Journalism

Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Spending two weeks in France earlier this summer was a wonderful experience. While I was there to cover the Women’s World Cup, I did get an opportunity to travel extensively throughout Paris and the northern part of the country.

During my travels, I walked into a lot of churches. France is one of the few countries I have ever visited where churches were always open. There was something comforting seeing churches with their doors swung wide, inviting anyone to walk right in.

The other thing I noticed was how empty these houses of worship were. It’s not surprising given that church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world.

I’m used to New York City, where churches are often locked when Mass isn’t going on. The reasons are plentiful. Theft, vandalism and other factors often goes into why this has become a practice. You’d think they would have heeded the warning in France, where the vandalism of Catholic churches has become an all-too-common occurrence the past two years.

This trend has largely been ignored in the mainstream press (we discussed this extensively at GetReligion at the time of the Notre Dame blaze and again in the aftermath). It should be noted, once again, that the fire at Notre Dame was an accident and not part of the spate of attacks.  

This takes us to a great piece of journalism by Real Clear Investigations, the same people who run Real Clear Politics (full disclosure: I have written for Real Clear Sports in the past). A recent piece posted to the site takes a deep dive into the trend, quantifying it with anecdotes, lots of data and interviews with people in the know. The reporting sheds a spotlight on the string of attacks and what it has done to France. It may be one of the best reported pieces on what’s been going on there by any news organization to date.

What Richard Bernstein has been able to do here is the kind of reporting that we no longer see. A former foreign correspondent at The New York Times, Bernstein worked as the paper’s Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987. His knowledge of the country, the history and factors that may have influenced the events of the past year shows through his reporting. These two paragraphs early on, for example, illustrate the magnitude of the problem — with help from data collected by various French authorities:

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How to keep 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick in the news? Educate readers and keep Vigano talking

How to keep 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick in the news? Educate readers and keep Vigano talking

Not long after I broke into the journalism business over 20 years ago did my mother ask me a very interesting question: “Where do you get all that news that ends up in the newspaper?”

It was a question any news consumer should ask. I gave a simple — although in hindsight — a somewhat unhelpful answer.

“It’s complicated,” I replied.

I went on to explain how reporters use interviews, documents, press releases and news conferences to put together the news.

It really isn’t that complicated. Journalists have made it a practice for years to make their jobs sound like (me included) as if they were doing brain surgery. As one editor would always tell me when things got hard at work: “We’re not saving lives here.”

Maybe not, but being a reporter is a massive responsibility. Never has the process of journalism — and what it is that reporters and editors actually do — come under the microscope as it has the past few years. I suppose that’s a result of Donald Trump getting elected president and the allegation that fake news helped him get elected.

Whether it did or not, that’s not the point. What is the point is that citizens — the people we reporters call “readers” — have become more aware of the process. At least they want transparency from news organizations when it comes to how and why we report on stories.

This takes me to my point. As we near the one-year anniversary of the revelations that exposed the past misdeeds of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the story doesn’t look like it is subsiding anytime soon. In a recent post, I highlighted the importance of the papal news conference and how American media outlets were potentially being manipulated by the Vatican press office. Also, tmatt offered this post on a related topic: “Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?”

Like with everything in life (and journalism), it’s complicated.

Longtime Vatican observer John Allen wrote a column for Crux on how those papal news conferences that take place among the seats of aboard the plane taking Pope Francis back to Rome aren’t what they used to be. The piece ruffled some feathers among the Vatican press corps, even triggering a rebuttal piece from Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter. This is how he opened that column:

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'Outrage' is in the eye of the reporter: Why journalists keep ignoring anti-Catholic comedy

'Outrage' is in the eye of the reporter: Why journalists keep ignoring anti-Catholic comedy

At a time when humor is struggling with political correctness and fallout from the #MeToo movement, there’s little material for late-night hosts and stand-up comedians to work with. Of course, there’s President Donald Trump. He’s fair game given his title, ability to dominate news cycles and for his tweets.  

The other people you’re also allowed to pick on (at least from the material you see on TV) are Christians across all denominations.

Vice President Mike Pence’s perceived wholesomeness, for example, is fair game on Saturday Night Live. If he’s an evangelical (he was born and raised a Roman Catholic), then he must be a prude or a square. For example, of the 80 jokes targeting Pence on the late-night talk shows in 2017 alone, USA Today reported that “most were about his alleged dull personality, prudishness and homophobia.” The article cited a database compiled by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

Yes, there are real academics who are actually studying this stuff.

