'Now let's just pray it's done': A how-to guide for reporting on Sutherland Springs conspiracy nuts

'Now let's just pray it's done': A how-to guide for reporting on Sutherland Springs conspiracy nuts


And infuriating.

That would be my succinct reaction to news this week that two conspiracy theorists were arrested for harassing victims of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church massacre.

But since we focus on journalism and media coverage here at GetReligion, let's concentrate on that.

Once again, I am impressed by the coverage of the San Antonio Express News' Silvia Foster-Frau, who repeatedly has produced exceptional journalism from Sutherland Springs. A few months ago, I praised her hopeful, sensitive and nuanced reporting on the massacre's victims. Just last month, I called attention to her exclusive piece on the guilt and grief that overwhelm the mother-in-law of the gunman. 

And after the conspiracy theorists' arrests this week, her story was the must-read account of what happened:

Robert Ussery, 54, and Jodi Mann, 56, were charged with trespassing and resisting arrest after the church’s pastor accused them of repeatedly harassing the community.

The Express-News report noted:

Ussery “continually yelled and screamed and hollered and told me he was gonna hang me from a tree, and pee on me while I’m hanging,” said Frank Pomeroy, the pastor.
Pomeroy said he was in his car by the church when the pair approached the building, and he intervened when Mann began to write in large, loopy writing on a poster left for well-wishers to sign, “The truth shall set you free.”
The pair believe the church shooting was staged by accomplices of the government, though Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed there, knows better.
“He said, ‘Your daughter never even existed. Show me her birth certificate. Show me anything to say she was here,’” Pomeroy said. “I just told him there was enough evidence already visible, so if he chooses not to see that, how would I know he would believe anything else?”

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Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Hey, news consumers: Does anyone remember that "Nones on the Rise" study from the Pew Research Center?

Of course you do. It was in all the newspapers, over and over. It even soaked into network and cable television news -- where stories about religion is rare.

The big news, of course, was the rapid rise in "Nones" -- the "religiously unaffiliated" -- in the American population, especially among the young. Does this sound familiar? One-fifth of all Americans -- a third of those under 30 -- are "Nones," to one degree or another.

Traditional forms of religious faith were holding their own, while lots of vaguely religious people in the mushy middle were being more candid about their lack of ties to organized religion. More than 70 percent of "Nones" called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

When the study came out, a key researcher -- John C. Green of the University of Akron -- said it was crucial to note the issues that united these semi-believers, as well as atheists, agnostics and faithful religious liberals, into a growing voter block on the cultural left. My "On Religion" column ended with this:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green. ... "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

These sharp divisions are also being seen INSIDE the major political parties. If you want to see that process at work, check out the fascinating New York Times report that ran the other day under this headline: "As Primaries Begin, Divided Voters Weigh What It Means to Be a Democrat." It isn't hard to spot the religion "ghost" in this blunt overture:

PALOS HILLS, Ill. -- When Representative Daniel Lipinski, a conservative-leaning Democrat and scion of Chicago’s political machine, agreed to one joint appearance last month with his liberal primary challenger, the divide in the Democratic Party was evident in the audience that showed up.

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With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church?

With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church?

Most news calendars list Russia’s presidential vote on Sunday, March 18. That’s the very date the nation officially confiscated Ukraine's Crimea with its 2 million people and 10,000 square miles of territory.

Journalists can relax and write up incumbent Vladimir Putin's victory in advance, then simply toss in ballot numbers. As in the grim Soviet past, another term is foreordained by manipulation of the process and consequent lack of competition. No need for the April runoff.

Russia over-all is of keen interest  for Americans and the American media with those allegations of campaign “collusion,”  revelations about efforts to manipulate U.S. voters in 2016 and 2018, debate over sanctions, and the ongoing mystery of why autocrat Putin is a rare politician President Donald Trump does not insult.

In addition to politics, there’s a historic religious turnabout in Russia that stateside reporters could  well develop through interviews with the experts. The dominant Orthodox Church, which managed to survive Communist terror and regained freedom, has latterly emerged as a strategic prop for Putin’s Kremlin. 

If that election day peg doesn't work for your outlet, another signal event comes July 17. That's the Orthodox feast day of the doomed final czar, Nicholas II, and his family, shot to death by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 and canonized by the national church in 2000 as saints and "passion-bearers."  

The Economist published a solid Russian Orthodox situationer February 3 that’s behind a pay wall, so The Guy will summarize key points for any writer interested in this. (Side comment: It’s hard to make do without this British newsweekly despite the $152 subscription price. It echoes the happy heyday when Time and Newsweek had substantive foreign news sections competing each week, drawing upon ample field reporting and research, all neatly distilled by a knowledgeable writer into a readable page.)

