Surveys & polls

Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

There is an old newsroom saying that I have found often holds true: journalist + math = correction.

This comical equation exemplifies how often people working in newsrooms just get math wrong in their stories. From polls and surveys to trying to quantify something by way of statistics, most reporters and editors find themselves befuddled — even fooled — by numbers.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been, especially in recent years, a large number of data journalists who excel in using math in their storytelling. Overall, that remains a small number. At least, I have found that to be the case anecdotally given my circle of former colleagues who work as general assignment reporters and news editors at mainstream news outlets.

What does math have to do with the Catholic church? Well, a lot if you’re trying to quantify how many priests are gay.

These days, the story about how much homosexuality has permeated the church at all levels — from cardinals and archbishops down to parish priests — remains very much a topic of much news coverage. Just how many men in the Catholic clergy are gay? Depends who you ask and who you read. Here’s where the math can be very fuzzy, a cautionary tale to anyone covering the events of this week and the sex-abuse scandal going forward.

The scandal remains very much in the news. The defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick and the upcoming Vatican’s sex-abuse summit means rehashing many past allegations, a slew of fresh ones and lots of fuzzy math. If the 2016 presidential election taught us anything, it is that polls and surveys are often not to be trusted.

Journalists keep trying to do the math. In April 2017, Slate put the number of gay U.S. priests somewhere from 15 to 50 percent, which the article points out is “much greater than the 3.8 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ in the general population.” The 15 percent the article cites comes from a 2002 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times. The 50 percent figure comes from a figure from the same year, reported by USA Today, as coming from “some church experts estimate.”

The article doesn’t elaborate — a great example of how a number not given proper context or sourcing can be repeated without hesitation by journalists, thanks to searches with Google or LexisNexis.

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Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

The Atlantic ran a headline the other day that really made me stop and look twice.

(Wait for it.)

I realize that The Atlantic Monthly is a journal of news and opinion. Every now and then, that means running essays by thinkers who challenge the doctrines held by the magazine’s many left-of-center readers in blue zip codes.

This was especially true during the glory years when the Atlantic was edited by the late, great Michael Kelly — an old-school Democrat who frequently made true believers in both parties nervous. Click here for a great Atlantic tribute to Kelly, who was killed while reporting in Iraq in 2003.

It really helps for journalists to read material that challenges old lines in American politics. In my own life, there have been very few articles that influenced my own political (as opposed to theological) thinking more than the classic Atlantic Monthly piece that ran in 1995 with this headline:

On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position

Principled yet pragmatic, Lincoln's stand on slavery offers a basis for a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice

This brings me to that Atlantic headline the other day that made my head spin. In this case, my shock was rooted in the fact that the headline actually affirmed my beliefs — which doesn’t happen very often these days when I’m reading elite media. Here is that headline, atop an essay by Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review:

Democrats Overplay Their Hand on Abortion

In New York and Virginia, state governments are working to loosen restrictions on late-term abortion—and giving the anti-abortion movement an opportunity.

Here are two key chunks of this piece, which includes all kinds of angles worthy of additional research. Journalists would have zero problems finding voices on left and right to debate this thesis. And there’s more to this piece than, well, Donald Trump.

So part one:

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Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Nostalgia for a journalistic golden age has gushed forth from an HBO documentary about New York City tabloid columnists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin, combined with simultaneous obituaries about the era’s wry counterpart at The New York Times, Russell Baker.

It’s a pleasant distraction from current realities.

Pew Research data documents the “hollowing out” of the nation’s newsrooms, as lamented in the Memo last Nov. 15. Further developments require The Religion Guy to revisit the struggles in the news business.

Why? Let me state this sad reality once again: When times are tough, specialized beats like religion get hit first, and worst.

