The Los Angeles Times

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Before we consider news coverage of Alabama lawmakers’ vote to ban abortion in almost all cases, it might help to be reminded of two simple but key facts:

1. Religious beliefs and the importance — or not — of religion in one’s life play a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion, as illustrated by these charts from the Pew Research Center.

More from Pew:

About six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%).

Catholics are somewhat more divided; 51% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42% say it should be illegal.

2. Ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.

I kept those facts in mind as I reviewed various major news organizations’ reporting from Alabama, a state where The Associated Press pointed out a few years ago, “You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop.”

I wondered: Would God show up in any of the stories? And, how fair — to both sides — would the coverage be?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Los Angeles, San Diego newspaper staffs combine forces to cover Poway synagogue shooting

Los Angeles, San Diego newspaper staffs combine forces to cover Poway synagogue shooting

Another weekend, another religious worship shooting. Last week, it was suicide bombers killing 290 people celebrating Easter at church or eating breakfast at swank hotels in Sri Lanka; this weekend, it was one dead and three wounded at a San Diego-area synagogue that was observing the last day of Passover.

This latest attack in Poway, Calif., was obviously the major religion story this weekend. Houses of worship have become quite the fashion as killing fields these days and no group: Jews, Christians or Muslims, are immune.

The San Diego Union-Tribune had 13 stories about the shooting, including this haunting piece about the one fatality; a 60-year-old woman who stepped in front of the rabbi and literally took the bullet for him. What was she thinking when she did that? Unfortunately, a paywall would only let me read one piece.

The Los Angeles Times has covered mass shootings before and one of the reporters who covered the 2016 San Bernardino shootings covered this one, too. What both newspapers have in common is they lack a staff religion reporter, which would be of great help here, especially in noting important details like how this group of Jews does not believe in using electronics, such as smart phones, during the Sabbath.

That is why no one caught video of the shootings and why members of the synagogue would not have been spreading details by phone until Sabbath ended that evening.

But the Times made the wise decision to nab Jaweed Kaleem, formerly the senior religion reporter at the Huffington Post who now covers race issues for the Times, to lend his expertise. First, though, was the initial report out Saturday afternoon.

A gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle walked into a suburban San Diego County synagogue and opened fire on the congregation Saturday, killing one person and injuring three in an attack that authorities believe was motivated by hate.

The gunman entered Chabad of Poway in the 16000 block of Chabad Way about 11:20 a.m. and started firing, authorities said. The 19-year-old suspect, identified as John T. Earnest, of Rancho Penasquitos, was arrested a short time later.

Earnest appears to have written a letter posted on the internet filled with anti-Semitic vitriol. The letter talks about planning for the attack.

“Four weeks ago, I decided I was doing this. Four weeks later, I did it.”

A more complete version, with nine reporters contributing from both the Times and the Union-Tribune, ran Sunday.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

While other media observe Columbine's 20th anniversary, the Los Angeles Times goes for the God angle

Over the weekend, there were some haunting stories about the 20th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School just outside of Denver. I remember our newsroom in Washington, D.C. scrambling to put together a story from more than 1,200 miles away.

Fortunately, we had a staff writer, Valerie Richardson, who lived not far away from the school and rushed over there as fast as she could as she knew this was historic and there’d never been such a mass shooting at a school before.

Sadly, much has changed since then and school shootings have become part of the American landscape. I wish to spotlight two stories; one of which gives a well-deserved place to religious faith and the other that ignored it.

The first story, from the Los Angeles Times, was about the pastors who were tasked with having to comfort the afflicted families and deliver sermons at the funerals of their children.

They were the men of faith faced with a seemingly impossible task — providing comfort, hope, maybe understanding — after 12 students and a teacher were shot to death at Columbine High School.

Bill Oudemolen presided over the funeral for 16-year-old John Tomlin days after the mass shooting. The pastor told the large crowd at Foothills Bible Church that he just didn’t want to accept what had happened.

“He was killed simply because he went to school Tuesday morning,” Oudemolen told the crowd in Littleton, Colo. “Schools are supposed to be safe zones, not killing fields.” …

These men had the impossible tax of explaining how God could let this happen.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Did the reporter ask? Rape survivor profiled by Los Angeles Times had a God story to tell

Did the reporter ask? Rape survivor profiled by Los Angeles Times had a God story to tell

It’s a compelling story; an Oregon woman who was gang-raped by Oregon State football players 20 years ago and has made it her life mission to stop sexual violence, especially by members of sports teams.

Ever since the Oregonian first reported Brenda Tracy’s story four years ago, she’s founded a non-profit: Set the Expectation, conducted a crusade for victim protection laws and worked to extend statutes of limitations for rape.

How is she managing to do this? Where is she getting the strength to carry on? And, yes, is there a religion angle here? Let’s look.

The Los Angeles Times caught up with her recently as she spoke at Sacramento State University and ran a Column One story about her on Thursday. It says in part:

Tracy has no memorized speech, no notes or litany of statistics about sexual violence in America. She hits her audience with something different: sheer honesty, a graphic and unflinching description of that night.

“The next time I came into consciousness, one of the men was cradling me in his arm and he was pouring a bottle of hard alcohol down my throat and I was choking and gagging on it,” she says. “And I passed out again.” …

Tracy estimates she was conscious for only a small fraction of an ordeal that lasted six hours. Her fragmented memories include pleading with the men at some point, telling them she felt nauseated.

“So one of them picked me up kind of like a rag doll and carried me to the bathroom,” she says. “He laid me over the counter and he shoved my head into the bathroom sink and, as I was vomiting on myself in the sink, he was raping me from behind.”

