Flip side of GetReligion's coin: Some people (journalists) really think religion is fake

Flip side of GetReligion's coin: Some people (journalists) really think religion is fake

This whole week, I have been in Prague in the Czech Republic, teaching in a conference for young journalists -- most of whom are from Eastern Europe.

You will not be surprised to know that I have been lecturing on the importance of accurate informed news coverage of religion. And that led right into this week's (long distance) Crossroads podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Since I am in serious soccer territory, I talked about my post earlier this week that ran with this headline: "Telegraph hits some sour notes in a simple story about a footballer becoming a priest." I told them that this was not a horrible story, but it contained many awkward, simple, rather stupid mistakes.

What, I asked, if you were a soccer fan and you kept reading stories by reporters who did not know the difference between a striker and a goalie, between a corner kick and a brilliant cross during a breakaway, between the World Cup and the Euro championships? After a while, wouldn't you loose some faith in that newspaper, in its commitment to quality?

This, I said, is how millions of people feel when they read twisted, flawed religion-news coverage.

But what, several of the students said, if you really don't think religion matters? That you believe that religious faith is basically meaningless or worse?

It doesn't matter, I argued. Do you think you need to understand religion to cover the Middle East? How about European arguments about immigration? How about the 2016 USA White House race?

In other words, I made a SOCIOLOGICAL case for religion coverage, not a THEOLOGICAL case. I have known atheists who were fine religion-beat pros, because they grasped the role that religion played in public and private life.

So then a student from the former Soviet bloc asked: So, would you argue that Communism was a religion?

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This front-page story will make you wonder if the newspaper knows what happens during an abortion

This front-page story will make you wonder if the newspaper knows what happens during an abortion

Here.

We.

Go.

Again.

On the topic of abortion, GetReligion has mastered the, um, fine art of sounding like a broken record.

Over and over — recent examples here, here and here — we have editorialized on the rampant news media bias against abortion opponents.

The latest case study comes to us courtesy of the Houston Chronicle, which reports on today's front page:

AUSTIN — Abortion providers and advocates filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday to challenge a new Texas law banning a common second-trimester medical procedure, the latest in a long-running series of legal fights over women’s health in the state.

Notice any peculiar wording there?

If you are (1) pro-choice or (2) a journalist in a typical left-leaning newsroom, you may not.

But if you are (1) pro-life or (2) a journalist committed to treating all sides of this contentious debate impartially, this phrasing may stick out to you:

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'Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts' coverage shed some light, but few real questions

'Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts' coverage shed some light, but few real questions

Years ago, I profiled the executive director of the Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington DC; one of the most eclectic houses of worship I’ve ever run into. Half of the stuff I encountered there hardly -- IMHO -- belonged at a synagogue (Yoga shabbats? Rock concerts? Political panels?) but the place was packing these events out week after week.

Which is why I’m not surprised that Sixth & I hosted the taping of a podcast known as “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a creation of two Harvard professors that’s become quite the rage in the past year. You thought Harry Potter was just an unbelievably clever series of children’s books?

Think again. Last year, your GetReligionistas look at the Boston Globe’s shallow coverage of these two professors and their work. But now that a major Potter anniversary is here, more publications have gone searching for a higher meaning in words penned by J.K. Rowling.

Here’s the top of the Washington Post's recent piece:

Mark Kennedy grew up a Catholic, and a Harry Potter fanatic. Only one stuck.
“I considered myself a non-spiritual person,” he said. He thought he was done with religion. And then he stumbled on the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.”
The podcast told him that the Harry Potter series -- the books that he always turned to for solace when he was angry or stressed or in need of an escape -- could be a source of spiritual sustenance.
“I feel like I’m born again,” he said.
On Tuesday night, Kennedy came to an event space at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District with hundreds of fellow fans of the podcast, who have found a surprising spirituality in the magical fiction series, which turns 20 years old this year.
Hosted by Harvard Divinity School graduates Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan, the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” became the number-two podcast in America on iTunes soon after it debuted last summer. It has inspired face-to-face Potter text reading groups, akin to Bible study more than book club, in cities across the country. In Harvard Square, ter Kuile and Zoltan host a weekly church-like service for the secular focused on a Potter text’s meaning.

Call this higher criticism with a twist.

