Hopelessly devoted to fog

guade4I thought I would share a chunk of my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week -- filed on the fly while dashing all over greater Los Angeles -- because it grew directly out of posts and comments here at GetReligion. I realize that it's kinda "inside baseball" stuff for religion-beat warriors, but it includes some very helpful quotes from people who should get lots of respect from readers here. More to come on that.

The issue is the much-overused and abused word "devout," especially as it is often married to the word "Catholic." The result often makes ordinary, Sunday-in-the-pew Catholics scratch their heads.

For example, you may remember the tragic case of the "devout" Catholic who died in the three-day head-washing voodoo rite? By the way, yes, I know about the overlaps of cultural Catholicism and voodoo in Haiti.

The column also mentions the recent Chicago Tribune coverage of the death of nationally syndicated horoscope columnist Linda C. Black. Here's a key piece of that:

Ms. Black was both a devout Catholic and a devoted follower of astrology, which holds that the position of the stars and planets has a direct effect on human affairs and personalities.

I noted that this is interesting, in light of the following passage in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"All forms of divination are to be rejected. ... Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers."

You see, for all too many journalists, "devout" seems to have nothing to do with doctrine and, often, this term does not even seem to be linked to religious practice (either that or journalists make no attempt to report any facts that demonstrate a devout practice of a given faith).

So where are we? Once again, we are back in the troubling land of foggy religion labels. There are times when you have to use labels, of course. But it's clear that journalists fall back on them too much.

What to do? I contacted a number of religion-beat veterans and observers seeking some feedback and ended up printing practical advice from two. Here is a sizable chunk of the end of this column:

There is no question that the term "devout" is used far too often and in a sloppy manner, said Richard Ostling, a religion-beat veteran best known for his work with Time and the Associated Press. This fact could be a comment on how little exposure many mainstream journalists have to religious life and practice.

"Perhaps, to someone with only secularist experiences and friends, any level of religious interest of any type might seem 'devout,' " he said. But, in the end, "reporters can only observe outward behavior, not the inner soul. ... There's usually a connection between observance and personal faith, so generally it makes sense to assess personal belief by externals."

Many of these common labels used to describe believers -- terms such as "serious," "practicing," "committed" and, yes, "devout" -- are completely subjective, agreed Debra Mason, director of the Religion Newswriters Association at the University of Missouri.

Different people define these words in different ways. With the "devout" label, there is even the implication that these believers may be fanatics.

When in doubt, reporters should simply drop the vague labels and use plain information, she said, echoing advice offered by Ostling and others.

"Since journalists do not have a direct line into the soul to discern a person's faith, it is far better to use precise descriptions of a person's religious practice and observance," said Mason. For example, a reporter could note that, "Joe Smith attended Mass every day" or that "Jane Smith attended worship every week, even when ill."

The goal is to use clear facts instead of foggy labels, an approach that Mason admitted may require journalists to add a line or two of context or background information. Non-Catholics, for example, may not understand the importance of a Catholic choosing to attend Mass every day.

However, she stressed, this extra work is "a small price to pay for more accurate and precise reporting."

So, reporting is better than labeling. It's a journalism thing.

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