The magazine found a great lede. Each January 18, masses of Russians cut cross-shaped holes into lake ice and plunge into the sub-zero waters to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ. This year, campaigner Putin joined the throng at Lake Seliger, crossed himself, and leaped in.

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Wheaton College gets big religious liberty win, which inspires a case of news-media crickets

Wheaton College gets big religious liberty win, which inspires a case of news-media crickets

Several years ago, there was a mini-wave of mainstream media coverage when a variety of Christian ministries and institutions of higher learning took risky stands against the Health and Human Services mandate that required most religious institutions to offer their employees, and often students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills."

The problem, of course, is that members of most of these religious communities had accepted, and in most cases signed, covenants defending centuries of doctrines on marriage and sexuality. To varying degrees, some or all of these HHS demands violated doctrines that leaders of these institutions had promised to defend.

One high-profile case involved Wheaton College, a famous evangelical Protestant school near Chicago. Wheaton leaders refused to buckle under government pressure and kept fighting in the courts -- a process that drew coverage in news outlets such as USA Today, The Washington Post and, logically enough, the nearby Chicago Tribune (check out this Google News search for examples).

So what happened -- in terms of news coverage -- when Wheaton won a crucial district-court victory upholding the college's First Amendment rights?

To find out, click on the video at the top of this post (or just click here).

Ever since that ruling, your GetReligionistas have been watching to see what kind of mainstream coverage there would be about this story. Activists at the conservative NewsBusters website were doing the same thing and published this summary: "Not News: Wheaton College Wins Permanent Injunction Against ObamaCare Contraception Mandate." It noted:

During the past several days, the press mentioned Wheaton College in Illinois when a former student was arrested for multiple burglaries, and when there were new developments relating to a football team hazing incident. On the positive side, the college's partnership with a school for children with disabilities got coverage, as of course did Wheaton's most famous graduate, the just-passed Rev. Billy Graham. But there hasn't been a word in the national establishment press about the Christian college's victory over the Obamacare contraception mandate -- a victory which should ripple though all remaining related cases.

Of course, this crucial update in a national-level case did receive all kinds of attention in alternative "conservative" news outlets.

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Outlawing Down syndrome abortions: Isn't religion always part of this news story?

Outlawing Down syndrome abortions: Isn't religion always part of this news story?

What are the countries with the highest amount of kids with Down syndrome? If you look here, they are the United States, followed by Brazil and Mexico, all of which have highly religious populations.

So you'd think that any article dealing with the syndrome and abortion in highly churched Utah might have something to do with religion.

You might think that. But the topic is not mentioned in this otherwise informative piece by the Washington Post. Once again, it might have helped to consult the religion-desk staff during the reporting process.

At stake is a piece of legislation outlawing abortion -- when Down syndrome is the overriding reason for terminating the pregnancy. 

Karianne Lisonbee stepped up to the lectern to talk about what she called “a terrible form of discrimination.”
The Republican state representative in Utah had just introduced a bill that would make it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion if a woman is seeking one “solely” because the fetus has Down syndrome. “In recent years, there has been a shocking increase in abortions performed for no other reason than because a prenatal test identified the potential for a trait a parent didn’t like,” she said at the news conference last month.

At this point, most articles would follow up her assertion with some factchecking.

As it turns out, the abortion rate with parents who learn their kid has Down syndrome goes as high as 90 percent internationally and 67 percent in the United States. Instead, this piece quoted the legislator, then added:

The highly controversial legislation -- and similar bills passed in North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana -- has put Down syndrome front and center in the abortion debate when the condition is becoming more widely understood and accepted in the United States. In many neighborhoods today, children with Down syndrome participate in mainstream classrooms and on sports teams. Companies including Safeway, Walgreens and Home Depot have created programs to train and employ adults with the condition (along with adults with other disabilities). This year, Gerber, the maker of baby food, lit up social media with expressions of delight when it announced that it had chosen Lucas Warren -- who has Down syndrome -- as its newest “spokesbaby.”

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Publisher declares this news story on Johnson Amendment 'accurate and complete,' but is it really?

Publisher declares this news story on Johnson Amendment 'accurate and complete,' but is it really?

Sometimes, writing a GetReligion post is as simple as paying attention to Twitter.

Today's edition is brought to you courtesy of an exchange I witnessed between James A. Smith Sr., vice president of communications for the National Religious Broadcasters, and Ron Fournier, publisher/editor of Crain's Business Detroit.

Yes, this is the same Ron Fournier whose 20-year career in the nation's capital included serving as Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press. 

The back-and-forth between Smith and Fournier concerned a Crain's Business Detroit blog item on the Johnson Amendment:

Charitable nonprofits could see new pressure to endorse political candidates and partisan issues if a renewed bid to repeal the Johnson Amendment becomes a reality.
Following the defeat of a similar proposal last year as part of the tax reform legislation, politicians and special interest groups reiterated their goal of repealing the amendment last week at the National Religious Broadcasters convention, the National Council of Nonprofits said in an email alert Monday afternoon seeking nonprofit advocacy on the issue.
The council said it believes congressional leaders are now considering an upcoming appropriations bill as a vehicle to nullify the amendment. Such a repeal would fulfill a promise President Donald Trump made on the campaign trail.