The other group that’s fair game are Roman Catholics — period. Jokes aimed at the clergy are so common that there’s barely a ripple of outrage in the mainstream press about this subject. Jokes about others (should a stand-up comedian venture to mock gays or other religions such as Islam) would illicit waves of news coverage about how “Twitter exploded” over the issue.

Comedy can be tough. It’s supposed to be, at times, provocative. What is problematic is how pros in the mainstream press react, or fails to react, to these statements. Censoring comedians isn’t the solution, but it is important to note when the press is “outraged” and when it isn’t.

“Twitter exploded” is the key phrase here.

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If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

Is it a news story if a church is set on fire or vandalized in some other way? What about if it’s part of a string of incidents? What if it happens five times? How about 10 times?

What if there are flames pouring out of one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals and it’s Monday of Holy Week?

We will come back to the flames over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a moment.

The answers to the earlier questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and, of course, yes! As someone who worked as a news reporter (and later a editor) at two major metropolitan dailies (at the New York Post and New York Daily News) and a major news network website (ABC News), I can tell you that any suspicion of arson at a house of worship, for example, is a major story.

It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.

That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.

This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.

It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.

There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.

But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage.

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Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

If we have learned anything from the clergy sex-abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic church last year — and continue to do so in the form of new revelations — was how important the religious press (especially the voices on the more conservative end of the spectrum) have tried to point out the failings of Pope Francis.

Not to be outdone, the prevailing Catholic press on the doctrinal left continues to exert a lot of influence in church politics. In other words, publications on the left are still required reading not just for Catholics, but anyone who writes about the church for mainstream news outlets.

Take the National Catholic Reporter.

Founded in 1964 (just five years after the Second Vatican Council dramatically changed the church), its aim was to bring the professional standards of secular news reporting to the press that covers Catholic news and issues. That’s all commendable — until one looks at the consistently progressive positions the bi-weekly newspaper (and its website) has espoused at a time when the church is increasingly split between liberals and conservatives.

But here is the twist. In the wake of the crises, people of faith have to deal with why they continue to identify as Catholic and what that means to them. For the first time in modern history, the pontiff’s progressive nature matches what the NCR has championed for years.

If the Catholic voices on the conservative spectrum are getting greater attention at this time, it is also worth noting that several journalistic pillars of the religious left continue to set the agenda for millions of Catholics. That includes clergy and priests as well as the laity and, by extension, politicians.

NCR has won journalistic accolades from the Catholic Press Association (of which I am a proud member) and remains one of the most important voices out there. It isn’t afraid to take on church doctrine and traditional beliefs, becoming a lightening rod for those on the right. For example, the bi-weekly newspaper’s position, in a 2014 editorial, said climate change is the most-important pro-life issue facing society. The paper is anti-Donald Trump and not shy about pointing the finger at St. Pope John Paul II’s inaction when faced with past clergy sex-abuse allegations.

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Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Props are due to the Kansas City Star for noticing that some churches in its area are attracting, and not, apparently, repelling, the young cohort of worshipers that could be grouped under the banner of "millennial."

Indeed, the message is up front in the story's headline: "Bucking a trend, these churches figured out how to bring millennials back to worship."

Once a reader gets past a nice setup anecdote about one of the newly booming congregations, we get these salient points:

In 2015, a wide-ranging Pew Research Center study concluded that America was becoming less religious due in part to millennials distancing themselves from organized religion. Only 27 percent of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, the study found, regularly attend weekly services.
As a result, some area churches and synagogues have created special programs that cater to younger members.
But a handful, most notably, perhaps, City of Truth on the East Side and The Cause on the West Plaza, now cater almost exclusively to millennials.

This is a solid, well-reported story in which I can find few flaws to note. The Star is to be congratulated for this kind of coverage. Hence, you won't find any "big" journalism problems highlighted in this blog post.

So why write this post? As tmatt would say, "Hold that thought."

As readers find out from the story, City of Truth serves a largely African-American congregation, while The Cause's members are mostly white. The services times on Sundays may differ, but they apparently remain one of the most segregated hours in America, as the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed.