In just the past two weeks, a couple thousand media workers lost their jobs. The ubiquitous Gannett, known for eyeing the bottom line, enacted its latest round of layoffs even while facing a takeover threat from a colder-eyed print piranha. Particularly unnerving are the drawdowns at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and Yahoo, because online operations were supposed to make enough money to offset jobs lost at declining “dead tree” newspapers and magazines.

As Farhad Manjoo commented in a New York Times column (“Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy”), there’s a “market pathology” at work. Digital advertising is simply unable to fund hardly anything except “monopolistic tech giants.” And those big players are “dumping the news” in favor of easier ways to make money. Results: “slow-motion doom” and “a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.”

All this occurs as a U.S. President emits unprecedented public hate toward reporters, with Main Stream Media outlets then taking the bait to become ever more hostile and partisan, thus sullying their stature.

On the MSM facts front, don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s list of the “10 Worst, Most Embarrassing” blunders regarding Donald Trump and Russia. And my goodness did you see those lapses about First Lady Melania in the respected London Telegraph?!

Now along come two important insider accounts of what’s been going on across the industry: “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (Farrar, Straus) by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s The Guardian, and “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” (Simon & Schuster) by Jill Abramson, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the Times. Note that both of their dailies have fared relatively well in online competition.

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When presidents of religious colleges gather, do they share any strategies for coming battles?

When presidents of religious colleges gather, do they share any strategies for coming battles?

I’ve covered enough stories about the cultural battles endured by Christian colleges to wonder why they don’t team up with similar schools from other faith traditions to get more support. This week I saw a story from Religion News Service about a meeting that did just that.

Imagine presidents of several evangelical Protestant, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic schools together on a panel. What was interesting was not so much what they did discuss but what they didn’t.

Let’s see: What’s the most newsworthy topic that you can think of right now in the world of Christian education?

It would have to be the doctrinal and lifestyle covenants that many faith-defined schools require people to sign — students, staff, faculty, etc. — when joining these voluntary, private institutions. This is often referred to as “freedom of association,” for this who follow First Amendment debates.

In terms of news, I’ve written before about how the California state legislature went after 42 faith-based institutions not long ago in an unsuccessful effort to forbid these colleges requiring statements of faith in order to attend. Keep that thought in mind.

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Like most college presidents, Ari Berman and Hamza Yusuf care about giving their students the best education possible in the classroom.

They also want to support their students’ rights as people of faith.

Faith-based schools help students “to contextualize our lives in a greater mission, to have a sense of holiness about everything that we do,” Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, told a gathering of Christian college presidents in the nation’s capital last week (Feb. 1)…

Berman and Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, took part in an interfaith panel focused on what faith-based schools from diverse backgrounds have in common. The panel, which also included presidents of Mormon, Catholic and Protestant schools, took place at the end of the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical consortium of more than 180 schools.

The most interesting comments in the piece came from Yusuf.

(Berman and Yusuf) defended their institutions as alternatives for students of faith who may be met with hostility from college professors at secular schools who consider their religion to be superstition or fellow students who don’t understand their beliefs.

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Say what? Newborn would be 'resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired'

Say what? Newborn would be 'resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired'

For lots of people, this was the story of the week — if you saw it covered anywhere.

Say what? If you were following any moral and religious conservatives on Twitter late this week, then you saw the explosion of outrage about proposed Virginia legislation that cranked up the flames under a topic that has long caused pain and fierce debate among Democrats — third-trimester abortion.

However, if you tend to follow mainstream media accounts on Twitter, or liberal evangelicals, or progressives linked to other religious traditions, then you heard — not so much. Ditto for big-TV news.

Now why would this be?

After all, the direct quotes from Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia were pretty out there, if you read them the same way as the leader of Democrats For Life, Kristen Day, who put the i-word in play — infanticide.

Once again, no one has to agree with her, but there are fierce debates about how many Democrats would welcome new restrictions on abortion, especially after 20 weeks or “viability.”