In response to the item, Smith tweeted:

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Kudos to Washington Post for accidentally revealing diverse forms of Oscar hate/apathy?

Kudos to Washington Post for accidentally revealing diverse forms of Oscar hate/apathy?

I was looking through Twitter and it appears that the Academy Awards were on the other night. Can someone confirm whether or not that's true? Has Snopes looked into that rumor?

Apparently, I was not the only flyover America person (I am not teaching in New York City at the moment) who missed this barometer of trends in American life, humor, politics and virtue.

Besides, I saw very few of this year's films -- again. When it's movie night at my house, we tend to curl up and watch classics like this, this, this or even a modern film like this or maybe even this. Then again, there's always time to visit the doctor.

Anyway, the Oscars were not a big hit there and everyone wants to talk about why. Here are the basics from The Hollywood Reporter:

A comparatively uneventful Oscar telecast led the way on TV Sunday night -- though updated numbers have the telecast somewhat predictably stumbling to an all-time low.
The kudocast, nearly four hours long, stumbled 19 percent from the previous year to 26.5 million viewers. That's easily the least-watched Oscars in history, trailing 2008 by more than 5 million.

When it comes to this "why" question, GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that this was all about politics and, especially, President You Know Who. Thus, the Washington Post opened it's Oscars ratings wreck story like this:

The 90th Academy Awards show was two things: an evening of pointed political statements and a telecast with record-low Oscars viewership. And many on the right have been quick to claim that those things went hand in hand, though the critic-in-chief blamed a lack of star power. ...
The dismal ratings for the ABC broadcast were a hot topic on Fox News, discussed at the top of the hour on both Tucker Carlson’s and Sean Hannity’s evening shows Monday, and again on Tuesday’s edition of “Fox & Friends.”

Now, whether the Post team intended to or not, this same report -- toward the end -- included some interesting voices that hinted that morality, culture and maybe even religion played a role in this story. Hold that thought.

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Tagging refugees by religion: Does it matter whether they're Muslims or Christians?

Tagging refugees by religion: Does it matter whether they're Muslims or Christians?

Immigration tensions have tilted another European election. This time it's Italy, where right-wing populists with an anti-immigrant bent have dominated the national vote.

Immigrants? Now who might journalists be referring to when they employ that generic term?

Could they mean, in Italy's case, Muslims from such war-devastated, poverty-stricken nations as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, plus Africa’s Sahel, the broad swath of semi-arid land just south of the Arab north that is also predominantly Muslim?

But rather than stating what seems the obvious, some global media appear more comfortable leaving the immigrants’ primary religious affiliation -- Islam -- unsaid. Instead, they provide a geography lesson.

By which I mean that the immigrants' nations of origin, such as the ones I mentioned above, are cited instead of the immigrants primary religious affiliation, even though religion is far more of factor in Italy's case than are lines on a globe.

Take this New York Times analysis. It mentions immigration from Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, but not religion. I found similar wording in stories published by The Guardian, USA Today, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and other outlets.

Here’s how the Times piece handled this aspect of the story. This is long, but essential:

The issue continues to disrupt and inflame European politics, including in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and now Italy. With Greece, Italy has borne the brunt of recent large movements of refugees and migrants into Europe from places such as Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
There is a strong feeling that the mainstream parties have no answer and that Italy got little help from the European Union in Brussels or from other member states. Once Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany cut off the migrant flow through Central Europe by doing deals with Turkey, neither Berlin nor Brussels seemed to care any more, and a European policy on migration is still unresolved.

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Texas ghosts: Rural Democrats in Lone Star State don't like Trump, but what issues do matter to them?

Texas ghosts: Rural Democrats in Lone Star State don't like Trump, but what issues do matter to them?

At the top of today's Dallas Morning News front page is a political feature heavy on anecdotes, but rather short on the hard facts -- especially about links to religion.

The basic storyline is that rural Democrats in Texas counties that voted heavily for President Trump face a stigma.

The big, bad Republicans, it seems, don't care much for folks who'd dare cast ballots for the other party.

Know what I mean, pardner?

My major problem with the story is that it never really provides any concrete evidence to back up its claim.

But the piece does hint at a potential better story, albeit one this report almost completely ignores. I'm talking about the fact that the counties in question used to be dominated by "'Yellow-dog' Democrats — those who would sooner vote for a dog than a Republican." (You may recall that just the other day, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly pointed out that the late Rev. Billy Graham was a registered Democrat.)

So what happened? Is there any chance that holy ghosts are involved?


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