Such changes did not come without a price for City of Truth, as the story explains:

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Does no one in the Church of England dare oppose top cleric? Britain's Independent suggests so

Does no one in the Church of England dare oppose top cleric? Britain's Independent suggests so

The Church of England and its leader, the Rt. Hon. and Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I've observed close up, command a sizeable presence in the global Christian world. Welby is front and center in a new controversy, guidelines for Church of England schools on how to treat transgender children.

But if one recent news story is to be taken at face value, no one in the Church of England could be found to go on record as disagreeing with some of these new pronouncements.

The journalism question is: How far did the newspaper in question go -- or, perhaps, NOT go -- to find an opposing voice.

Atop a large photo of Welby, we see how The Independent headlined the story: "Church of England tells schools to let children 'explore gender identity.'" Let's dive in:

Children should be able to try out “the many cloaks of identity” without being labelled or bullied, the Church of England has said in new advice issued to its 5,000 schools.
The Church said youngsters should be free to “explore the possibilities of who they might be” -- including gender identity -- and says that Christian teaching should not be used to make children feel ashamed of who they are. ...
Guidance for Church of England schools on homophobic bullying was first published three years ago, and has now being updated to cover "transphobic and biphobic bullying" – which means bullying people who consider themselves to be either transgender or gender fluid.

However, as we'll see in a moment, there are Christians in England, and, presumably, elsewhere, who might disagree with Welby's endorsement, as reported. He condemned bullying, but then went further:

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Guardian story on British baker's Nativity calendar gets a rise with political angle

Guardian story on British baker's Nativity calendar gets a rise with political angle

There's no business like dough business: Greggs, a British bakery chain similar to America's Panera or Au Bon Pain, is rebounding after years of losses, according to the Marketing Week video above.

Until this week, perhaps when the chain unveiled its 2017 Advent season calendar illustrated with Christmas-related scenes and die-cut "windows" where special offers and coupons appear. One of the windows offers gift cards ranging in value from £5 to £25, the latter more than covering the £24 cost of the calendar.

So what's the news here?

What caused things to bubble over was the depiction of three Magi kneeling around a manger. But instead of the infant Jesus, veneration was being given to a Greggs sausage roll, of which an estimated two million are sold in Britain each week. And not just any sausage roll, but one with a bite taken out of it.

So what did The Guardian, that left-leaning 197-year-old British daily lead off with?

Politics, of course: "Rightwing group calls for Greggs boycott over sausage roll nativity," is the headline. Here's a taste of the story:

The bakery chain Greggs has apologised for offending Christians with a nativity scene advert that replaces Jesus with a sausage roll. 
The chief executive of the Freedom Association, a rightwing pressure group, claimed the advert was “sick” and that the retailer would “never dare” insult other religions.
The UK Evangelical Alliance strongly criticised the baker, saying it was a gimmick that seemed to be about “manufacturing a scandal to sell baked goods”.

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Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

The New York Times's approach to religion reporting is often a paradox: When covering controversial moral issues, its national reporters will often drink from the well of "Kellerism." That's the GetReligion term created in honor of the paper's former executive editor, Bill Keller, who decreed there are subjects on which there's only one side of the argument worth covering, such abortion and gay rights.

On the other hand, the paper's metro reporters will just as often surprise, as in its sensitive discussion of the KKK-linked founder of an evangelical congregation in New Jersey. There, we learned the Pillar of Fire church of 2017 bore little imprint from the founder who praised the Ku Klux Klan, presented in a way that made the church look good.

Now we come to the Orthodox Jewish faith of Malkah and David Spitalny, who in 2012 resided in a second-floor apartment in the Sea Gate neighborhood of Brooklyn. When Hurricane Sandy hit, their apartment was flooded, their parrot drowned and the couple had to remain there for years afterward due to economic issues.

The paper is gracious in its treatment of the couple, because it turns out The Times has an ulterior motive, albeit a noble one. The headline is sympathetic: "Faith Moors 2 Victims of Hurricane Sandy in Life’s Storms," as is the story:

The violent wind. The relentless rain. The raging sea.
For Malkah Spitalny, the passage of time has done little to dull her vivid memories of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast five years ago this weekend. She and her husband rode out the storm less than 500 feet from the ocean.
“It will never pass, this experience of physically going through it,” Mrs. Spitalny, 65, said this month. “The force was unimaginable. The thunders, the fires -- it was beyond comprehension.”

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