What’s the fight about? On one side are those who see Northam & Co. opening a door that leads — with a wink and a nod — to horrors that are hard to contemplate. On the other side are those who see the right to abortion under attack and want to protect every inch of the legal terrain they have held for years, and perhaps even capture new ground.

On the pro-abortion-rights left, what happened in Virginia — what Northam and others advocated — is not news. The news is the right-wing reaction — it’s the “seized” meme — to those words. And, of course, the tweeter in chief piled on.

Want to guess which wide the Acela-zone press backed?

Here’s the headline at The New York Times: “Republicans Seize on Late-Term Abortion as a Potent 2020 Issue.”

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Deja vu, all over again: Why is the rise of the old religious left an oldie that’s ever new?

Deja vu, all over again: Why is the rise of the old religious left an oldie that’s ever new?

One characteristic of our religion beat is that old story themes never die. Sometimes they don’t even evolve very much.

You know the headlines. “Local family redoes this year’s [pick a religious holiday] or “[Name of denomination] elects first [race or gender] official” or “Sensational find proves [pick your favorite Bible story]”or “Sensational find disproves [your most disliked Bible story]”

Another perpetual theme can be seen in the occasional announcements that a new “religious left” (lower case) is arising to challenge the “Religious Right” (usually upper case). This is rather strange, since through much of the 20th Century, religious politicking was largely liberal and it never disappeared. Activism remained especially central among African-American Protestants.

So the media were caught by surprise when the Rev. Jerry Falwell first joined the political thrum in 1979 with Moral Majority, followed by the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, et al. Such upstarts continued to monopolize ink through evident (though uneven) impact, amplified by their opponents’ continual clear-and-present-danger alarms.

Now the man-bites-dog angle works in favor of religious liberals and a good story hunch to keep in mind is whether the religious left might launch an effective counterattack. Which brings us to this January 24 item on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” by veteran, award-winning correspondent Tom Gjelten, now a religion specialist.

“The provocations of President Trump may finally be changing” the religious right’s monopoly, he reported, bringing forth “a comparable effort” by religiously motivated liberals.

Gjelten’s exhibit A is Faith in Public Life (FPL), led by a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, the Rev. Jennifer Butler. Her organization says it has recruited nearly 50,000 local faith leaders and seeks broad support from “mainline” Protestants, Catholics, Jews and those in other religions, in contrast with the right’s narrower religious constituency (as in conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics and many Orthodox Jews).

The FPL website assails President Donald Trump’s “white racist” policies. On immigration, the group opposes adding any miles to the border wall and the hiring of more border agents, wants the 2020 Census to fairly count people regardless of immigration status and fights “Islamophobia.” FPL favors “reproductive rights,” criminal justice reform, voting by felons, and “common sense” gun laws. It works for LGBT protections, and against efforts to “use religious freedom as a justification for discrimination.”

Gjelten admitted that “the religious left, having been largely eclipsed in recent years, has a ways to go before it can match the clout of the religious right.”

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Latest stats: More young adults dropping out of church because of political, moral clashes

Latest stats: More young adults dropping out of church because of political, moral clashes

It’s been 10 years since I published a book on why people quit church and, no surprise to me, the topic is still making news.

The Nashville-based Lifeway Research released some findings last week that I meant to get to sooner. But then the unlucky meeting of some Catholic high school kids, obscenity-spouting Black Hebrew Israelites and drum-pounding Native Americans in Washington, D.C., a week ago pushed everything else out of the news.

Back to the regular news chase, I found it unsurprising that young people drop out of church. I mean, most youth take a vacation from religion during their college years. The journalism issue right now is what has changed. As the Tennessean said:

Large numbers of young adults who frequently attended Protestant worship services in high school are dropping out of church.

Two-thirds of young people say they stopped regularly going to church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, a new LifeWay Research survey shows.

That means the church had a chance to share its message and the value of attending with this group, but it didn't stick, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

"That's a lot of folks saying, 'No, that's not for me' or 'It's not for me right now' at that young age," McConnell said.

