When reporting on tragic trends in Latin America, don't leave out Catholics and Pentecostals

When reporting on tragic trends in Latin America, don't leave out Catholics and Pentecostals

The headline drew me instantly: “Latin America is the murder capital of the world.”

Appearing in the Wall Street Journal (which, being behind a paywall, is not accessible to non-subscribers so I’ll cut and paste what I can), the piece said the entire continent is in a crisis mode because of the non-stop murders that happen nearly everywhere.

With only a few exceptions (Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba), it’s become a horrible place to live and a risky place to visit. The question, of course, is how religion fits into this picture, in terms of the history of the region, as well as life there right now.

The piece begins with a description of how Acapulco, once the vacation spot for the rich and famous, has become a a sharpshooter’s gallery.

Acapulco’s days as a tourist resort with a touch of Hollywood glamour seem long ago. In a city of 800,000, 953 people were violently killed last year, more than in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands put together.

It’s not just Mexico. There is a murder crisis across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, which today is the world’s most violent region. Every day, more than 400 people are murdered there, a yearly tally of about 145,000 dead.

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

The 2016 tally in China, according to the U.N.: 8,634. For the entire European Union: 5,351. The United States: 17,250.

I guess there are SOME advantages in China being a police state. It does keep the murders down, although God only knows what really goes on in prisons and prison camps in that country where people disappear and never return.

In this story, everyone gets to die, starting with elementary school-aged kids to surgeons who botched a plastic surgery operation on a drug lord. The latter were found encased in cement.

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The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

It’s one of the biggest puzzles on the religion beat, one that readers ask me about all the time. Here’s the question: Why don’t news organizations cover more “spiritual” stories, as in stories about the impact religious faith has in the daily lives of real people?

The short answer is one that readers don’t want to hear: Most editors don’t think that positive stories about changed lives is “news.”

Now, if the person whose life is changed by faith is a politician, a celebrity or the starting quarterback for the local football team, then that might make this a “news” story. Maybe. Well, it also helps if this “spiritual” hook is combined with some issue that’s controversial.

This is what the cynic in me thought the other day when I saw this headline in The Knoxville News Sentinel, my local newspaper: “Gary Christian: From rage to restoration, a murder victim's father finds the faith he left.

If you live in East Tennessee, this headline calls back years of headlines about a horrific crime story that seized this region like few others — the torture, rape and murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In aftermath, the face of Channon’s father — Gary Christian — became an iconic image of loss, grief, agony and, yes, wrath.

This massive News Sentinel feature dug deep into what has happened since the trials. It’s a story about rough, realistic healing and the spiritual changes that allowed a man to return to faith. To be blunt: You don’t see many stories of this kind in news print.

First, here is the long, but essential, overture.

Gary Christian stood in an East Tennessee church pulpit on a sunny August Sunday, speaking about pain and death and faith and God. It’s not a place — or a point — where the father of murder victim Channon Christian would have been 18 months ago.

For 10 years Christian never talked to the Lord he had loved all his life. He left God behind after his beautiful, compassionate, smart 21-year-old daughter was carjacked, tortured, raped, beaten and murdered in January 2007.

Then, last April, kneeling at his child’s grave and surrounded by friends, Christian asked for God’s help.

God had been waiting. He'd never left.

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Complicated cold case: Was beauty queen raped, killed by her priest (now an ex-priest)?

Complicated cold case: Was beauty queen raped, killed by her priest (now an ex-priest)?

I have been thinking about the rather picky journalism issues raised in this post for quite some time now, so consider this a trip into my GetReligion "file of guilt."

What we have here is another argument about headlines. I find fights over headlines quite compelling, in part because (a) I spent several years on a copy desk writing headlines and (b) I know (the research has been around for decades) how many readers merely scan headlines and, at most, the top paragraph or two of most stories. Many readers see a headline and then react. That's the sad truth.

So what about that long, very detailed Washington Post headline the other day that proclaimed, "Break in ‘unholy’ cold case: Police arrest former beauty queen’s priest in her 1960 killing." And here is the top of the story:

Fifty-six years ago, a young schoolteacher went to church during Holy Week and never came home.
The next day, a few of her possessions were found scattered along the road outside the local Sacred Heart Church, as Texas Monthly recounted. One high-heeled shoe, a patent-leather handbag, a piece of crumpled white lace.
The following week, her body was found, fully dressed and badly bruised, retrieved from a canal in which someone had left her to decompose, her corpse washed clean of evidence. An autopsy found that she had been raped while comatose.
This was Irene Garza, a 25-year-old, dark-haired belle of McAllen, Tex., who was once named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart. She was her high school’s homecoming queen, the first person in her family to graduate from college and a teacher for disadvantaged children.
Above all, Garza was a devout Catholic. The last place she was seen was at Confession.

The priest hearing confessions that night long ago was the Rev. John Feit, who was 27 at the time.

