Orlando Sentinel

Florida conservatives fighting the death penalty? More balance and context would help that narrative

Florida conservatives fighting the death penalty? More balance and context would help that narrative

As a state reporter for The Oklahoman, I witnessed four executions in Oklahoma. Later, while working for The Associated Press, I interviewed a Tennessee mass murderer behind bars and was on the witness list for his scheduled execution. However, it got called off at the last minute. 

Over the last year, I've written freelances pieces on capital punishment for Agence France-Presse and Religion News Service.

Given my experience with the subject, I'm definitely drawn to news reports on the death penalty. A headline that caught my attention today: 

New conservative group wants death penalty repealed

The story is in the Orlando Sentinel and relates to a Florida group that has formed:

A group of Florida conservatives is joining a national organization in the fight to abolish the death penalty, saying it is too “costly, cumbersome and error-prone” and violates conservative values, such as the sanctity of life.
Florida Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Wednesday other punishments such as life in prison are more fiscally responsible. Studies have shown the death penalty, with its years of appeals, is more costly.
“The death penalty is one of the most expensive boondoggles that has ever been forced upon the taxpayers,” said Republican James Purdy, public defender of the 7th Judicial Court, which includes Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties.
The group announced its formation outside the Orange County Courthouse, the same spot where Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, a Democrat, said earlier this year she wouldn’t be seeking the death penalty during her term, laying out many of the same arguments her conservative counterparts did.
Ayala’s decision sparked outrage in conservative circles and caused Republican Gov. Rick Scott to strip her of more than 20 death penalty cases.

OK, how many references to "conservative" or "conservatives" did you count in those first five paragraphs? I believe "five" is the right answer. But still, I have no idea whether we're talking about fiscal conservatives or social conservatives or some combination.

Keep reading, and the story remains rather vague. Specifically, who are these anti-death-penalty conservatives? What exact issues characterize them as, you know, conservatives?

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Mosque burning: Orlando Sentinel writes a sensitive follow-up, with some flaws

Mosque burning: Orlando Sentinel writes a sensitive follow-up, with some flaws

Shunning clichés. Following up a tragedy. Getting the human angle. The Orlando Sentinel's story on the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, which was set on fire the previous weekend, has several strengths. And a few flaws.

The sensitive piece shuns the clichés that infect many such follow-ups on terrorism. The people talk like people, not talking-head spokespersons. It's also honest about the terrorist acts that allow some people to think they have a right to lash out at all Muslims.

On the other hand, the paper talks about supportive neighbors without talking to them. And I raised an eyebrow when I realized the lede came from a Friday service before the fire:

FORT PIERCE -- As ceiling fans churned muggy August air through the mosque where Pulse shooter Omar Mateen once touched his forehead to the carpet in prayer, assistant imam Adel Nefzi preached that a sincere follower of God harms none.
He thundered that no man should fear the hand or tongue of a true Muslim.
It had been two months since Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub and opened fire on a roomful of dancers, killing 49. And before the prayer service began and worshippers were still trickling into the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Nefzi pondered the weighty task ahead of him.
"It's a heavy responsibility to speak about religion," said Nefzi, 53. "You are always afraid that people, they did not understand the right message."

It's much later that the Sentinel divulges the service took place last month -- after Mateen attacked the Pulse nightclub in June, but before the fire on the 15th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

To me, it looks like the writer simply wrote from unused notes, then updated the story. 

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Why a wounded Orlando survivor begged God to 'take the soul out of my body'

Why a wounded Orlando survivor begged God to 'take the soul out of my body'


So, so powerful.

That's the only way to characterize Orlando survivor Patience Carter's description of the hell that she endured at the Pulse nightclub early Sunday.

In a front-page story today, the Los Angeles Times puts readers in the middle of the heartbreaking scene.

The lede from the Times:

ORLANDO, Fla. — As Patience Carter and two friends cowered inside the handicapped bathroom stall, injured and pinned by a crush of bleeding bodies, the gunman who opened fire in the Pulse nightclub kept talking.
“He said, ‘Are there any black people in here?’ I was too afraid to answer,” said Carter, who is African American.
Carter continued: “There was an African American man in the stall with us... he said, ‘Yes, there are about six or seven of us.’ The gunman responded back to him saying that, ‘You know, I don’t have a problem with black people, this is about my country. You guys suffered enough.’”
Carter, a slight 20-year-old NYU student from Philadelphia, had just arrived in Orlando, Fla., for her first night of vacation.
On Tuesday she and others who sought refuge in the side-by-side men’s and women’s restrooms during Sunday’s attack recounted how the gunman barked orders, claimed to have accomplices and laughed during the attack, which took 49 lives.
They also described how those trapped in the restrooms played dead, reached out to police by phone and tried to arrange their escape.

The Associated Press, CBS News and the local Orlando Sentinel are among other news organizations sharing Carter's story.

