathetic profile. It sets up Sister Monica as something like a deep-cover agent for an insurgency.

Think I'm exaggerating? Have a look:

She doesn’t want to reveal the name of the town where she lives, the name of her Catholic order or her real name.
Sister Monica lives in hiding, so that others may live in plain sight.
Now in her early 70s and semiretired because of health problems, she remains committed to her singular calling for the past 16 years: ministering to transgender people and helping them come out of the shadows.
"Many transgender people have been told there’s something wrong with them," she said. "They have come to believe that they cannot be true to themselves and be true to God. But there is no way we can pray, or be in communion with God, except in the truth of who we are."

According to the profile, Sister Monica calls, visits, e-mails and Skypes with transgender people. What she does isn't really spelled out, besides vague phrases of "unflinching love and support" and "pushing her friends to be honest about themselves and their relationships."

Granted, transgender people are becoming more active, including in church circles. A large group of gay and transgender Catholics wants to meet Pope Francis during his September visit to Philadelphia. And about 14 families with gay or transgender members plan to attend the World Meeting of Families, also in Philadelphia.

So sure, the ball is rolling. But it's one thing to report the roll; it's another to push it along.

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Who am I to scrub? Did AP pull story about Pope Francis, teachers and same-sex marriage?

Who am I to scrub? Did AP pull story about Pope Francis, teachers and same-sex marriage?

If you have ever worked for a 24/7 wire service, or worked for a copy desk that deals with wire-service news copy, you know that it's very common for the Associated Press, Reuters and other wires to update stories. Sometimes they even add additional content -- this used to be called a "write-thru" -- that updates a story to make it longer and more complete.

Of course, there are also times when wire-service professionals make mistakes and, thus, their newsrooms issue corrections. Wire corrections are especially important since these organizations produce copy that is literally used in publications all around the world, as opposed to one news publication in one location. Wire mistakes were "viral" long before the digital concept of "viral" was even born.

What is rare, however, is for a wire service to make -- to the best of its ability -- a flawed or incorrect story completely vanish. In the Internet age it is ultra hard to scrub away evidence that a story was published.

However, that appears -- I repeat appears -- to be what happened with the story that GetReligion ripped into yesterday in a post that ran under the headline: "Associated Press editors seem to be saying, 'Who are we to report on Catholic teachings?' "

Now, when I wrote that post, this URL at the Associated Press site took you to a lengthy story that began like this: 

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Pope Francis refined his vision for the church last week when he said long-spurned divorced and remarried Catholics should be welcomed with "open doors." And he has famously parsed centuries of thought on homosexuality into a five-word quip: "Who am I to judge?"

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