The Dallas Morning News

A refresher course for journalists: What to do when you hear words like 'God,' 'prayer' and 'faith'

A refresher course for journalists: What to do when you hear words like 'God,' 'prayer' and 'faith'

Sunday’s front page of The Dallas Morning News featured side-by-side profiles of the two candidates for mayor of the city of 1.4 million people: Eric Johnson and Scott Griggs.

I was particularly interested in the piece on Johnson since the publication where I work, The Christian Chronicle, reports on Churches of Christ, and he is a longtime member of Churches of Christ.

I was curious to see if the Dallas newspaper — which, as we often lament, has no religion writer — would delve into the faith angle.

This profile, after all, was a “window into his soul” kind of profile aimed at giving voters an idea of what makes Johnson tick. The candidate talked about growing up poor in Dallas, and the reporter interviewed and one of his elementary school teachers as well as childhood friends and a former law professor.

See anybody missing from list of interviewees?

How about a minister or Sunday school teacher or fellow churchgoer?

“Well, maybe his faith didn’t come up in the reporting,” someone might protest.

Actually, that’s not true.

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Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Here’s your periodic reminder that — from “Save Chick-fil-A” legislation to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals — the Dallas Morning News sure could use a religion writer.

When police this week raided Diocese of Dallas offices related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the Texas newspaper — to which I subscribe — put a team of reporters on it and produced two front-page stories (here and here).

The team included a projects/enterprise writer, two police/crime reporters and a city hall writer/columnist. A Godbeat pro on the team? Sadly, the Dallas Morning News doesn’t have one, despite the importance of religion in that Bible Belt city. (There’s another Page 1 report today, again by a public safety reporter.)

Ironically, the paper’s initial coverage included an opinion piece (“Why it's good Dallas police ran out of patience with the Catholic Diocese on sex abuse”) by metro columnist Sharon Grigsby. Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Grigsby founded the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section (now defunct) and oversaw a team of six religion writers and editors.

Those were the days!

Turning from the Big D, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Alabama’s passage of a law banning abortion in almost all cases tops the week’s headlines.

Since my post pointing out the holy ghosts in much of the news coverage, the religion angle has received major treatment from the New York Times (here and here) and showed up in The Associated Press’ headline on the state’s governor signing the anti-abortion bill into law.

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Why lawmakers in Texas are trying to 'Save Chick-fil-A' and gay-rights advocates are fighting it

Why lawmakers in Texas are trying to 'Save Chick-fil-A' and gay-rights advocates are fighting it

A month and a half ago, my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin first delved into the brouhaha over San Antonio’s refusal to allow a Chick-fil-A at its airport.

Guess what?

The controversy hasn’t gone away. In fact, a “Save Chick-fil-A” bill sparked by the Alamo City’s decision gained final approval by the Texas Senate just today.

The Dallas Morning News reports:

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate has approved a bill that would prohibit the government from penalizing individuals and businesses for their charitable giving to or membership in religious groups.

Senate Bill 1978, which supporters call the "Save Chick-fil-A" bill, was passed by a vote of 19-12 on Thursday afternoon after about four hours of debate over two days. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, broke with his party to vote in favor, while Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo split with fellow Republicans to vote against the bill.

The legislation now heads to the Texas House for further debate, just 10 days before lawmakers are scheduled to go home.

Here’s what I’ve noticed about most news coverage of this bill: There’s a lot of coded language. I’m talking about phrases such as “the fast-food chain owners’ record on LGBT issues,” as a brief Associated Press news report characterized it.

Granted, the AP item is just a brief, but it never actually explains what that “record on LGBT issues” might be.

What exactly did Chick-fil-A do that might get it in hot water with gay-rights advocates?

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Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

I’ve highlighted it twice this week — here and here — but I’m still contemplating that big Lilly Endowment Inc. grant for religion reporting.

In case you missed my earlier posts, the $4.9 million Global Religion Journalism Initiative — long a topic of speculation — was confirmed this week.

It’ll fund 13 religion journalist positions at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation and create a partnership resulting in RNS content going to AP subscribers.

The Global Religion project has the potential to be really, really awesome (to borrow one of RNS editor in chief Bob Smietana’s favorite adjectives). But the ultimate verdict will rest in the implementation and what happens beyond the initial, 18-month grant period.

