Pick a religious label and prepare for angry telephone calls

Journalists cannot always predict which stories will cause a ruckus, but reporter Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News knew that his report about a local "Bus 19" exhibit was going to raise eyebrows. The bus had been attacked by terrorists, with 11 people dead. Now it was being used as part of a tour to promote the cause of Israel. It was being displayed in North Dallas as part of the Yom Kippur holy day. The congregation doing this? Baruch HaShem Messianic Synagogue, which is linked to the movement that calls itself "Messianic Judaism," with Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. (The photo is from the massive 1997 Promise Keepers rally on the National Mall.) Weiss notes:

Here's the problem: "Messianic Jews" say they can both be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in Jewish Scripture. Every other group on earth that calls itself Jewish says that's impossible.

That dispute was at the heart of my story: Some local Jewish leaders who consider Baruch HaShem deceitful objected to its use of a symbol of Jewish martyrdom on a day sacred to Jews. Baruch HaShem leaders said they were acting in accord with their values -- Jewish values -- and offending no one.

So should the newspaper describe them as Messianic Jews? Christians? Religious frauds? True believers? How can we be fair and accurate and not confuse our readers?

This is part of a hot debate within journalism. Should newsrooms allow controversial groups to define themselves?

For years, these debates centered on abortion coverage. Journalists called one side pro-choice, its label of choice, and the other side anti-abortion, a term it hated. It was a classic example of slanted language. Some let the groups self-identify, then put the terms inside of quotation marks -- "pro-choice" vs. "pro-life." Eventually, most newspapers dropped the slanted pro-choice term and substituted something literal, such as pro-abortion rights.

These word games are incredibly important on the religion beat, perhaps even more so than in political coverage. Weiss noted ongoing controversies about what to call members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons? Mormon Christians? Christians? It's even hard to work with a group as vanilla and, in Dallas almost all-powerful, as the Southern Baptist convention. A few claim they are not Protestants, because the try to trace their roots back to John the Baptist.

The battle over the Messianic Jews is especially hot, because of the bitter debates over who is and who is not "Jewish." Hardly anyone knows how to define that term. I discovered this once again last year writing about the long-delayed National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001, which is based on interviews with 4,500 Jews. Sponsors at the United Jewish Communities called it the most detailed statistical portrait of American Jews ever assembled. Critics had less flattering things to say.

That survey defined a Jew as someone whose "religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing." Say what?

... (All) definitions include some and exclude others, said research director Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz. This survey, for example, was clear to include Jewish Buddhists. But its "non-monotheistic religion" clause excluded two people who had converted from Judaism to Islam. The "whose religion is Jewish and something else" clause created another problem.

"We included people who said they were both Jewish and Catholic or Jewish and something else," he said. "But if they identified themselves as Jewish Christians or we found some evidence that they were Messianic Jews, then we excluded them from the study. We had to draw that line."

I was confused. So a person could be Jewish and Christian? That depends, I was told. A person could be Jewish and Catholic, in light of the teachings of Vatican II. Say what? And a person could be Jewish and an Episcopalian, but not an Episcopal evangelical. Or Jewish and Unitarian. But not Jewish and Southern Baptist or Jewish and Eastern Orthodox. Jewish and United Methodist? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps in New York, but not in Texas. Jewish and Lutheran? Not Missouri-Synod Lutheran.

The key was that the person could be a Christian and a Jew, in this survey, as long as the researchers did not sense that the person was part of a Christian movement that insisted that belief in Jesus was directly linked to salvation. Put that in your newsroom stylebook.

Clearly, this is dangerous territory. Anyone who has worked on the religion beat for a month knows that.

But it is possible to do solid, careful work that lets voices on both sides of these issues define their own views and speak their peace. This approach may make lots of people mad, but it's the path that journalists have to walk if they want to be fair. Want to hear an example of what I mean? Click here to hear Barbara Bradley Hagerty negotiate this journalistic minefield.

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