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Orlando shooting: Florida media scrambling to decide what it was about

Orlando shooting: Florida media scrambling to decide what it was about

Was it Islamic terrorism? Just regular terrorism? A hate crime? A wake-up call for gay rights and gun control?

Like a dropped glass, the Orlando shooting has already shattered into many stories, less than 48 hours after the event.  Activists for various causes have filled in a few details of the tragedy into scripts that seem otherwise pre-written. And many news media have been helping them.

The coverage has been overwhelming -- local and national alike -- and the cash-strapped newspapers have often borrowed from national news outlets. But here's what jumped out during my look at Florida media.

The Orlando Sentinel has done outstanding -- though not flawless -- coverage, with multiple updates. By 1:02 p.m. Sunday, it had produced an impressive profile of Omar Mateen, named by police as the man who stormed the Pulse nightclub and killed 49 people. Building partly on work by the Washington Post, the profile includes:

Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, the 29-year-old gunman accused of killing dozens of people in Orlando on Sunday, was a security guard, the divorced father of a 3-year-old and, in school, someone who acted "dorky."
He also was an extremist whose outspoken interest in terrorism twice put him on the FBI’s radar screen.
On Sunday morning, he became something far larger: a lone gunman who authorities say was responsible for the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
He called 911 from outside a gay nightclub just south of downtown Orlando, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, authorities said, then began his assault.

For comparison, check out the Tampa Bay Times' version, which came out at 12:13 p.m. today.

The Sentinel also reveals that Mateen grew up in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and bought two guns legally; worked for a security firm; been investigated by the FBI at least twice since 2013; made reference to the Tsarnaev brothers, the brothers who bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon; and was married for two years to a woman who left because of his abusiveness. All of those elements have become part of the standard narrative in other media.

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Who really helps the needy? Pew study shows us, and so does the Orlando Sentinel

Who really helps the needy? Pew study shows us, and so does the Orlando Sentinel

Religious people donate and volunteer more than their nonreligious neighbors. This has been established for years (yes, I'll show that in a moment), but professionals in the mainstream media don’t often pick up on it.

So it's a pleasure to read a news feature in The Orlando Sentinel -- which not only reports a new Pew Research Center study on the fact, but takes the reporting down to the level of real people and groups in its own circulation area.

Starting with a minister who pastors a church and serves dinner at a rescue mission, the article broadens into a trend story:

Echoing a new Pew Research Center study that found religious people are more apt to volunteer and make charitable donations than others, the Rescue Mission and other Central Florida charities say the faith community provides critical support in providing food, shelter and clothing for the needy.
In survey results released last month, 45 percent of highly religious people — those who said they pray daily and attend weekly services – reported they had volunteered in the past week. By comparison, only 28 percent of others indicated they'd volunteered over that time frame.
Sixty-five percent of the highly religious individuals said they had donated money, time or goods to the poor in the past week, compared with 41 percent of people who were defined as being less religious.

You could use the story in a journalism clinic on showing how national studies shed light on local trends.

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For failed LGBT bill, Florida media serve as unabashed cheerleaders

For failed LGBT bill, Florida media serve as unabashed cheerleaders

Ohhhh, they were so close, but the score was tied and the clock ran out.

No, this ain't football; it's about coverage of a gay-rights addition to nondiscrimination laws in Florida. LGBT forces and their allies in Tallahassee have been trying for years, and this week it got as far as a state committee. Then it died in a 5-5 deadlock vote.

Oh well, there's always next season. And cheering them on again will likely be mainstream media -- as they did this week.

Check out this pom-pom shaking by the Associated Press:

The fact that the bill (SB 120) was even heard was a big step for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates.
“What we’ve seen here is a debate that hasn’t been seen up to this point. This is a positive first step. We have Republicans who are coming and fighting for this issue,” said Patrick Slevin, campaign manager for a coalition of businesses pushing for the anti-discrimination law.
Although there are signs that some Republican attitudes are changing on gay rights - two Republicans voted for the bill in the Judiciary Committee and Republican Rep. Holly Raschein is sponsoring the House version of the bill (HB 45) along with nine GOP co-sponsors - it took only five Republicans to stop it from advancing.

The bill would have added LGBT people to those protected under the state's 1992 Civil Rights act, applying to housing, employment and other "public accommodations." What many people feared was the possibility of men entering women's restrooms and locker rooms on the pretext that they were transgender.

At least, that's what the news stories say the people feared. Of the four articles I saw last night, none of them quote any bill opponents. Nearly all of the sources are from bill sponsors. And none are religious leaders, although one article jabs an accusing finger their way.

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Bacon at a mosque: media don’t get to the meat of a Florida vandalism case

Bacon at a mosque: media don’t get to the meat of a Florida vandalism case

Which is worse -- a machete or slabs of bacon? No, that's not one of those riddles you'd hear in, say, philosophy class or late at night in a bar. It's a question posed in stories about vandalism of a Florida mosque.