The next morning, she woke on the floor, still naked, with food crumbs and bits of potato chips pressed into her skin. Gum was stuck in her hair.

“I mostly just remember, in that moment, feeling like a piece of trash. I was a piece of trash they had forgotten on the living-room floor,” she says. “I didn’t even feel like a human.”

Later, there is this:

Oregon State conducted a separate investigation, but when the next season came around, the two football players inside the apartment received suspensions of only one game each.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Was there a big Catholic ghost in 'The Exorcist'? Don't ask the Los Angeles Times about that

Was there a big Catholic ghost in 'The Exorcist'? Don't ask the Los Angeles Times about that

It feels really stupid to say that there was a major religion “ghost” in William Peter Blatty’s classic screenplay for “The Exorcist,” the horror classic that was based on his own novel.

It would be hard to write a story that — R-rating and all — contained more in-your-face religious issues and references than this one. Blatty, who died last year, was super candid about his goal to create a tale that (all together now) scared the “hell” out of people. But hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

No, what I want to note in this post is that the entertainment desk at The Los Angeles Times managed to do a major story about the 40th anniversary of this classic while avoiding any of its haunting spiritual symbols and themes.

How do you do that? Well, you start with the business angles linked to this monster hit and stay there. Damn the supernatural and full speed ahead. Here’s the overture:

During the production of the masterpiece of horror “The Exorcist,” director William Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty enjoyed having fun with the suits at Warner Brothers. At one point, the two were going to shoot a mock scene from the movie with Groucho Marx and send the footage to the executives.

“We always put them on,” said Friedkin. “They were always concerned that we were both crazy and would eventually implode the movie. We even staged blowups in front of them.”

Of course, study executives had other worries about this film and its contents. But, again, hold that thought, because the Times has a Hollywood event to plug.

“The Exorcist,” the first horror film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, is being feted Monday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a 45th anniversary, sold-out screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. …

Based on the runaway 1971 best-seller by Blatty, “The Exorcist” scared — and still does scare — daylights out of audiences. [Ellen] Burstyn stars as actress Chris MacNeil who, much to her horror, discovers her sweet young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), is possessed by the devil. The only way to get rid of the demon is to call in two priests, the tormented young Jesuit Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the elderly exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to cast out the devil.

Toward the very end of this long feature there is a hint — if you know what to look for — about the role that Blatty’s conservative Catholic faith played in this movie and the battles to get it on the screen.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Oscar Romero coverage: Los Angeles Times shows it can get religion when it wants to

Oscar Romero coverage: Los Angeles Times shows it can get religion when it wants to

I’ve often criticized the Los Angeles Times’ religion coverage –- or lack thereof -– but it was clear this past week in their stories about Sunday’s canonization of Saint Oscar Romero that the paper knows how to marshall resources for the religion beat when it wants to.

It helps that there is an Oscar Romero Square in LA, not to mention a Romero art installation in Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown plus an estimated population of more than 400,000 Salvadorans in southern California. Maybe it helps that Romero is a hero to many Catholics on the cultural left.

Romero was killed in 1980 while celebrating Mass; his murder planned by right-wing death squads and directed by ex-Salvadoran Army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson. I was only two years out of college when he died. However, thanks to generous coverage of the man in Sojourners magazine (which I subscribed to at the time), I knew who Romero was.

Running an Associated Press account as the main story, the Times sent a Spanish-speaking reporter, Esmeralda Bermudez, to Rome to provide “color” stories (as we call it in the industry) of the locals who traveled to Rome for the ceremony. It helped that Bermudez was born in El Salvador.

In life, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was persecuted, shot in the heart by a single bullet while he celebrated Mass.

In death, his legacy was politicized, calumniated — all but silenced.

So for many Sunday, it was extraordinary to see Pope Francis at last declare Romero a saint in St. Peter’s Square.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims filled Vatican City’s ancient plaza for the ceremony . . . Romero’s followers traveled from El Salvador, Los Angeles, Washington; from distant lands like Sweden, Norway and Australia.

On this grand stage, they savored every detail: the bright blue sky filled with cotton-like clouds; the Gregorian chants ringing over a sea of 70,000 people; the red-ostrich-feathered helmets of the Vatican’s fancy Swiss guards; the bloodstained rope belt worn by Romero at his time of death, now tied around the Pope’s waist to honor his memory.

Romero! Romero! Your pueblo is with you, Romero!

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Thirty years ago, I asked a gay theologian in Denver a blunt question, while we were thinking out loud about the distant possibility that gay marriage would become a reality.

The question: Did he know anyone in the gay theological world — this man was well connected — who thought that gay women and men should remain virgins until taking vows and forming a monogamous, lifelong relationship with a partner?

After laughing out loud, he said, “No.” The debates, he said, would be about the meaning of the word “monogamous”? Few gay men, in particular, would accept what he called the “twin rocking chairs into the future” approach to absolute sexual fidelity.

About 15 years ago, I asked another gay activist if LGBTQ people lobbying for change in Christian higher education had considered attacking a very specific fault line: If Christian college leaders asked students to promise not to have sex outside of marriage, what would be the doctrinal grounds for banning gay dating?

He said: That’s a very interesting point. That’s going to be an issue someday.

Put those two questions together and you get the tensions on the campus of Azusa Pacific University, where administrators briefly approved a policy stating that gay romance — short of intercourse — was as welcome on the campus as straight. The trustees quickly nixed that revolutionary change.

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I talked about the APU furor, focusing on a particularly lousy, one-sided news report on the subject that ran in The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper once known for its quality religion-news work.

Please respect our Commenting Policy