A blog's life: GetReligion turns 13, still clinging to hope that more journalists will get it

You know the old saying that one year in the life of a dog is equal to seven years for its owner?

Well, if people talk about the relative value of "dogs years," is there some kind of corresponding scale for comparing years in ordinary human life with those in digital, online and social-media life? I mean, how old are Apple iPhones? They seem like they have been here forever. Every year on Twitter equals how much time in the real world?

I bring this up because GetReligion turns 13 today. What does it mean when a weblog lasts long enough to become a teen-ager?

If your evolving team of GetReligionistas has been at this media-criticism thing for 13 years on regular analog calendars, how long is that in "blog years?" By the way, we have published, oh, 10 million words or so of new material here in that amount of time.

Why do we keep doing what we do? (Click here for our "What we do, why we do it" trilogy.)

To be blunt, we still believe that it's impossible to understand real events and trends in the lives of real people living in the real world without taking religion really seriously. We still believe that the more controversial the religion-news story, the more journalists should strive to accurately cover the crucial voices of believers and thinkers on both sides. The word "respect" is crucial in that equation. Ditto for "balance." We believe that doctrine and history matter. We believe that, when in doubt, you should report unto others as you would want others to report unto you. We remain committed to the old-school (as historians would put it) American model of the press.

Trust me, we can go on. And we plan to. After all, the editor of The New York Times recently said: "We don't get religion. We don't get the role of religion in people's lives." Who knows what will happen in the next 12 months? 

But as we mark Feb. 2 once again, let me point readers toward a recent essay that ran at the The Common Vision website with this double-decker headline:

Fake News and Evangelicals
Getting evangelicals away from fake news means telling their stories in the mainstream media.

As you would expect, this piece by Anglican church-planter Alex Wilgus of Chicago was written, in part, in response to the much-discussed Washington Post "Acts of Faith" column by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the one with the headline "Evangelicals, your attacks on ‘the media’ are getting dangerous." Click here for my part in that dialogue, the post with the headline, "Discuss please: Sarah Pulliam Bailey's letter to evangelicals who are mad at mainstream press."

Part-way into his essay, Wilgus veers into what he has called a "love letter" to GetReligion. That's a pretty Zen thing right there, seeing as how he was already responding to a Post essay written by a former member of the GetReligion team.

You need to read his whole essay, but we would like to thank him by featuring several chunks of his work right here. Here is the crucial transition section of the piece, as he asks WHY evangelicals tend to distrust the mainstream press so much:

When a subculture succumbs to a certain kind of disorder, it’s worth asking how and why it happened. For instance, when young black men murder each other on the southside of Chicago, we are asked, rightly, to attend to the context of poverty and discrimination that surrounds their lives and makes their actions at least partially intelligible. The matter of personal responsibility is not wholly set aside, but it is seasoned by context. And so amid the necessary rebukes against conservative and evangelical credulity and willingness to succumb to mean-spirited attacks against the press, is there any attempt to explain the context evangelicals find themselves in with respect to the press? Is their dislike of the media justified? I haven’t been able to find any explorations of this side of the story among the stack of sanctimonious screeds against “hate” and lectures about “reading comprehension.”
Does the press Get Religion?
To all those discomfited by fake news regardless of your ideological priors, all who call evangelicals and conservatives to respect factual accuracy, who enjoy throwing around the term “post-truth,” who like to complain about ideological “echo chambers,” who feel secure in their reading comprehension, who think evangelical contempt for the press is nothing but partisan brainwashing, I put to you a challenge: put one more site on your blogroll. GetReligion, founded in 2004 by longtime On Religion columnist Terry Mattingly (a Pro-Life Democrat, by the way) exists to shed light on the media’s treatment of religion. Mattingly is joined by a distinguished team of contributors who review news stories both from mainstream outlets (The New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN) and more local papers (The LA Times, the Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News) and ask the question: “does the press get religion?” That the site still has enough material for nearly daily posts after thirteen years gives you an idea of the answer.