Again, youth have been dropping out of church during their college years for as long as I can remember, so that’s not news. What is?

The reasons fell under four categories:

· Nearly all — 96 percent — cited life changes, including moving to college and work responsibilities that prevented them from attending.

· Seventy-three percent said church or pastor-related reasons led them to leave. Of those, 32 percent said church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical and 29 percent said they did not feel connected to others who attended.

· Seventy percent named religious, ethical or political beliefs for dropping out. Of those, 25 percent said they disagreed with the church's stance on political or social issues while 22 percent said they were only attending to please someone else.

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Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

The country is divided. You already knew that.

People are going to argue like crazy about whatever President Donald Trump says no matter that he says. You already knew that, too.

Why America is divided and the issues and people that drive that division on both sides is key to understanding our present situation. Consider, of course, immigration — and specifically the construction of a border wall — that not only shut down the federal government last month, but continues to be a source of debate between Trump and his allies (who want a wall) and Democrats (who do not).

The religion angle? The immigration debate, on the whole, has lacked adequate mainstream media coverage when it comes to how various faiths play a policy role.

Aside from the occasional message from Pope Francis calling on wealthy nations to open their arms and stop the policy of separating families, you don’t see much mention of Catholics — or religion in general — when it comes to this polarizing issue. After all, many of those in Congress who favor and oppose the wall are Catholic and a great many of those seeking asylum share those same religious beliefs. While the border wall remains a thorny issue that has recently dominated news coverage, the media has largely been on the fence when it comes to committing resources that actually looks at the issue from a faith-based perspective of those who favor stricter border enforcement.

The unreported story here is that there are many good Catholics (both politicians and voters) who support efforts to build a wall along the southern U.S. border in order to keep out other (mostly Central American) Catholics.

The truth is there are fissures within the church, the clergy and everyday Catholics (voters to politicians) when it comes to the issue. Those internal debates are a big reason why the overall electorate in fractured on the immigration debate and why Republicans and Democrats have been battling one another for months. This has led to a partial government shutdown and stalemate with Trump over border enforcement funding. Remember when some Democrats mangled the Christmas story to make a point on the issue?

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Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

So, did you hear that there are now more Wiccan believers in America than there are Presbyterians?

If you’ve been on social media lately, there is a good chance that you have heard this spin on some Wicca numbers from — Who else? — the Pew Research Center.

If you are looking for a blunt, crystalized statement of an alleged story in American culture, it never hurts to turn to The New York Post. Here is the top of a recent story that ran with this trendy headline: “Witch population doubles as millennials cast off Christianity.”

If you were interested in witchcraft in 1692, you probably would have been jailed or burned at the stake. If you’re interested in witchcraft in 2018, you are probably an Instagram influencer.

From crystal subscription boxes to astrologist-created lip balm, the metaphysical has gone mainstream. Millennials today know more about chakras than your kooky New Age aunt. That’s why it’s no surprise that the generation that is blamed for killing everything is actually bringing popularity to centuries-old practices.

According to the Pew Research Center (click here for .pdf), about 1.5 million Americans identify as Wiccan or pagan. A decade ago, that number was closer to 700,000. Presbyterians, by comparison, have about 1.4 million votaries.

It would be interesting to know how this story hatched at this time, seeing as how the Pew numbers — which are certainly interesting — are from 2014.

No doubt about it, this is a story. However, this specific twist on the numbers depends on definitions of two crucial terms — “Wiccans” and “Presbyterians.” It’s an interesting comment on the age in which we live that the first term is probably easier to define than the second.

So let’s think about that for a second, with the help of a GetReligion-esque piece by Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog. Yes, that site is operated by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. However, I think this discussion — centering on the challenge of defining denominational terms — will be of interest to all journalists who are about accurate, when using statistics and basic religious terms. Here is a crucial statement early on:

… Faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.

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