Dear journalists lingering in Baltimore: There's more to black church than politics

Toward the end of this week, clergy from the whole Baltimore area gathered to pray for peace in our city and for its future.

I don't know that this happened because of anything that I read in the news. I know it because my own parish's Divine Liturgy this morning ended with an Easter-season litany of prayers, with a heavy emphasis on the Resurrection, that grew out of that meeting.

So did all churches in greater Baltimore say the following words today?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

So why do I bring this up? This week's "Crossroads" podcast, as you might expect focused on the many, many religion ghosts that hovered over the events here in a very troubled Charm City. Click here to tun that in.

As our own Jim Davis noted, in a post about New York Times coverage, it really was impossible to witness the front-line events here in Baltimore without seeing the role that pastors, priests and others played.

But seeing a very familiar set of urban clergy in action is not, I argued in my conversation with host Todd Wilken, is not automatically the same thing as being sensitive to what is happening here, in terms of the broader religious angles in this story.

As I have stressed many times, in print and in podcasts, its important for news consumers to understand the degree to which most journalists view life primarily through the lens of politics and even partisan, horse-race politics. This can even happen when covering an institution like the African-American church, in part because -- true enough -- of the prominent role that black clergy have historically played in politics and community life.

But is there more to black church life than politics? Of course there is. Still, what's your reaction when you read through the top of this A1 political report (according to the online filing system) from today's Baltimore Sun?

Unrest in Baltimore put on display the widely different leadership styles that Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake brought to a crisis that could come to define their administrations.
As Hogan toured inner-city neighborhoods Thursday, glad-handing with residents who likely never voted for him, Baltimore's mayor was cloistered in a private meeting with supporters.
All week, the new Republican governor calmly told Marylanders he would deploy all necessary resources to restore order in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody sparked demonstrations. The veteran Democratic mayor found herself on the defensive, trying to walk back an awkward comment about the mayhem and defending her record.
"Some folks have had the impression that the mayor has been indifferent and aloof and the governor has been more active, coming in to save Baltimore from its inclination to implode," said the Rev. Todd Yeary of Douglas Memorial Community Church in West Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake's pastor.

And right after that quote from one of the city's high-profile, politically active pastors there was this quote:

"Perception, unfortunately, can be reality," said the Rev. Delman Coates, an influential pastor from Prince George's County who ran for lieutenant governor last year. "You can argue with the reality, but in this media-driven, technology-driven environment, perception becomes reality."

Let's see. We have two clergy there and the perspective is political and political, with a heavy undertow of Republican vs. Democrat, white male vs. black female tension in there, as well.

Was this political presence, on the part of clergy, part of the story this week? Of course it was.

Was this the only role that religious faith played in Baltimore this week or even the dominant one? Of course not. However, how would readers know the answer to that question, simply by watching CNN and reading the newspapers? At some point, it's hard to see anything other than politics, when that is what keeps ending up in print. Trust me, the black church is way more complex than what we are seeing in the newspapers.

Tomorrow morning -- the Monday following the Sunday sermons about the riots -- I will go to my front yard, pick up the newspaper, open it and look for the religion ghosts. Will the Sun (or anyone else, for that matter) take the time to cover any of these sermons, these prayer rites, these holy moments in the wake of the riots?

We will see.

Enjoy the podcast.

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Vancouver Sun's Douglas Todd channels religion beat into nones, spirituality and migration

Vancouver Sun's Douglas Todd channels religion beat into nones, spirituality and migration

When you’re Canada’s top religion writer and you’ve been on the beat for umpteen years and you want to take religion reporting in one of the continent’s most beautiful cities in a new direction, what do you do?

You become a “spirituality and diversity columnist.”

You start a blog called “The Search” that is described thusly: “Douglas Todd delves into topics we’re taught to avoid: religion, ethnicity, politics, sex and ethics.”

The Vancouver Sun’s erstwhile religion writer has showed up at many a Religion Newswriters Association meeting to spirit off some top award for his stylish prose chronicling the spiritual side of British Columbia’s largest city. In recent years, his work has taken an unusual turn because of the multifaith direction of this metropolis sounded by water and mountains. A May 8, 2013, article on the city explains more:

Metro Vancouver and the rest of B.C. break a lot of records when it comes to religion and the lack thereof.
The West Coast is a place of extremes in regards to Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated, according to a major 2011 survey by Statistics Canada.
New data released Wednesday suggests pluralistic B.C. is traveling in several religious directions at once. Many residents are becoming more devout following a great variety of world faiths. But other residents are endorsing secular world views and drifting into private spirituality.