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Redeeming Gadsden County: New York Times offers a powerful look at an anti-crime program

Redeeming Gadsden County: New York Times offers a powerful look at an anti-crime program

You know all those quotes about the need to be "in the present"? Well, they're also true for news media. Many stories these days have a thin, flinty feel because they're drawn from documents, websites and other articles.

Not so with the New York Times in its feature "Gadsden Finds God." The 500 words and 13 photos give us a vivid, sensitive look at how a rural Florida county united to help its worst-off people.

Gadsden County, in the Florida panhandle, is portrayed as troubled with overlapping problems of unemployment, under-education and juvenile crime. This despite the fact that Gadsden is just northwest of Tallahassee, the state capital and home of two leading universities -- Florida State and Florida A&M.

The Times found an unusual alliance combating the threefold plague: a judge, a sheriff and the school superintendent. The judge made sure to hear all county juvenile cases herself, emphasizing her local upbringing as a "daughter of the soil." The superintendent founded an alternative school for low-scoring students, with smaller classes and more support.  And the sheriff, Morris A. Young, hired a fulltime chaplain, Jimmy Salters, for the county jail.

Their combined efforts have contributed to some good numbers since Young became sheriff in 2004, says the newspaper: arrest rates falling by 75 percent and graduation rates rising from 40 to 65 percent. And the Times writer captures some of the intense emotions involved.

You don’t get passages like this while sitting at a computer in New York City:

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Media report a spike in anti-Muslim crime since San Bernardino — where's the hard data?

Media report a spike in anti-Muslim crime since San Bernardino — where's the hard data?

If you follow the news, you've probably seen a headline or two — or 50 — proclaiming that anti-Muslim crime has spiked since the San Bernardino massacre. Similar reports followed the Paris attacks.

The narrative of a backlash against Muslims makes sense, of course, given the Islamic extremist ties to last week's California massacre and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's strong rhetoric.

But from a journalistic perspective, where is the hard data? 

As #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches trended on Twitter back in July, we urged caution in the reporting:

A half-dozen church fires in such a short period sounds like a lot. But is it really? Journalists must be sure to put the fires — and the number of them — in context.

A similar dose of discretion would seem appropriate in the case of anti-Muslim incidents.

Instead, many journalists seem to be quite comfortable equating anecdotal evidence with a solid trend.

Take the Los Angeles Times, for instance:

Attacks on mosques appear to have become more frequent and threats against Muslims more menacing since the terrorist attacks in Paris and the shooting in San Bernardino.
“A pigs head at a mosque in Philadelphia, a girl harassed at a school in New York, hate mail sent to a New Jersey mosque … I can’t event count the amount of hate mail and threats we have received,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

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Spot the religion ghosts in story about homeless man's attack on actress Pauley Perrette?

Spot the religion ghosts in story about homeless man's attack on actress Pauley Perrette?

So, news consumers, which of the following two news story lines do you find the most poignant?

(1) A Hollywood star is mugged by a mysterious homeless man who threatens to kill her.

(2) A Hollywood star who does regular volunteer work with a homeless ministry -- perhaps linked to her church -- is mugged by a homeless man who threatens to kill her.

Now, the USA Today story about this incident involving Pauley Perrette does hint at the religious ghosts in this event. It also included a photo of the essay the actress posted in social media about the incident. That text contains several faith references. We will come back to that in a moment.

Anyway, here is how the story begins:

NCIS actress Pauley Perrette, who plays the show's Goth crime lab tech Abby Scuito, had a real-life scare Thursday in Los Angeles. A "psychotic homeless man" jumped her on the street outside her home and punched her in the face several times.
"I almost died tonight," she wrote on Twitter. "Tonight was awful, life changing and I'm only grateful to be alive."
Perrette recounted the incident in detail in an essay, which she photographed and attached to her post. In it, she said the man kept telling her his name (William) and that he was going to kill her. "I was alone, terrified and trapped," she said, grateful he hadn't dragged her to a empty garage nearby. "I knew if he got me in there, I was dead."

And here is how it ends:

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Crime Reporting 101: Into sad tale of murder, blood and drugs, enter God and forgiveness

Crime Reporting 101: Into sad tale of murder, blood and drugs, enter God and forgiveness

"Mother forgives son held in slaying," said the headline on a Metro cover story in The Dallas Morning News on Monday.

That title certainly raised my GetReligion antenna.

However, I was skeptical I'd find deep religion content in this police beat report, which appears online on the newspaper's Crime Blog:

Joyce Richardson turned the key and opened the door of Apartment 1705, as she did every day.
This time, though, her son and stepdaughter weren’t there. The night before, violence erupted. Now, one sat in jail; the other lay dead in the morgue.
Inside, Richardson closed the door. She noticed the silence. And the blood. Blood on the walls. Blood on the old brown couch and TV.
Bottles of alcohol. The bags of groceries she had brought a day earlier, still on the kitchen counter.

No religion there. But I kept reading. The very next paragraph:

She sat, prayed and cried.

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