Kellerism

Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

It's a problem that your GetReligionistas face all the time: Many readers do not understand that columnists and opinion writers play by different rules than journalists who write hard news for traditional news organizations.

Yes, it doesn't help -- see this file on what we call "Kellerism" -- that many important mainstream journalists who should know better are blurring the lines between what many textbooks would call the "American model" of the press and the older "European model" which embraces advocacy journalism. This happens a lot when journalists cover debates about doctrine, sex and law.

As a rule, GetReligion focuses on mainstream, hard-news coverage of religion. However, from time to time we pass along "think pieces" that focus on subjects directly linked to religion-news coverage or topics that we think would interest our readers. Several readers sent us a link to a recent First Things piece that takes a critical look at a recent Huffington Post piece -- about same-sex marriage, of course -- that, according to a man interviewed for the HP piece, veered into creative fiction.

This raises a crucial question: What is the HP these days? It often contains serious news reported using a straight forward , hard-news approach, but it is also packed with opinion essays and advocacy pieces that reflect its liberal editorial point of view. So, can you criticize a liberal columnist for writing a liberal column? In this case, the First Things writer is alleging far more than mere bias.

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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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News about 'conversion' therapies for gays? As usual, one side gets to offer its views

News about 'conversion' therapies for gays? As usual, one side gets to offer its views

Several readers have written to ask me what I thought of the recent news stories linked to President Barack Obama's endorsement of government bans on so-called "conversion" therapies for various sexual orientation and behavior issues.

I guess I didn't write about these reports because I assumed, accurately, that the mainstream coverage would be rooted in the new journalism doctrines of "Kellerism," with few if any attempts to explore the views of advocates for secular and religious counselors who support the rights of people to seek out this kind of help.

You may have noticed that, even in these first few lines, I have described these counselors and their work in ways that many readers will consider sympathetic, because I included distinctions that represent the views of some of the people on that side of the issue. In other words, these are subtleties that rarely show up in the news, because mainstream stories rarely explore the views of people on both sides of this fight.

Consider, for example, the lede on the main Washington Post report:

The Obama administration late Wednesday called for a ban on so-called “conversion” therapies that promise to cure gay and transgender people.

What? They forgot to use the phrase "pray away the gay." The key words in that lede are "promise" and "cure." Hang on to that thought.

When it came time to represent the views of these counselors, the Post team used the increasingly familiar tactic of representing the "other side" with a quote from a print source. While story -- as it should -- featured interviews with many experts and activists that backed Obama's action, the "other side" was granted this:

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Jousting with The New York Times: Yes, journalism deserves to be taken seriously

Jousting with The New York Times: Yes, journalism deserves to be taken seriously

This week's "Crossroads" podcast was supposed to be about the Indiana wars, but that's not how things turned out. The more host Todd Wilken and I talked (click here to tune in), the deeper we dug into a related topic -- the power of elite media to frame national debates.

Wilken found it interesting that, in an age in which traditional print circulation numbers are in sharp decline, that these publications continue to wield great power. What's up with that?

Here's what I told him, as a door into listening to the whole discussion. Remember that movie -- "Shattered Glass" -- about the ethics crisis at The New Republic, long before the digital wars felled that Beltway oracle? The reason the magazine was so important, a character remarked during the film, was its reputation (especially in Democratic administrations) as the "in-flight magazine of Air Force One."

In other words, the old TNR had very few readers, relatively speaking, but about half of them worked in the White House and in the office of people who had the White House inside numbers on speed dials.

And what about The New York Times, the great matron of the Northeast establishment? Yes, the on-paper numbers are down and there are financial issues. But does anyone believe that -- to name one crucial audience -- the percentage of U.S. Supreme Court clerks who subscribe to the Times has gone down? How about in the faculty lounges of law schools that produce justices on the high court?

In other words, it isn't how many people read these publications, but WHERE people read these publications. We are talking about what C.S. Lewis called the Inner Ring.

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M.Z. Hemingway unloads on news coverage of 'religious liberty,' while tmatt debates one detail

M.Z. Hemingway unloads on news coverage of 'religious liberty,' while tmatt debates one detail

What we have here, gentle readers, is a take-no-prisoner headline, care of GetReligion emeritus M. Z. Hemingway at The Federalist.

You were expecting someone else?

Dumb, Uneducated, And Eager To Deceive: Media Coverage Of Religious Liberty In A Nutshell

Oh my, and if that isn't enough, there is this rather blunt -- some would say "brutal" -- subtitle to finish the job:

Most Reporters Are Simply Too Ignorant To Handle The Job

Now, if you have not read this long and very detailed piece yet, then head right over there and do so. But as you read it I want you to look for the one very important point in this article with which I want to voice my disagreement. No. It's not the George Orwell quote. That one was on the target, methinks.