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An atheistic example of mainstream press fondness for single-sourcing

An atheistic example of mainstream press fondness for single-sourcing

Opinions expressed by individual writers and talkers are a legitimate aspect of journalism.

But.

But these days newspapers, TV news and allegedly journalistic Web sites are all tempted to overdo such single-sourcing. Mainly that’s because you have to pay a salary and benefits to a seasoned staff journalist so it’s cheaper to throw a few bucks at a freelance. As the saying in the business goes, the operative adjective is “free.”

Like science or medicine, religion is a highly complex news beat that suffers when a news organization lacks an experienced specialist. For example, the Wall Street Journal is pursuing an ambitious effort to expand general coverage beyond its business ghetto. But with religion, it typically limits matters to Friday op-ed pieces written by interested parties. They’re often worth a look but cannot match analysis by a non-partisan journalist carefully assessing various sides of a question.

Another sort of WSJ example occurred with the  April 27 special section titled “The Future Issue.” The religion aspect, not treated in the print package, was relegated to the online postings. The paper had noted Tufts University atheist Daniel Dennett tell us “Why the Future of Religion is Bleak,” while Vanderbilt Divinity dean Emilie Townes separately contended that “The Future of Religion is Ascendant.”

Problem was, the two profs often talked past each other and made some assertions a newswriter would challenge.

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Dallas Morning News revisits Ebola crisis and Baptist church's embrace of victim's fiancée

Dallas Morning News revisits Ebola crisis and Baptist church's embrace of victim's fiancée

I should love this story.

Really, I should. So why don't I?

That's what I'm trying to figure out as I consider my reaction to this 1,600-word Dallas Morning News takeout.

The lede sets the scene:

Recently, between Palm Sunday services, Pastor George Mason weaved confidently and quickly through the halls of Wilshire Baptist Church. He greeted everyone with his trademark smile, passing some with a handshake, others with a pat on the shoulder.
“Good morning!” “What’s your good news today?” “Hello!”
It was a busy time, but there was an extra layer of complication: One of his church’s members, Louise Troh, was preparing to release My Spirit Took You In, a memoir to be published Tuesday. The book details her relationship with fiancé Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died from the Ebola virus in Dallas last fall.
Now, yet again, cameras were coming into his sanctuary. Reporters were coming with empty notebooks and lots of questions.
Troh had started to open up to interviews, but the majority of the press wrangling went to the pastor and Christine Wicker, a former religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News and co-author of Troh’s memoir.
Since the Ebola virus struck Dallas last September, Mason has balanced the roles of media liaison, pastor, advocate and more. He’s sat for interviews on CNN. He’s fought to find Troh and her family a place to live away from the cameras. He’s sheltered them, giving them time and space to grieve, away from the news media.
“This was a matter of ordinary care in the midst of extraordinary times,” Mason said. “The church has been willing to address significant matters culturally.”

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Church on the street: New York Times shows ministers trying to calm Baltimore

Church on the street: New York Times shows ministers trying to calm Baltimore

Church leaders have popped in and out of coverage of the current riots in Baltimore. The New York Times, however, spotlights their brave though as yet inconclusive efforts to keep a lid on the violence.

The 1,100-word story visits three churches -- Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, nondenominational -- and talks to ministers as well. One of them even claims to be an early member of the Black Guerrilla Family, one of the three gangs -- the others are the Crips and Bloods -- blamed for the violence in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.

The Times quotes a wide range of people, among them a gang member and a local politician. We hear also from the much-quoted Rev. Jamal Bryant on the need to show the world the more peaceful side of Baltimore. They walk the streets to calm crowds and urge them to keep the curfew. A teacher serves snacks in a church basement, while getting children to talk out their feelings about the rioting.  And a pastor brings rival Bloods and Crips into his office to complain of problems and suggest solutions.

Just to have the gangsters sitting down, when they have long shed each other's blood nationwide, must be a major victory in itself. As the story says:

But in a city abuzz with public speeches, meetings and demonstrations, perhaps nothing was more surprising than the outreach to gangs, and some gang members’ positive response. Gang fights accounted for some of violence in a city that recorded 211 homicides last year. Gangs run some of the thriving drug trade, and the Black Guerrilla Family was accused by prosecutors of a virtual takeover of the city’s jail, leading to corruption charges against many correctional officers. And earlier this week, the police warned that the Crips and Bloods were uniting to plan attacks on officers, though members of both gangs have denied any such plans.
That history warranted skepticism about a lasting turnaround by gang members, and there was plenty. But ministers who were involved in the discussions said the turmoil offers an opening that should not go to waste.

