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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God and gulag: Several Irina Ratushinskaya obits fell short, all but ignoring her strong faith

God and gulag: Several Irina Ratushinskaya obits fell short, all but ignoring her strong faith

Irina Ratushinskaya was one of the political prisoners released from the Russian gulag just before the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik in October 1986. She was a poet; a latter-day Aleksandr Solvhenitsyn whose philosophy of overcoming evil with good made her famous worldwide.

She spent four years in the gulag in her late 20s and early 30s. She died on July 5 at the age of 63.

Her autobiography “Grey is the Color of Hope” tells of her refusing to remove the cross from around her neck despite threats from her guards; how she and other inmates went on a hunger strike when their Bibles were confiscated; how she and a fellow prisoner would comfort each other with verses from Ecclesiastes that say “two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”

So one would think that any mainstream news obituary would have to highlight her faith -- correct?

Not so fast.

I’ll start with the good stuff, such as the Times of London’s obit

She had been beaten, given virtually no medical treatment for her worsening blood pressure, heart problems and kidney disease, and endured rotten cabbage and bitter cold in a labour camp 300 miles east of Moscow. “Hair starts falling out, your skin gets loose,” recalled Irina Ratushinskaya. “There are days and weeks when you can’t stand up because of hunger. I was quite close to death.”
Yet she and her fellow prisoners still challenged the camp authorities with what she called her “holy disobedience” -- sticking to an idea of lawfulness and human decency when the authorities seemed full of lies and spite. With her spirit undaunted, she was put into solitary confinement for several months -- a final attempt to intimidate a poet whose work had circulated in samizdat (clandestine literary) circles and who had been sentenced in 1983 to seven years’ hard labour for, among other things, “producing materials that damaged communist ideas”.

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No God, no worries: This is why a group with no belief in supernatural deities gathers on Sunday

No God, no worries: This is why a group with no belief in supernatural deities gathers on Sunday

Journalists seem to love stories about atheist churches.

That's not exactly breaking news.

In recent years, we at GetReligion have critiqued media coverage of "Atheist churches on the rise deep in the heart of Texas" and "Godless congregations copying Christian churches." In one post, we asked, "How many atheists does it take to form a 'megachurch?'"

Just today, the Buffalo News published a piece on "'a church for atheists' — and everyone else."

In general, the stories I've read on atheist churches have left me underwhelmed. Could it be that I — as a Christian who believes in God — am biased on the subject matter? That's certainly a fair question.

But here's another possible explanation: These stories tend to fall flat because they lack any real edge. Typically, there's no timely news angle. There's no digging below the surface. 

A recent in-depth Denver Post story is the latest example:

By 10:30 a.m., the assembly room has filled with people. They’re four dozen strong, swirling about the long rectangular hall like in a hive, standing and laughing in small clusters, shaking hands and hugging latecomers, finishing coffee and doughnuts in the kitchen, leaning in close to hear a week’s worth of gossip whispered too low for lurking passers-by.
The congregation’s Sunday morning gathering is a cherished communal ritual that brings together newly joined 20-somethings, still groggy from a night on the town, with chatty retirees who have been members since the institution’s founding. They come from across metro Denver to hang out and talk about whatever’s on their mind: Donald Trump, National Public Radio, last night’s Rockies game, the hiking trail du jour.
Inevitably, though, their conversation returns to the supernatural power that unites them: God.
This isn’t church, though.
“It’s atheist church,” jokes Ruth McLeod, who moved to Denver from Louisiana in 2012. “Church doesn’t have a monopoly on community.”

Keep reading, and the Post mentions "contradictions in the Bible" (without giving a Bible defender an opportunity to respond). And there's a reference to the "pervasive contempt" faced by atheists (does that mean religious groups are, on the other hand, beloved?):

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Not all evangelicals are white (true). What about Democrats who don't like religious groups?

Not all evangelicals are white (true). What about Democrats who don't like religious groups?

News consumers, I want you to flash back to the early stages of the 2016 White House race, near the start of the Donald Trump earthquake.

Remember how we had lots of headlines headlines that kept saying, "Evangelicals love Trump! Evangelicals LOVE Trump!"

Yes, that was sort of true. There were many old-guard Religious Right leaders who bonded with The Donald really early. Eventually, the vast majority of cultural and moral conservatives would vote for the sort-of-GOP standard bearer, with about half of them reluctantly doing so as a way of voting against Hillary Clinton. The mainstream press (with a few exceptions) still has not grasped the significance of that fact.

However, here is something that more reporters figured out early on, since it involved race. They discovered the crucial fact that there are black, Latino and Asian evangelicals. They realized that it was mainly WHITE evangelicals who were supporting Trump. Look at evangelicals as a whole and the picture was quite different.

This brings us to a recent Religion News Service headline about another fascinating blast of numbers from the Pew Research Center team. That headline proclaimed: "Republicans, Democrats divided on impact of religion." And here is some key information near the top:

Overall, a majority of Americans (59 percent) see religion as a positive, compared to 26 percent who say it has a negative impact on the way things are going in the U.S., according to Pew. ...
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Republicans or those who lean Republican said churches and religious organizations have a positive impact, with 14 percent saying that impact is negative, according to Pew.
Meanwhile, Democrats are split: Half of those who are or lean Democrat believe religious institutions have a positive impact, according to the survey, while 36 percent said they have a negative impact.

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