Two points, just for the record. I have been a pro-life Democrat since 1980 or so, but this year's election finally drove me out of the party. I am now registered in the small American Solidarity Party

Also, GetReligion publishes three articles a day on most business days and one a day on weekends. Yes, there is a lot of stuff in the mainstream press to dissect and, now and then, there is also material clearly worthy of praise.

Here's another part of The Common Vision essay, after his discussions of our "religion ghost" and "Kellerism" concepts. In effect, this is his own case study. This is long, but interesting.

Our story is not being told.
And now turning from the experts for a moment, I’d like to add a few impressions of my own as an evangelical and avid newsreader. A few propositions. 1. When reporters or columnists set out to write something, they do not say they are writing “the facts” they say they are writing “the story.” Facts buttress a story. Facts are not bundled together as bullet points and delivered to readers to make of them what they will. The story is frame that arranges the facts and makes them intelligible. You can’t have facts without story. 2. A story is also an occasion for facts to be reported. It’s very important to ask why it is important that one story be told and not another -- and good newsrooms ask this question constantly, so it’s appropriate that readers do as well. What is the thing that occasions most stories about evangelicals?
Let’s take this NPR interview with Josh Harris, evangelical author of the 90s bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye to flesh out what I mean. Before we ask whether Harris is fairly represented here (it’d be hard not to since it’s his own words) we should ask why Rachel Martin is interviewing an evangelical pastor who authored a popular book in the 1990s. The answer comes in the first prompt after the introduction:
“MARTIN: Joshua Harris has been reflecting a lot on the impact of his book. He’s heard from people who felt his writing taught them to be ashamed of their bodies and to feel guilty for having any sexual desires. The criticism came out recently on Twitter. One woman reached out and said the book was used against her like a weapon. Joshua Harris apologized.”
What’s the occasion for the interview with Harris about his book? It is certainly not the book itself. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published in 1997 as part of a long dormant (though influential in its day) purity movement in evangelical youth culture. In fact, it was the recent comments on Twitter that caught Rachel Martin’s (staff’s) eye. So let’s be clear, the occasion for the story isn’t a pastor reflecting on the impact of his book, but a recent Twitter fracas that involved the pastor and the impact of his book. This may seem like a minor point but I think it’s crucial to understanding the set of assumptions that guide a story (and yes, an interview is a story) as it develops.
Leaving aside whether a few comments on Twitter provide enough controversy to occasion a story at all (another post for another time) let’s next ask why Josh Harris is interesting to Rachel Martin. Surely there are many people who have written opinionated books on social topics that have angered people. But the idea that criticism comes with the territory of being an author developing an argument doesn’t seem to inform Martin’s line of questioning. She does not ask Harris to restate what his book was trying to get at, what social issues it was responding to, and how his beliefs informed his arguments. Instead she asks “As you have gone back through the book, where have you changed your mind?” assuming Josh Harris has changed his mind about his book! Harris said nothing about changing his mind. Apologizing for how his book has been used to hurt people and recanting his book’s core argument are not the same thing. And indeed, Harris’s rambling response reveals that he has not really changed his mind about his book. The question leads to a dead end, partially because Harris does not answer clearly (he obviously doesn’t want to appear defensive and prickly) but mainly because Martin does not treat his book as an intellectual work with a thesis worth explaining and exploring except inasmuch as it has offended people. So Martin is not really treating Josh Harris as an author at all, but as someone who said some things that offended some people.  A fair restatement of Martin’s prompt before her question would be: “Your book and ideas are interesting to me because of how they seem to have hurt people.” Each question proceeds from this basic starting assumption: “your perspective has made people feel needless shame, what do you have to say for yourself?” This is the occasion for NPR’s interview with an evangelical, and it is a typical one for the mainstream media.
The occasion sets the terms for what story is going to be told, NPR’s point of entry into evangelical culture.

There is much, much more. But here is the timely bottom line: Wilgus is telling journalists, in effect, "please listen." And also, "Please take a second look at how you portray our lives, because you have great power in shaping public discourse about subjects that are important -- eternally important -- to us."

Read it all. And please keep reading.

We will be right here.

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