"Part of the goal is political" for the activism, the story reports: an attempt to refocus attention away from the street crimes and back onto police conduct. The Times also quotes a minister saying bluntly that he wanted to help the city's prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, who has promised to address the police issue.

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Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Be wary. Be very wary when reporting survey results, those microwave-ready story hooks -- perfect for slow news days -- that purport to provide objective data revealing, well, sometimes nothing. That goes double for polls that claim to measure religious beliefs and practices.

That's because all but the very best crafted ones fail to get anywhere close to the subtleties that turn generalized numbers into accurate snapshots of how beliefs and practices truly play out in individual lives.

Case in point: A recent WIN/Gallup International survey claiming to measure religious belief around the world. One of the nations surveyed was Israel, where religion is as politicized as it is anywhere, making it particularly difficult to label individual religious choices.

Take, for example, my Israeli-born wife's cousin, Ayala. She's a leader in her Jerusalem synagogue but would probably physically recoil if you called her religious because of the divisive social and political connotations the term carries in Israel.

Ayala speaks contemptuously of those theologically ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews who consider themselves the only true practitioners of Judaism in Israel. Nor does she speak well of the politically right wing Orthodox Zionist hardliners who are the backbone of the West Bank settler movement.

Want to get into a sure fire argument in Israel?

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Will Justice Kennedy go against gay rights? The Los Angeles Times sure hopes not

Will Justice Kennedy go against gay rights? The Los Angeles Times sure hopes not

Much of this week’s news is the Supremes and gay marriage, so what could be a better introduction than a piece on the man who will probably be the swing vote in this great debate?

We are, of course, talking about Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who was profiled Monday in the Los Angeles Times, the day before oral arguments. The Times is a natural medium to look at considering that Kennedy’s career took an interesting turn in Sacramento. That’s where he issued a ruling that wondered out loud if homosexual acts between consenting adults might be a constitutional right.

The article begins as follows:

Anthony M. Kennedy was a 44-year-old appeals court judge in Sacramento -- a Republican appointee and happily-married Catholic -- when he first confronted the question of whether the Constitution protected the rights of gays and lesbians.
His answer in 1980 did not make him a gay rights hero. Kennedy upheld the Navy’s decision to discharge three service members for “homosexual acts.”
But less noticed in that somewhat reluctant opinion -- unusual for its time, just two weeks before Ronald Reagan was elected president -- were the doubts Kennedy raised about the constitutionality of laws criminalizing gay sex.  

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Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Every week or two -- either in private emails, on Twitter or perhaps in our comments pages -- I get involved in a debate with a reader about an issue that's at the heart of GetReligion's work. The hook is usually a post in which the press, when covering a controversial issue, has focused almost all of it its attention on the views of one side of the argument while demoting the other side to one or two lines of type, usually shallow, dull information drawn from a website or press release.

The reader, in effect, is defending what we call "Kellerism" -- click here for a refresher on that term -- and says that there is no need to give equal play to the voices on both sides because it is already obvious who is right and who is wrong. The reader says that GetReligion is biased because we still think there is a debate to be covered (think Indiana), while we believe that it's crucial to treat people on both sides of these debates with respect and cover their views as accurately as possible.

My slogan, shared with students down the years: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

This cuts against a popular "New Journalism" theory from the late '60s and the '70s arguing that balance, fairness and professional standards linked to the word "objectivity" are false newsroom gods and that journalists should call the truth the truth and move on. Some may remember a minor dust-up a few years ago when a powerful news consumer seemed to affirm this "false balance" thesis in a New York Times story:

As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. ...
Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

This brings us, believe it or not, to our own Bobby Ross Jr. and his much-discussed (and trolled) post on the state of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's soul.

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Icing on the cake: Tasty coverage on bakery fined $135,000 in religious freedom vs. gay rights case

Icing on the cake: Tasty coverage on bakery fined $135,000 in religious freedom vs. gay rights case

Surprise!

Wedding cakes — specifically wedding cakes for same-sex couples — are making headlines again.

In the past, we've discussed the "frame game" as it relates to how news organizations characterize these cases pitting religious freedom vs. gay rights:

Here's the journalistic issue, related to framing: Is "deny service" or "refuse service" really the right way to describe what occurs when a baker declines to make a cake for a same-sex wedding?
Or does such wording favor one side of a debate pitting gay rights vs. religious freedom?

So let's consider how the media covered the latest case making news, starting with The Associated Press:

The AP's lede:

PORTLAND, Ore. — An administrative law judge proposed Friday that the owners of a suburban Portland bakery pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple who were refused service more than two years ago.

Sorry, but that lede doesn't cut it.

 

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