Religious shield bill: Orlando Sentinel produces (gasp) fair coverage

Religious shield bill: Orlando Sentinel produces (gasp) fair coverage

Whoaaa, looky here: an article on gay marriage that affects ministers that actually quotes ministers.

Let's hear it for the Orlando Sentinel!

Too often in stories about same-sex marriage, as I noted here and here, we get the views of legislators, law professors, think tankers and, of course, gay leaders -- not pastors. Perhaps because the Sentinel is in Central Florida, a big area for evangelical Protestants, reporter Gary Rohrer was more aware that pastors would have something to say.

The story deals with a bill in the state House meant to shield churches who don’t want to be forced to perform same-sex marriages. With six quoted sources in a 600-word piece -- three of them congregational pastors -- the Sentinel strikes an impressive balance.

Not a perfect balance, mind you. Especially with the first three paragraphs:

TALLAHASSEE — Legislation designed to shield religious leaders from being targeted for refusing to perform same-sex marriages won a House panel's approval Wednesday, but only after clergy members spoke vehemently for and against the bill.
Opponents of the bill say it's unnecessary since the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedom, with some going so far as to say it smacks of anti-gay discrimination.
"I'm really concerned about the overt premise of this bill ... which seems to be that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people are to be feared," said the Rev. Brant Copeland of the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee. "I find that premise very disturbing and inaccurate."

But it later catches up …

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Gov. Jerry Brown's Catholicity vs. euthanasia decision gets above-the-fold ink

Gov. Jerry Brown's Catholicity vs. euthanasia decision gets above-the-fold ink

Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Californian who moved to Oregon last year so she could end her life instead of facing the last stages of brain cancer, got her political revenge this week.

That's the reality in the news coverage. That’s because -- unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere -- California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill making assisted suicide legal. Which opened the gates to this controversial personal or family choice to some 38 million people overnight.

And the Los Angeles Times reporter who covered it did a great job of making the religion angle front and center. That is, the Catholic governor of the country’s most populous state did something totally against his religion, but readers got to learn about how that decision played out. Start reading here:

Caught between conflicting moral arguments, Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminary student, signed a measure Monday allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to hasten their deaths.
Brown appeared to struggle in deciding whether to approve the bill, whose opponents included the Catholic Church.
“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown wrote in a signing message. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

After explaining some provisions of the End of Life Option Act and placing a quote by its opponents quite high in the story, the reporter swung back to Brown, who said he had weighed the religious arguments.

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One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

Is the Religion Guy the only American who’s already sick of the constant news reports on political polls, and yet can’t help following them because this  may be the most aberrant campaign since 1860?

Polls can be interesting but also problematic, as discussed in the  Sept. 8 Memo “Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists.” That item scanned complaints from Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of the leading U.S. sociologists of religion, in a new book:  “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” (Oxford University Press, published October 1).

Wuthnow asserts that polling in general is increasingly slippery, largely because response rates are so low that it’s impossible to know whether results are representative. He also thinks religion is an especially tricky field for opinion surveying and that media reports about results can distort public perceptions.

 Following up, the sort of material reporters can pursue is seen in an interview with Wuthnow by Andrew Aghapour, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for (This online magazine is well worth monitoring if you’re not familiar with it. Editor Diane Winston, Ph.D., associate professor at U.S.C.’s Annenberg School, was a well-regarded Godbeat toiler in Raleigh, Baltimore, and Dallas.)

Wuthnow cites Jimmy Carter’s presidential win in 1976, which media dubbed the “year of the evangelical.” Actually it was the year some media suddenly discovered evangelicalism. 

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John L. Allen, Jr., notes some behind the scenes tension about the people's pope

John L. Allen, Jr., notes some behind the scenes tension about the people's pope

So the pope's quiet little tour of the deep blue zip codes in North America's media corridor is done and now, largely behind closed doors, the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome is up and running.

If you read the headlines, this gathering is essentially about the moral status of homosexual relationships, attempts to modernize church teachings on divorce and, oh yeah, there is that whole family crisis thing that Pope Francis has been talking about so much (cue: yawns in offices of elite editors).

There are huge, complex topics on the docket at the Vatican right now and reporters, sitting outside the closed doors, are doing what they can to follow the action.

Naturally, one of them is Vatican veteran John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux. We give him a lot of ink around here because, frankly, he produces a lot of ink and many of this analysis pieces contain more on-the-record information than other scribes' hard-news features. And every now and then he writes something really unusual, showing readers what is going on in his mind as he looks at the bigger picture.

Consider the Crux essay that just ran under this headline: "Pope Francis is playing with house money in betting on the 2015 Synod."

The basic thesis, as I read it, is that Pope Francis is letting lots of loud, even tense, debates play out -- because he knows that in the end he has the only vote that matters. Does that sound like the "people's pope"? Meanwhile, it seems that the "teflon pope" strategy is evidence that Francis believes he can live in his own papal narrative, in part because -- at this point -- the mainstream press remains convinced that he is steering his church toward compassionate, pastoral "reform" -- which means changing many of those bad doctrines.

This led to a series of very blunt tweets from Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who is both an active Catholic and a doctrinal conservative: 

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In coverage of evangelical conference on homosexuality, why's it all about the protesters?

In coverage of evangelical conference on homosexuality, why's it all about the protesters?

Is it just me, or does media coverage of that evangelical seminar on homosexuality and transgenderism seem to be all about the protesters?

In fact, USA Today — for a while — had this whopper of a headline:

Activists protest Baptists' seminar on gay therapy

What's wrong with that headline? It's totally inaccurate.