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Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

If ever there was a crime for which the word "bizarre" was coined, the recent tragic events in Coolbaugh Township, Pennsylvania would likely be "Exhibit A."

Local police allege Barbara Rogers shot and killed her boyfriend, Steven Mineo, whose body was found on July 15 after Rogers called police to report the shooting. According to police, Rogers claims she shot Mineo at his request, over issues involving a religious cult to which both adults apparently belonged.

The Associated Press picks up the barest essence of the story from there, presenting us with a key journalistic issue:

Rogers told officers Mineo, 32, was having “online issues” with a cult and asked her to kill him, said Lt. Steven Williams, of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police. She said her boyfriend believed the cult’s leader to be a “reptilian” pretending to be a human, according to an affidavit.
Rogers, 42, told police the group centers on “aliens and raptures.” Online postings associated with the cult detail a theory that a group of alien reptiles is subverting the human race through mind control.

I should note that I found the AP story at the website of the Wilkes-Barre, Penna., Times Leader, a newspaper whose offices are a mere 45 minutes away, by car, from the crime scene. (I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) 

American author Mark Twain once declared, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” In reporting this cult case, I believe the AP got a head start on that total eclipse of the sun due in mid-August.

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Fresh look at evangelicals and the evolution dispute can help guide newswriters

Fresh look at evangelicals and the evolution dispute can help guide newswriters

A recent Gallup Poll showed 38 percent of Americans agree with what’s known as “young earth creationism,” which believes God created humanity in its present form some 10,000 years ago.  

That percentage, the lowest since Gallup began asking about this in 1982, was a tie with those saying humanity developed over millions of years “but God guided the process,” so-called “theistic evolution.” Meanwhile, 19 percent said God played no part, double the number in 2000.

The long-running dispute over evolution continues to present journalists with a big challenge in providing fair treatment, particularly if they lack expertise in Bible interpretation. Thus the importance for all media professionals of “Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?,” a July book from InterVarsity Press, known for quality presentations of conservative Protestant thinking.

This dialogue book presents respectful but vigorous disagreements from two evangelical camps that share belief in God as the Creator and the full authority of the Bible. BioLogos of Grand Rapids, Mich., champions of “evolutionary creation” (it prefers that label to “theistic evolution”), which harmonizes the Bible with Darwinian evolution. Debate partner Reasons to Believe (RTB) of Covina, Calif., advocates “old earth creation” and criticizes standard evolutionary theory on scientific and biblical grounds.  

RTB began in 1986 under leadership of the Rev. Hugh Ross, a pastor with a Ph.D. in astronomy.  BioLogos was founded in 2007 by Francis Collins (.pdf here), director of the Human Genome Project and currently director of the National Institutes of Health. The two groups held 15 meetings that provide the substance of the new book. 

Both BioLogos and RTB support the vastly long timeline that has long been standard among scientists.

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Race and Southern Baptists II: Why not cover the national meeting of black SBC leaders?

Race and Southern Baptists II: Why not cover the national meeting of black SBC leaders?

If you've been reading this blog all week, you may have noticed an emerging theme.

Julia Duin started things off with a post about how a Religion News Service column about LGBTQ issues and the work of the Rev. Eugene Peterson -- a mainline Protestant author who is popular with evangelicals -- started a digital media storm in news coverage.

The RNS column contained valid news material, but it was clearly a personal column by the pro-gay-rights evangelical Jonathan Merritt. As the news story escalated, Merritt wrote an even more personal second column.

So note that equation: We had an editorial column that made hard news, which was then framed again with more editorial material.

Our own Bobby Ross, Jr., carried on later in the week with a post -- "Race and Southern Baptists: This is why it's so hard to tell difference between opinion, news these days" -- about how an op-ed editorial in The New York Times ended up inspiring hard news coverage in The Nashville Tennessean. The Times piece by the Rev. Lawrence Ware of Oklahoma State University focused on his decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention, primarily because of differences over the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ issues and an awkward one-day glitch in efforts to pass an SBC resolution condemning the alt-right.

Yes, Nashville is the home of national SBC headquarters. But Ross wanted to know why this New York Times editorial piece by a part-time Oklahoma pastor was a hook for prominent hard-news coverage in Nashville as opposed, let's say, to newspapers in Oklahoma.