Here’s wishing the involved entities all the best in that process!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

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Three questions for Dallas Morning News re: slanted coverage of traditional wedding venue

Three questions for Dallas Morning News re: slanted coverage of traditional wedding venue

It’s a tough time for the Dallas Morning News. Earlier this month, the Texas newspaper laid off 43 people in its newsroom and other parts of the company, citing declines in revenue. (Strangely, the same paper posted ads later in the month seeking to hire a city hall reporter and an aviation reporter.)

Here at GetReligion, we frequently lament the demise of what was — once upon a time — one of the nation’s premier news organizations for covering religion, with a handful of full-time Godbeat pros and a weekly stand-alone faith section.

I remain a paid subscriber, even though the Dallas Morning News’ skimpy and often uninformed (read: no religion beat specialist) coverage of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s massive faith community repeatedly frustrates me.

The paper’s publisher recently acknowledged the problem:

We've heard from many readers that the role of religion in society deserves more coverage. So we're also launching a new initiative called Faith Forum, articles focusing on how faith informs major decisions in people's lives. A panel of North Texas faith leaders has agreed to advise on topics and contribute articles. The essays will not appear on any particular schedule, but as news warrants.

At the same time, the reference to “essays” gives the impression that the Dallas Morning News thinks it can cover religion with reader-submitted opinion pieces as opposed to news stories produced by actual journalists.

After that long introduction, let me get to the point of this post: Wednesday’s Metro & Business cover (yes, they’re one section after the recent belt-tightening) featured a story with this print headline:

Venue turns away gay couple, cites God’s design for marriage

That sounds like a religion story, right?

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'Born-again' baseball star's arrest on child sexual assault charge raises a journalistic question

'Born-again' baseball star's arrest on child sexual assault charge raises a journalistic question

"This is truly, truly an awful story to report,” tweeted a Dallas Morning News sportswriter involved in the coverage of a child sexual abuse charge against former baseball star John Wetteland.

Actually, it’s beyond awful.

It’s sickening, especially for a diehard Texas Rangers fan like myself who remembers cheering for Wetteland and appreciating his focus on his Christian faith.

According to the Dallas newspaper, the former closer is accused of sexually abusing a young child:

Wetteland, 52, is accused of continuous sexual abuse of a child under the age of 14, according to Denton County jail records. The Trophy Club resident posted $25,000 bond and was released from custody the same day as his arrest.

He had forced a young relative to perform a sex act on him, according to the arrest warrant affidavit, beginning in 2004 when the child was just four years old.

The abuse occurred at Wetteland's home in Bartonville, the affidavit stated. It happened twice more over a two-year period, the victim said.

And sadly, there is a strong and absolutely relevant religion angle as Wetteland — who was the 1996 World Series MVP while pitching for the New York Yankees — is well-known for touting his Christian beliefs.

“Wetteland Is Just a Closer Who Walks With the Lord,” declared a 1995 New York Times sports column.

That column opened this way:

John Wetteland is drinking coffee from a large mug with the words "Jesus Lives" emblazoned across it in big, black letters. He grins and nods when someone comments on the mug. His Bible is resting on a shelf in his locker and he has a personal computer at his disposal so he can retrieve morning devotionals from an on-line program and pray before the Yankees begin another day of baseball.

"I honestly try and walk with Jesus Christ every day," he said, describing his most important relationship, more important than his relationship with his wife.

Obviously, the facts of the criminal case are the most important element of the news reports on Wetteland’s arrest.

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Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

At one time, the Rev. Jimmy Allen was a major figure in Southern Baptist circles.

In 2004, when I did a package on the 25th anniversary of that denomination’s conservative takeover — or “take back,” depending on one’s perspective — I interviewed Allen.

In fact, my main story on that anniversary opened with Allen:

HOUSTON — Back in 1979, the Rev. Jimmy Allen thought the highlight of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting would be a giant rally at the Astrodome featuring the Rev. Billy Graham.

Instead, Allen and other moderate leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination were caught by surprise as conservatives who had attacked the denomination’s seminaries as “hotbeds of liberalism” flocked to the meeting.

There, they succeeded in electing a denominational president, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Tennessee, who shared their view of biblical inerrancy – meaning that the Bible is without error in any way, including historical details.

Some thought the vote was just a momentary change in direction, but Rogers’ election turned out be a watershed moment for the denomination. 

Last week, Allen died at age 91 — and the world of Baptist media took notice.

The mainstream press? Not so much. More on that in a moment.

This was the lede from Bob Allen of Baptist News Global:

Jimmy R. Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director emeritus of the New Baptist Covenant, died early Jan. 8 at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Georgia.