Gay therapy is not the focus of the seminar, and organizers spoke out against that approach, as we noted the other day. 

The seminar drew 2,300 church-based counselors, but are they the focus of USA Today's lede (the report is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, a Gannett sister paper)?

Nope, it's all about the protesters:

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Will U.S. journalists spot the religion ghost in Putin's mixed motives in Syria?

Will U.S. journalists spot the religion ghost in Putin's mixed motives in Syria?

It's hard to write a post about news stories that do not yet exist. However, based on the emails I'm getting, I expect to see major newsrooms writing about "this story" sooner rather than later. Do we really have to talk about religion "ghosts" in Syria?

So what is "this story"? 

Look for up-front use of the term "Holy War" in connection with Russia's involvement in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to save the territory most crucial to President Bashar al-Assad -- which certainly starts with Damascus. I expect prominent play to be given to the supporting role of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill, for reasons that our own Ira Rifkin mentioned in one of his "Global Wire" pieces the other day.

At the moment, your typical religion-haunted story on Russia's push into the Syria war focuses on politics, airplanes and hardware and the assumption that Putin is acting purely out of motives to maintain a power base in the Middle East and embarrass the United States and President Barack Obama. Please hear me say that there obviously truth in that assumption. In a current New York Times story, this is what that sounds like:

Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to an official with the alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military strategy. ...
For Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike, regionally and internationally, Russia’s increasing willingness to throw its full military power behind him is a game-changer.

But might there be religious logic to Putin's bold move, even if -- thinking cynically -- it is at the level of rationalization?

Just the other day, a Times story -- "Russian Soldiers Join Syria Fight" -- added a very brief reference to another layer of the conflict, well down into that text. Spot the ghost?

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Holy smoke! We're talking big Catholic news from the Archdiocese of Chicago!

Holy smoke! We're talking big Catholic news from the Archdiocese of Chicago!

We've all done it.

You are writing a story about a complex topic -- on religion or some other tough topic -- and you crank out what seems like a perfectly normal summary paragraph. You read over the story several times. So does your editor.

Things look normal. Then a reader sends you an email that basically says, "What the heck were you thinking?" Maybe this reader uses stronger language than that.

So you read said paragraph once again and the scales fall from your eyes. You immediately think, "What the heck was I thinking?" Maybe, silently, you use stronger language than that.

Palm. Face.

When it comes to religion stuff, GetReligion readers often send us the URLs for stories of this kind. Consider, for example, the following story from The Chicago Tribute. The editorial train wreck in this hard-news story, focusing on a local Catholic scandal, doesn't take place until the very end. Still, here is the top of the story for some context:

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South Carolina flooding: Lots of 'biblical' references, but they don’t hold water

South Carolina flooding: Lots of  'biblical' references, but they don’t hold water

You know when mainstream media get interested in the Scriptures? When they have a chance to use a phrase like "biblical flood" over and over -- as several did in coverage of the disastrous flooding in South Carolina.

But that doesn't mean they’ll acknowledge where they got the phrase, or fill in any background. The shock value is more important than the power source of the words and concepts that provide the shock.

So we get USA Today with this mostly leaden lede:

The biblical flooding in South Carolina is at least the sixth so-called 1-in-1,000 year rain event in the U.S. since 2010, a trend that may be linked to factors ranging from the natural, such as a strong El Niño, to the man-made, namely climate change.

The Minneapolis Tribune piggybacks off USA Today with its own catchword headline, " 'Sept-ober' Weather Bliss Lingers -- Biblical Floods in South Carolina -- 6 Separate 1-in-1,000 Year Rains, Nationwide, Since 2010.' "

And another headline in a website called Celebcafe offers "a few unreal photos of South Carolina's biblical floods," even though the word "biblical" doesn't appear in the article itself.

But by now, reporters or editors are just tossing in "biblical" enroute to what word play and imagery really interests them. Mashable mentions "biblical rains and historic flooding in South Carolina this week," although the story is mainly about floating rafts of fire ants.

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From faith and forgiveness to a furor over finances at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church

From faith and forgiveness to a furor over finances at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church

Follow the money.

Adhering to that old journalistic adage pays off for Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes in yet another rock-solid story on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

This time, Hawes' coverage concerns not the faith nor the forgiving nature of a black congregation devastated by a white gunman's attack on a Wednesday Bible study.

Rather, the projects writer for The Post and Courier, Charleston's daily newspaper, digs into the touchy subject of church finances:

In the weeks after a suspected white racist gunned down nine worshippers in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, applause for the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. swelled as talk of forgiveness inspired mourners nationwide.
Praise poured in — even mention of the Nobel Peace Prize — along with millions of dollars in donations to Emanuel AME Church and the families of the victims.
But others are coming forward to paint a much different picture of the man named interim pastor and now overseeing how the donations are doled out.
Across Goff’s path of past churches, from New York to Columbia to Charleston, accusations of poor financial oversight swirl amid lingering questions about how he is handling the huge pot of donations at Emanuel AME.
Among them, a woman who served as secretary to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, slain pastor of Emanuel AME, said she was terminated after raising concerns about the oversight of incoming donations.
And several members of Goff’s most recent church, Reid Chapel AME in Columbia, contend their former pastor took out large mortgages against the church without proper permission while amassing federal and state tax liens that reached $200,000.
Similarly, the pastor who succeeded Goff at his previous church, Baber AME in Rochester, N.Y., said Goff also left it saddled with debt and hard feelings among members.

After that broad introduction, Hawes methodically presents the facts and accusations in a 2,700-word investigative piece that is both hard-hitting and fair.

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