Someone took a machete to the Masjid al-Mumin building in Titusville, near the Kennedy Space Center. The vandal used the weapon to hack at lights, windows and security cameras, then scattered raw bacon around the front door. Some cameras still worked, though: Police arrested one Michael Wolfe from surveillance images.

It's just one of a rash of vandalism against mosques around the U.S. since recent jihadi attacks like the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino. The interesting thing about the Florida incident is what the stories chose to lead with -- and whether they grasped the effect of the crime.

Among the more sensationalistic was the Religion News Service, which ran a USA Today story and headlined it "Man accused of swinging machete through Florida mosque." The original headline was a milder "Man accused of vandalizing mosque, leaving bacon." But both versions don't neglect the blade, saying Wolfe "is accused of slashing his way through the mosque, shattering lights, windows and cameras with a machete."

An official from the Council on American-Islamic Relations ties the two offenses together:

"People are afraid to take their children back to the mosque ... a machete was used," said Rasha Mubarak, the advocacy group's Orlando regional coordinator.  "They know we don't consume pork. This is something that those who are Islamaphobic tend to bring up or use."

A gold star to the story for adding this background: "Eating pork — including bacon and ham — is prohibited in the Quran. The Bible's Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy also forbid it." Pretty impressive for a secular newspaper.

The article borrows heavily, of course, from coverage in Florida Today, its affiliate in east-Central Florida. That newspaper quotes Muhammad Musri, who oversees 10 mosques in the area and, it says, has often done interfaith work:

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In 'Muslim Free Zone' story, not all the news media folks went gunning for the facts

In 'Muslim Free Zone' story, not all the news media folks went gunning for the facts

Like the clichéd pig in a python, the saga of the anti-Muslim gun store in Florida has inched through media accounts for more than three months. Now that a judge has ruled in favor of the store owner, let's see who has processed the story best -- and who developed indigestion.

In July, Andy Hallinan declared a "Muslim Free Zone" at his Florida Gun Supply in Inverness, Fla., vowing to sell his wares only to "fellow patriots" who would use the weapons for good -- "like keeping peace, not blowing people up," he says in a video.

That drew a lawsuit by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which accused Hallinan of discrimination on the basis of religion. But a federal district judge in Fort Lauderdale threw out the lawsuit. As the Orlando Sentinel reported yesterday:

CAIR said in the complaint that Florida Gun Supply was depriving Muslims of their civil rights by barring them from the store. CAIR's goal in the filing the complaint was to get a judge to enact an injunction to prevent Florida Gun Supply from discriminating based on religion.
U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom wrote in her ruling last week that CAIR failed to demonstrate that its members had actually been harmed by the "Muslim free" policy because none of its members had been denied access to Florida Gun Supply or its services.

But most of the five articles I read raise questions -- including religious ones -- that they don’t answer. They also lift heavily from one another (though with credit).  The Sentinel itself borrows from a Washington Post report the previous day -- a story nearly three times as long, although Orlando is only about an hour east-southeast of Inverness.

WaPo is more meticulous, reporting that CAIR's suit cited Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The story also quotes Hassan Shibly, director of CAIR Florida, saying the gun store's stance is "not only illegal, it is bad for our country and makes us less safe and less free."

How bad? The Post has that covered too, quoting a Hallinan video:

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Religious shield bill: Orlando Sentinel produces (gasp) fair coverage

Religious shield bill: Orlando Sentinel produces (gasp) fair coverage

Whoaaa, looky here: an article on gay marriage that affects ministers that actually quotes ministers.

Let's hear it for the Orlando Sentinel!

Too often in stories about same-sex marriage, as I noted here and here, we get the views of legislators, law professors, think tankers and, of course, gay leaders -- not pastors. Perhaps because the Sentinel is in Central Florida, a big area for evangelical Protestants, reporter Gary Rohrer was more aware that pastors would have something to say.

The story deals with a bill in the state House meant to shield churches who don’t want to be forced to perform same-sex marriages. With six quoted sources in a 600-word piece -- three of them congregational pastors -- the Sentinel strikes an impressive balance.

Not a perfect balance, mind you. Especially with the first three paragraphs:

TALLAHASSEE — Legislation designed to shield religious leaders from being targeted for refusing to perform same-sex marriages won a House panel's approval Wednesday, but only after clergy members spoke vehemently for and against the bill.
Opponents of the bill say it's unnecessary since the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedom, with some going so far as to say it smacks of anti-gay discrimination.
"I'm really concerned about the overt premise of this bill ... which seems to be that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people are to be feared," said the Rev. Brant Copeland of the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee. "I find that premise very disturbing and inaccurate."

But it later catches up …

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