Read it? Now, let's proceed.

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Surprise! Herald's Gay South Florida section isn't into balanced coverage of adoption debate

Surprise! Herald's Gay South Florida section isn't into balanced coverage of adoption debate

According to that Gallup LGBT population survey that is getting so much news media attention right now, the population of that long stretch of concrete, sand and palm trees running from West Palm Beach to Miami is 4.2 percent gay. Thus, the greater South Florida area is America's 17th ranking urban zone in terms of percentage of gay population -- 10 slots lower than (who would have thunk it) Salt Lake City.

Is that percentage surprisingly low, in terms of the region's image and clout in gay culture? Quite frankly, speaking as a former resident of West Palm Beach, that No. 17 ranking did surprise me.

The region is also, of course, known as a rather secular region, even with it's large Jewish population. Still an older survey found -- back in 2002 or so -- that just a whisker under 40 percent of people in South Florida were affiliated with a religious congregation, with 61 percent of the affiliated Catholic, 14 percent Jewish and 9 percent Southern Baptist.

So, if you were a newspaper editor in the region's big city, would you be operating a special Gay South Florida news section to serve that slice of the population? Obviously the answer is "yes." But why would you -- in terms of image and clout -- be operating that news operation and not one about, oh, Jewish news? Or, statistically speaking, Latino Pentecostal (Catholic and Protestant) news?

And if you were Miami Herald editor, would you assign basic news coverage of a very hot-button religious-liberty issue linked to gay rights to the staff of Gay South Florida? As opposed to a mythical news section called, oh, Judeo-Christian South Florida?

Believe it or not, the answer appears to be "yes." And if you made this editorial decision, what would one expect the coverage to look like in terms of balance and fairness?

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You have $1.25 million: Who gets that check if the goal is basic, balanced religion-news reporting?

You have $1.25 million: Who gets that check if the goal is basic, balanced religion-news reporting?

Here at the Washington Journalism Center, the full-semester program I lead at the DC center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we have a number of sayings that are repeated over and over that they turn into journalism mantras. I imagine that will be true when we reboot the program next year in New York City at The King's College.

One of these sayings goes like this: Everybody in this city knows more stories than you do. I also like to stress this: The most important skill in journalism is the ability to accurately state the views of someone with whom you disagree. And then there's one that is discussed here frequently, in this Keller-istic, Twitter-driven age in which the digital line between newswriting and editorializing is often quite faded and hard to spot: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive.

Then there is another WJC mantra that moves us closer to some news sure to intrigue those interesting in religion-beat coverage in the mainstream press. This one isn't very snappy, but it's a concept that is crucial for young journalists to grasp. Here it is: In the future there will be no one dominant business model (think newspaper chains built on advertising, mixed with the sale of dead-tree pulp) for mainstream journalism, but multiple approaches to funding the creation of information and news.

I warned you that it wasn't short and snappy.

Obviously, one of the crucial emerging models right now is the growing world of non-profit and foundation-driven journalism.

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The New York Times (surprise) offers saint-free coverage of St. Patrick's Day Parade in Boston

The New York Times (surprise) offers saint-free coverage of St. Patrick's Day Parade in Boston

If you have, through the years, followed the legal and cultural wars about gay rights and the New York City and Boston St. Patrick's Day parades, you know that these battles have often included discussions of a very interesting question.

That would be this question: Do these St. Patrick's Day events have anything to do with one of the greatest missionary saints in Christian history, the bishop now called St. Patrick? The saint associated with these words:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

As is often the case, fair-minded journalists should note that this is an emotional story about a debate that has, at the very least, two sides.

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How bad can the Pope Francis vs. Pope Benedict XVI frame game get? Check this out!

How bad can the Pope Francis vs. Pope Benedict XVI frame game get? Check this out!

Several months ago, your GetReligionistas created our "What is this?" logo to salute a question that we have found ourselves asking over and over during the past decade.

Here's the deal. So you are reading something in a newspaper or online source that is supposed to be producing old-school hard news. Then you hit a passage or two that, simply stated, are wildly opinionated or built on what appears to be secret information, without a source that is shared with readers. In other words, you hit a patch of blatant opinion in the middle of a "news" article, like a patch of black ice on a highway that at first glance appears to be safe.

So you look at the top of the "news" article, trying to find evidence of a columnist logo or an "analysis" tag line. But it's not there. That's when you say (all together), "What is this?" There should probably be "!!!!" marks in there, too, or worse (as in What *& %^ #* is this?!).

Want to see an instant classic? Here's one, from an Agence France-Presse story -- drawn from Yahoo! -- sent to team GetReligion by an stunned reader (who thought some of the adjectives were way over the top). Let's look at the passage in context. Remember, this is drawn from a news report about the second anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, not a commentary or analysis piece:

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