Assume the official position

this week in godWhile visiting the blog of Episcopal priest Joseph Howard I came across a link to a new journalism and religion site. Funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, the site has blogs, links to a Second Life community, and other features. Here's how it's described:

Stories about religion are too often framed around conflict and controversy, culture wars and holy wars. We want to tell another story -- the lived experience of people's faith.

We are a team of journalists from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley exploring "God, Sex and Family." That's where choices about marriage, dating, the building of community, family and faith play out in private life.

And public life, too! I love the idea behind the site, as I've long advocated against religion stories being framed around conflict. And I think the current scope of sex discussions (homosexuality, abortion) is far too limited in most media coverage of religion.

It's just getting started but some aspects are worth looking at. One popular area is the Moral Compass, where you can learn what the "official" positions are for nine major religions: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Reform Judaism, Mormon, Muslim (mostly Sunni), Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a major world religion, isn't it? Why not Zoroastrians?

It's also interesting to note what is missing. Where are the Pentecostals? Where are the non-Baptist evangelicals? Where are the always-forgotten liberal Baptists? Charismatics? Why is Reform Judaism more important than the Conservative branch? How about Hindus? I would love to see the argument for including United Methodists over Hindus. A partial answer is given by one Erin Fitzgerald:

The plan for the Moral Compass was to state the "official position" for nine major religions. We discussed and debated which nine those should be. We wanted Hinduism; wanted to include it very much, but it didn't fit our parameters, that is, first, stating the official position, then indicating nuances to that position via the videos. I personally contacted several Hindu groups but they said that Hindus do not normally take positions, as a group, on these types of ethical decisions. One of the Hindu organizations I spoke to said that they are currently working with other Hindu groups to prepare those types of statements, but the "official position papers" wouldn't be ready until well after our deadline. In short, we did what we could given these constraints.

I know these are only grad students, but this journalist has just explained why so much media coverage is lacking. Rather than looking critically at the parameters set out by the project and readjusting to reflect the reality of different religions, the group simply excludes the religion that doesn't fit. I'm not saying I'm not sympathetic, but it's just interesting to contemplate how this works in story assignment and development.

When sources don't say what you want them to say, do you ignore them? Do you exclude them? Do you rethink your story's premise? I'd say how you answer that question says a lot about the quality of the piece you end up with.

The problem with Hinduism's lack of "official" positions is legitimate, though. But how well did the journalists do with understanding the official positions of, say, the Episcopal Church? Here's their answer to the question of what the Episcopal Church's official position is on whether gays and lesbians can marry and have such unions blessed by the church:

We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.

But as Howard notes, that's not an official position and fails to reflect the true "fuzziness" of the current Episcopal position that is clearly changing:

I think it is important to point out that the response as to homosexual relationships are blessed by the entire Episcopal Church, thereby making it an official position is incorrect. At the most it should be listed as "varied" or "discerning," since the item you refer to as indicating official blessing was merely a resolution indicating that some Episcopalians are exploring this as a legitimate position and we are not sufficiently of one mind to condemn them. That is hardly a unified and official position, and I would hazard a guess that while the majority of the Episcopal Church voted not to reject such practices at General convention, a majority of Bishops have not approved such rites, nor would they encourage priests in their dioceses to use them. A little more clarity about our confusion would be appreciated.

It's a good point and one the journalism grad students should keep in mind as they develop their Moral Compass. After all, this is the closest most journalists will come to a moral compass. I kid, I kid. It's been a long week at work. What do you think of the site? What could be improved? Is this a sufficient improvement over The Daily Show's "This Week in God"?

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