I say "amen" to all of that. Now I would like to add a question or two of my own.

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The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

It's not often a news story or feature geared toward the general public mentions the indigenous Chinese religion known in the West as Taoism (also spelled Daoism), but The New York Times managed to produce one last week. So how’d America’s newspaper of record do?

Let’s call it a less than “A” effort. But it did expose the difficulties that Western news media tend to encounter when trying to explain Eastern traditions that view religious beliefs through an entirely different lens — which is why it merits a GetReligion post.

I'll say more about that later. But first let’s deal with the merits of this particular Times story. Please read it in full to better follow my reasoning.

The focus was the impact that organized religion -- China’s traditional faith movements, in particular -- are contributing to the nation’s newfound emphasis on environmental awareness. Taoism, in the form of a $17.7-million “eco-friendly” temple located on a “sacred site” named Mao Mountain, provided the anecdotal lede.

The piece itself only superficially sought to explain Taoist beliefs and their role in contemporary Chinese society. It utterly failed to address questions such as, what’s the justification for a $17.7-million temple when Taoist philosophy has a clear emphasis on the virtue of simple living?

(One thing Eastern and Western religions apparently share is the human affliction we’ll refer to as the edifice complex — also known in some American Buddhist circles as “spiritual materialism.” Ah, but that’s a post for another time.)

Nor does the Times story break new ground -- but how many news features actually do?

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Race and Southern Baptists: This is why it's so hard to tell difference between opinion, news these days

Race and Southern Baptists: This is why it's so hard to tell difference between opinion, news these days

It started with an opinion column in the New York Times.

A little-known black pastor from Oklahoma wrote in Monday's Times that he's leaving the Southern Baptist Convention.

Lawrence Ware described "being called a nigger to my face" by a fellow Southern Baptist camper when he was 13.

More than two decades later, Ware explained that he "can no longer be part of an organization that is complicit in the disturbing rise of the so-called alt-right, whose members support the abhorrent policies of Donald Trump and whose troubling racial history and current actions reveal a deep commitment to white supremacy."

The pastor ended the piece by saying that he loves all people, but he loves black people "more."

In response to the column, Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher suggested at the American Conservative:

It sounds like he has apostatized to the Church of Identity Politics. It’s a false religion, but an increasingly popular one, alas.

So why am I highlighting a progressive column and a conservative response here at GetReligion? This journalism blog, after all, steers clear of analyzing op-eds and editorials. That's not our mission.

Rather, we focus — as regular readers know — on critiquing mainstream news coverage of religion.

Well, here is another instance of the lines being blurred. Just this week, my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin delved into the interesting case study of the Eugene Peterson story. Now, once again, we have an opinion column making news.

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Telegraph hits some sour notes in a simple story about a footballer becoming a priest

Telegraph hits some sour notes in a simple story about a footballer becoming a priest

In the decades that I have studied attempts by news media to cover religion events and trends, I have heard this question many times: Why don't they GET IT?

"It," of course, is religion. "They" are editors and reporters in mainstream newsrooms.

Of course, there are journalists -- some religious, some secular -- who totally get the role that religious faith plays in the lives of millions and millions of people. They see the ways that religious questions and beliefs are woven into the fabric of private lives, as well as public life. There are professionals who do a great job on this beat. We need editors to hire more of them.

Yet, I am reminded, from time to time, of that statement the liberal commentator Bill Moyers -- of CBS, PBS, etc. -- made years ago. He told me that far too many journalists are "tone deaf" to the "music of religion." It's more than an intellectual thing, more than a lack of knowledge. They know that something is going on in many news stories, but they don't hear the music. It's just a bunch of sounds to them. It isn't real.

I'm thinking about this today as I prepare to give another lecture at a conference for young journalists in Prague, in the Czech Republic. Most of the participants are from Eastern Europe. Reporting about religion, especially in conflict situations, is a major theme in the conference.

But let's look at a smaller example of these problems. Here is a nice, simple human interest story, in which a footballer from one of the world's most famous squads has been ordained as a Catholic priest. At the very least, the reporter and editors working on this story for the Telegraph need to understand a few simple things about the priesthood and how Catholics talk about it.

Prepare for some sour notes in this song.

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