His pastor, Tony Lankford of First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, said the 91-year-old had been in failing health. …

Named in 1999 one of the most influential Baptists of the 20th century, Allen served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978 and 1979, the two years before conservatives took over control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in a move they called the “conservative resurgence.”

In 1990 he presided over the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, forerunner to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2008 he agreed to become program chair and coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant, a pan-Baptist gathering promoting racial unity spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter.

In 1995 Allen wrote the book Burden of a Secret, a personal account of his family’s battle with AIDS.

David Roach of the SBC’s official Baptist Press wrote this:

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Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs: So 'God-given' talent and 'faith' drive Amari Cooper?

Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs: So 'God-given' talent and 'faith' drive Amari Cooper?

Yes, America’s Team won a playoff game over the weekend.

No, that hasn’t happened a lot over the past two decades.

Want a religion angle on the victorious Dallas Cowboys? Look no farther than Amari Cooper, the Cowboys wide receiver obtained in a crucial midseason trade. But be warned of holy ghosts. More on that in a moment.

In advance of Saturday night’s wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks (which Dallas won, 24-22), the Dallas Morning News published a lengthy front-page profile of Cooper.

In a lot of ways, it’s a really compelling profile. Various folks on Twitter described the story as “great,” “deep” and filled with “awesome details.”

The superb opening:

FRISCO -- Amari Cooper hit up a local suit store recently to shop for game day. Cowboys players are required to dress up, and their arrival at the stadium is treated like a virtual fashion show on social media.

The salesperson kept bringing him pairs of shoes to go with the looks. "No," Cooper kept saying, "no." His childhood friend who was visiting spied one pair and started laughing, Cooper recounted.

They looked like Cooper's old "church shoes."

Growing up in the west Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, Cooper was the youngest of five, and he owned only one pair of shoes at a time. He wore them for church, but also for school, for everyday, for playing football.

"They were my everything shoes," the wide receiver who changed the course of the Cowboys' season said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News. And, as he explained it, the shoes "talked," meaning the sole separated from the rest of the shoe and flapped.

"My mother, she used to buy super glue to glue the part back on," Cooper said. "But I was playing football ... so I would shake and run. They would always come back loose and the glue would be showing.

"It's kind of funny now. But all my friends remember that."

That early reference to church offers a clue that explaining what makes Cooper tick might include exploring his Christian faith.

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A stunning police raid on Catholic offices in Houston: Is this a major TEXAS story?

A stunning police raid on Catholic offices in Houston: Is this a major TEXAS story?

In terms of global, national, regional and local importance, the massive police raid of Catholic headquarters in Houston is clearly the big religion-news story of the day.

The question for me: How important is this story in terms of TEXAS news?

Hold that thought. First, here is the headline in The New York Times: “Investigators Raid Offices of President of U.S. Catholic Bishops.”

This is a solid and disturbing report, with some factual language in places where journalists often offer vague details. Here is the Times overture by veteran religion-beat scribe Laurie Goldstein:

Dozens of local and federal law enforcement officers conducted a surprise search of the offices of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston on Wednesday, looking for evidence in a clergy sexual abuse case that has ensnared the local archbishop, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, who also serves as president of the United States Catholic bishops’ conference.

The raid in Houston is the latest sign of crisis in the church, with prosecutors growing more aggressive in their search for cover-ups of abuse, and the bishops — led by Cardinal DiNardo — hamstrung by the Vatican in their efforts to carry out reforms.

The church is under a barrage of investigations around the country. Attorneys general in at least a dozen states have opened inquiries, and the Justice Department has told bishops not to destroy any documents that could relate to sex abuse cases. Last month, the attorney general in Michigan executed search warrants on all seven Catholic dioceses in that state.

The scene outside the archdiocesan offices in Houston on Wednesday morning was extraordinary, with police cars lined up on the street and about 50 uniformed officers headed inside, some carrying boxes to hold evidence.

So what is the issue here? Let’s talk about Texas.

To be blunt: When I started writing this post, I did a simple search of The Houston Chronicle website for this word “DiNardo.” The results were a bit surprising, since I couldn’t find anything about this raid at the top of the initial search list.

My bad: Apparently something in the algorithms at this website placed this story way down the list when ranking news in terms of importance. When I clicked to search by date, there was a substantial report on the raid.

Let me confess that, for an old religion-beat guy like myself, The Houston Chronicle isn’t just another newspaper.

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