Small steps toward clarity: Reuters takes (yet) another look at media-friendly 'weed nuns'

Small steps toward clarity: Reuters takes (yet) another look at media-friendly 'weed nuns'

When it comes to effective public-relations campaigns, California's Sisters of the Valley -- the "weed nuns" -- take the cake.

Well, now that I think about it, that would probably be brownies, not cake.

The problem, of course, is (a) these nuns are not real Catholic nuns and (b) their love of traditional religious garb make them look like nuns. In the past this has been confusing to journalists, especially those looking for a novelty story, as opposed to a piece of fact-based religion coverage.

One of the all-time classic stories stirred up by the PR efforts of the sisters ran at Newsweek (surprise, surprise). That led to a blog piece by Catholic Deacon Greg Kandra, a former CBS News professional who, before moving to the altar and pulpit, won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards. The blunt headline:

Newsweek, Go Home. You’re Drunk. Those Aren’t Nuns.

Now, the lede on the Newsweek did say that the nuns were "self-proclaimed" -- but the visuals probably overwhelmed that one moment of clarity (which wasn't explained very well) for most readers.

So now, Reuters is back with yet another "weed sisters" report, which has been distributed by Religion News Service. In terms of factual clarity, this piece deserves attention. It is a step forward, in terms of "weed sisters" PR materials. Here is the overture:

MERCED, Calif. (Reuters) The Sisters of the Valley, California’s self-ordained “weed nuns,” are on a mission to heal and empower women with their cannabis products.
Based near the town of Merced in the Central Valley, which produces over half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States, the Sisters of the Valley grow and harvest their own cannabis plants.
The sisterhood stresses that its seven members, despite the moniker, do not belong to any order of the Catholic Church.

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Covering Gaza: A journalism tale of two (wildly divergent) Middle East stories

Covering Gaza: A journalism tale of two (wildly divergent) Middle East stories

The news from Gaza is seldom good; last weekend was no exception. It's also generally wildly contradictory. A classic example of this occurred earlier this month that warrants attention.

For journalists and media consumers far from the scene, which is most of us, it merits attention because the contradictory information we receive prompts us to fall back on our preconceived notions about the grinding Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- that is to say, our biases -- to make sense of the situation. And that’s a distinct disadvantage.

Surely, conflicting narratives, or realities, are by no means restricted to Gaza. What makes Gaza a special case, however, is that it's an international flashpoint that could well spark a full-blown and multi-party Middle East war even more far-reaching than the mess that is Syria.

I’ll begin this exercise in contradictory narratives with an opinion piece published online by the conservative British weekly The Spectator. The piece was an attack on the BBC, which the writer and many right-leaning pro-Israel partisans consider an apologist, or worse, for the conflict’s Palestinian side. Topped by this headline, “The good news about Gaza you won’t hear on the BBC,” the piece included this section.

Western media has often focused on this issue [Palestine] to the detriment of many other conflicts or independence movements throughout the world. The BBC, in particular, has devoted an inordinate amount of its budget and staff to covering the West Bank and Gaza in thousands of reports over the years. But you would be hard pressed to learn from the BBC’s coverage that, despite many difficulties, Gaza’s economy is also thriving in all kinds of ways.
To get a glimpse of that you would have to turn instead to this recent Al-Jazeera report from Gaza, showing footage of the bustling, well-stocked glitzy shopping malls, the impressive children’s water park (at 5.25 in the video), the fancy restaurants, the nice hotels, the crowded food markets, the toy shops brimming with the latest plush toys (at 8.39 in the video). (This video was translated into English by the excellent Middle East Media Research Institute).

Within days -- coincidentally, I’m sure; the issue is endless fodder -- this news piece (spiced with analysis, although the piece is not marked as analysis) was published in The New York Times.

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God credited with shrinking figure skater's brain tumor, but otherwise terrific story haunted by ghost

God credited with shrinking figure skater's brain tumor, but otherwise terrific story haunted by ghost

"Scott Hamilton Was Demoted as an Olympic Broadcaster. Don’t Feel Sorry for Him."

That's the headline on a fascinating New York Times sports column on the famous U.S. figure skater and broadcaster.

Why shouldn't we feel sorry for him?

If you really want to know, I'd urge you to click the link and read the full column. 

But basically, the idea is that Hamilton has suffered through a series of cancer battles and has his priorities in the right place. That means, as the Times explains, that the loss of his Olympic broadcasting gig hasn't hit him as hard as it might have otherwise.

The Times even hints that a higher power might be involved:

Hamilton said he had prayed about 12 times a day for it to go away. Doctors treated him with radiation, and the tumor did go away.

And later, there's this mention:

The tumor had shrunk, by about half. Hamilton choked up when describing what happened next.
“Have you ever had one shrink without treatment before?” he said he asked the doctor. “And the doctor said, ‘Nope, never.’”
Hamilton asked, “So how can you explain this?”
The doctor said, “God.”
It floored him. He was in the process of losing three friends to colon cancer, yet he, somehow, someway, was given this miracle? At his latest doctor’s visit, in December, the tumor was even smaller.

