Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

wrong or right ethical question

Reporters and editors who specialize in religion should be aware of a young Web site -- TheConversation.com -- and regularly check out its section devoted to “Ethics + Religion.

This innovative site was launched in 2011 in Australia, 2012 in Britain, and then 2014 for the United States, with funding from 11 foundations and sponsorship by a constellation of 19 major U.S. universities (oddly, no Ivy Leaguers).  

The stated concept here is to provide “an independent source of news and views” that allows “university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public,” as opposed to writing articles for narrow academic journals. TheConversation hopes that its “explanatory journalism” from experts will “promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues.”

The editor for the ethics + religion section is Kalpana Jain, a former reporter for The Times of India who has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

The site can help reporters by offering three things: 

(1) Added angles and background on themes in the news.

(2) Ideas for new stories.

(3) Perhaps most important, names of knowledgeable scholars on specific topics to keep on file as needed in the future.

This is, of course, similar to the ReligionLink material offered by the Religion News Association. Of course, when it comes to solid sources of information, reporters want to bookmark as many as possible.

A good example of this new site’s resources is the detailed July 19 piece “Explaining the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S.” Author Brian Levin teaches criminal justice at Cal State, San Bernardino, and directs its Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism. Definitely a source to put on file if he isn’t there already.

Building off recent news about a murder in Oregon and arson at a Texas mosque, Levin reviews two decades of research on anti-Muslim incidents by his center. One accounting has come yearly since 1992 from the FBI (which defines a “hate crime” as motivated by “race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.”) Levin says the Bureau of Justice Statistics believes police reports have severe undercounts.

There was a big spike in daily anti-Muslim crimes after 9/11, which declined after President George W. Bush’s plea for tolerance six days later. For all of 2001 there were 481 acts against Muslims compared with a mere 28 in 2000. During the 2002–2014 period, incidents lessened to a range of 105 to 160 per year, but that was several times higher than the era before 9/11.

In 2015, notably, the U.S. saw 45 anti-Muslim crimes in the four weeks following the Paris terror attack. Just under half of those came after the December 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., while 15 occurred in the five days after candidate Donald Trump proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country.

 Another article that same July date was “Why Russia is Afraid of Jehovah’s Witnesses” by Matthew Schmalz at College of the Holy Cross. Russia has banned all operations by the sect. Schmalz started with a thumbnail version of its history and theology, He noted Russia’s population of 150 million includes a mere 117,000 Witnesses. But to authoritarian regimes, this religion’s spurning of the government (no military service, no political affiliations, no voting, no flag salutes) is seen as suspicious or disloyal.

 Schmalz also produced a July 12 item titled “How the Catholic Church’s Hierarchy Makes It Difficult to Punish Sexual Abusers.” Frankly, it didn’t tell veteran religion writers anything they wouldn’t know, but the professor might be a new name added to the long list of sources on this seemingly unending crisis.

Other recent conversations at TheConversation treated gluten-free Catholic communion wafers, the roots of today’s “religious left,” Hinduism’s complicated history with cows, seaport chaplains, the Sunni-Shia split and “hookup culture” trends on Catholic campuses.

The site includes a potentially useful search function, but it has limitations.

For instance, The Religion Guy asked for articles on “Martin Luther” and most of the 149 items involved Martin Luther King Jr. Then a second try for “Martin Luther” plus “Reformation” narrowed that down to 44 items but again many regarded the civil rights leader, not the Reformer.

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