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Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

A few days ago, I expressed surprise that more mainstream journalists didn't recognize the poignant ties between the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the ancient Western Christian traditions linked to Ash Wednesday.

The bottom line: How many of the dead and wounded had, earlier that day, attended rites in which a priest marked their foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross? This was done, of course, to remind them of their mortality as they began the great spiritual journey through Lent to Easter. Thus, priest say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

How many of those caught up in the massacre had planned to go to Ash Wednesday services in the hours after school dismissed? Did reporters attend any of those services that evening?

I was assuming, of course, that an ordinary local South Florida newsroom -- or national-level newsrooms -- would include a few Catholics, Episcopalians or Lutherans who would immediately recognize the timing of this tragedy.

A few did. Many more did not.

Now we have a similar Lent-related story from the other side of the world. Here is the top of a typical report, at FoxNews.com:

Five women were killed and several others were injured after a gunman opened fire with a hunting rifle on people leaving a church service in Russia's Dagestan region on Sunday, Russian media outlets reported.
The shooting took place outside a church in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people on the border with Chechnya. ... The gunman was shot dead by police responding to the scene, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news agency. According to Interfax, the gunman has been identified as a local man in his early 20s.

The timing? Well, the report noted that this was an evening service and:

Parishioners were at the church celebrating the end of the Russian festival of Maslenitsa, a holiday which marks the start of Lent for Russian Orthodox Christians, according to RT.

An Orthodox Christian reader sent me this item, which I read within minutes of walking in the door after services at St. Anne Orthodox Parish here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For the reader, this story raised an obvious, powerful question: Did these people die immediately after taking part in Forgiveness Vespers?

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Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Long ago, The Charlotte Observer won a Pulitzer in 1988 for its groundbreaking reporting on the misuse of funds by the PTL television ministry. Thus, the folks who run that newsroom no doubt feel the need to keep readers updated on the doings of PTL founder Jim Bakker after a 31-year hiatus.

So it’s come out with an anniversary package detailing not only Bakker’s new calling in life but also a sidebar on a new book about PTL and a piece on whatever happened to Tammy Faye Messner, Bakker’s first wife. The main Observer stories on PTL’s problems broke in 1987 (you can our own tmatt about lots of the background on that). One year later in February 1988, Jimmy Swaggart’s empire fell due to his sexual sins.

It would be a whole other post describing what it was like being a religion reporter during those two years. I was at the Houston Chronicle and the Bakker-Swaggart scandals, plus Pope John Paul II’s 1987 swing around North America, ensured members of the religion-beat team got on the front page a number of times.

But that was then. Here’s what the Observer just wrote.

BLUE EYE, MO. -- Three decades after his PTL empire near Charlotte crumbled amid financial and sex scandals, Jim Bakker is back on TV with a different, darker message:
The Apocalypse is coming and you better get ready.
Ready to be judged by God, sure. But the main mission of “The Jim Bakker Show” -- broadcast from a Christian compound deep in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri -- appears to be to sell you fuel-less generators, doomsday guidebooks and freeze-dried food with a shelf-life of up to 30 years.

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Journalism 2018: The name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline

Journalism 2018: The name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline

It seems like just yesterday that I was complaining about an incomplete, slanted Washington Post story on a controversial religious topic.

Actually, it was last Monday.

In that post (titled "Not the right kind of paper to report both sides? About that story on fired Catholic teacher"), I noted — not for the first time — that it's often difficult these days, even in the Post, to tell what's supposed to be real news and what's simply clickbait and/or aggregation.

Today, I come to you with another Post story on a controversial religious topic. Except this time I intend to offer praise, not criticism.

Welcome to the world of Jekyll-and-Hyde media criticism.

Yes, this new story has one of those clickbait-style headlines at which the Post specializes online:

This former gymnast raised an army to take on Larry Nassar. Can she take on sex abuse in churches next?

But unlike the previous story, this one — by a different writer and perhaps handled by different editors (who knows?) — addresses the complex topic in a fair, impartial manner.

he lede:

Rachael Denhollander’s children recently asked her a question that continues to show her the cost of coming forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, a campaign which has given her a platform to speak out about a sexual abuse scandal in Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of churches mostly based across the United States.
Last month, Denhollander’s statement in Nassar’s sentencing turned her into a Christian celebrity. In her victim statement in court, the former gymnast said her advocacy for sexual assault survivors “cost me my church.” Her own children recently asked her about this, why they stopped going to the church they belonged to for five years.
“It was painful to have to search for a church again because we really, really loved the people at our former church,” she said.
“That simply was part of the cost of coming forward” as one of Nassar’s victims, she added, and also speaking out against how churches handle sex abuse allegations.
Denhollander, who declined to name her former church, said she and her husband, Jacob, left the Louisville church in 2017 because of elders’ lack of response to the concerns she has described as “the intentional failure to report sexual assault perpetrated in multiple churches, by multiple elders, at Sovereign Grace Ministries.” Their church was not part of Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches), she said, but it did support the organization, which had been accused of covering up cases of child molestation. A class-action lawsuit was dismissed in 2014 for reasons including statute of limitations issues, and current leaders of Sovereign Grace Churches say those accusations are “completely false.”

The piece is fact-based and allows those accused of wrongdoing an opportunity to present their case.

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Thinking about Justin Welby and the Church of England, in prose blending praise with candid acid

Thinking about Justin Welby and the Church of England, in prose blending praise with candid acid

Let me begin with a note to digital obsessives who care about this kind of thing, since I hear from readers of this kind every now and then.

In the software categories and tags for this weekend's "think piece," I have included the word "demographics," even though this feature from The Guardian about Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Church of England does not include a direct reference to statistics about marriage, divorce, gay marriage, birthrates or other topics of that kind.

No, the goal of this opinion piece by Andrew Brown -- no friend of traditional forms of Christianity -- is to praise Welby for steering Anglicanism in the direction of compromise with the modern world. The headline: "With piety and steel, Justin Welby has the church in his firmest grip." Anyone looking for praise or even constructive criticism of low-church evangelicals or Global South Anglicans can look elsewhere.

However, this piece has its moments of brutal candor about the state of Anglican life, doses of acidic reality mixed in with the praise. The information contained in these passages is especially interesting, since it it comes from a voice on the left. If conservative Anglicans made the same comments, they would be easier for many readers to dismiss.

As an introduction, here is a lengthy summary passage that follows a discussion of Welby's actions in one controversial case linked to alleged sexual abuse of a minor by a famous clergyman.

The whole show was typical of Welby’s style as Archbishop of Canterbury: he combines energy, ruthlessness and a determination to get the church moving, through a mixture of public theatricality and arm-twisting behind the scenes. He has been archbishop for five years and next month will publish a fat state-of-the-nation book that covers almost all the current areas of political and cultural dispute in the church. ...
(H)e loves the work of nudging and manipulation. When he was trying to get the bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion to agree to meet again after decades of wrangling over gay sex and female bishops, he spent much of his annual holiday ringing the heads of the member churches for 20 minutes each -- not how most people would choose to spend their holidays. And though he disclaims the ability to select bishops, ever since he drove through the legislation to make women bishops in 2013, the holy spirit has somehow ensured that half of the bishops appointed have been women, among them Sarah Mullally to the prominent see of London, and Jo Bailey Wells, his former chaplain, to be bishop of Dorking.

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Generic prayers for fallen hero: Lots of faith details missing in Parkland massacre coverage

Generic prayers for fallen hero: Lots of faith details missing in Parkland massacre coverage

Back in the days when he attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Joseph LaGuardia had a good friend who was working his way through some tough times.

But there were two constants that his friend could count on -- football and church.

The friend was Aaron Feis, who would later become a security guard and football coach at his alma mater. Feis has emerged as one of the most heroic figures in the school massacre in Parkland, Fla. Students said he used his massive frame to shield the innocent and was fatally wounded while doing so.

The national press has paid attention to the Feis story, with lots of quotes talking about his unique and powerful bond with students and his commitment to his work. He died in a local hospital, while friends sent out waves of social-media appeals for prayer on his behalf.

Today, LaGuardia is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, north of West Palm Beach. I don't know how the local newspaper found him, but his warm words about Feis added some interesting and poignant details to his life story.

The bottom line: Bless be the ties that bind.

As often is the case, there may have been a faith angle in all of those appeals for prayer. In a way, that's the theme that ran through this week's "Crossroads" podcast, which followed up on my earlier post about the Ash Wednesday-Valentine's Day shooting. Click here to tune that in.

But back to the TCPalm.com story about Fies, as seen through the eyes of this pastor who knew him well.

LaGuardia ... said Feis was a couple of years behind him in school, but the two grew close through their church, the New Covenant Church on the Lake in Pompano Beach.

“There were three of us friends who spent most weekends together,” LaGuardia said. “We were very active in the youth group, kind of always there when the doors opened. And his wife was also part of the youth group as well.”

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Friday Five: Florida school shooting, Ash Wednesday photo project, Pence's 'mental illness' and more

Friday Five: Florida school shooting, Ash Wednesday photo project, Pence's 'mental illness' and more

Sometimes, a single picture really does tell the story in a way that a thousand words — or a million words — cannot.

Such was the case with Associated Press photographer Joel Auerbach's image of one woman consoling another after this week's mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Auerbach's photo was striking. Powerful. Gut-wrenching. And yes, there was a religion angle. More on that in a moment.

First, though, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Most weeks, we've already introduced you to the story featured here. This week is an exception.

The religion story of the week is an interview that NPR did with photographer Greg Miller, who has spent 20 years documenting "the smudge on people's foreheads" on Ash Wednesday. The piece on "The Penitent Pause for a Portrait" contains a number of the images.

It really is worth a click.

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