How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

Billboards with religious messages tend to draw tons of news media interest.

Last year, a Satanic Temple billboard protesting corporal punishment (“Our religion doesn’t believe in hitting children,” it said) rankled a South Texas town, as I reported for Religion News Service.

Other headline-making billboards have insulted Muhammad, promoted a traditional view of marriage and characterized the story of Jesus’ birth as a fairy tale.

Now, “Jesus in Islam” billboards put up in the Phoenix area are in the news.

Here is the lede from the Arizona Republic:

What do Muslims think of Jesus? It's a question Dr. Sabeel Ahmed said he gets often.

To help educate people on the significance of Jesus in Islam, Ahmed's group, The Humanitarians, a Muslim interfaith organization, is launching a monthlong campaign that includes billboards along high-trafficked areas in Arizona along with radio ads.

Ahmed, the group's founder and outreach coordinator, said the intent is to highlight similarities between Islam and Christianity and bring people together during the holidays. 

"We want to educate people on who we (Muslims) are and who we are not and show people that there are more similarities between the faiths than differences," Ahmed said Tuesday during a news conference at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.

So Ahmed’s group bought the billboards in hopes of generating positive buzz in the community and the newspaper.

Mission accomplished, at least as far as the newspaper goes.

Keep reading, and you’ll discover that this story is the epitome of a puff piece: Group holds news conference. Reporter writes glowingly about it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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Wall Street Journal does religion tourism where multiple faiths co-exist

Wall Street Journal does religion tourism where multiple faiths co-exist

It’s not often that I see a combination of two of my favorite beats: Religion and travel, but a recent story in the Wall Street Journal travel section told of the quickly becoming-famous “Jesus trail” through Galilee that could theoretically be walked in three days.

Tara Burton, the newish religion corresponded for, wrote the Journal piece about how she found the 40-mile trail through rural parts of Israel to be welcoming and full of multi-cultural and multi-religious experience. But the comments to the article brought out some other angles: How only in Israel might a Western woman expect to hike unmolested. If Burton tried this in certain others Middle Eastern countries, her experience might have been very different.

First, the article, which, being behind a paywall, will be reproduced here as much as I’m able to cut and paste.

It took five minutes into my pilgrimage for somebody to offer me free food. Leaving my inn, a converted 19th-century mansion in the Israeli town of Nazareth, I’d turned the corner to make the initial ascent toward the Franciscan Mensa Church. The church stands on the site where Christ was said to have dined with his apostles just after his resurrection. A smiling man with a lazy eye, standing by the trail head, decided I should dine, too.
He handed me a chocolate bar, gesturing toward the orange trail markers that demarcated the route. He mimed something approximating “difficult climb,” then also gave me a piece of burma—a sticky, pistachio-studded pastry—the honey staining my fingers. But of course, I had to try this, too. With a combination of hand signals and makeshift Arabic, I tried to convey “delicious,” “thank you” and “please stop: I cannot fit anything else into my bag.”
I spent nearly as much time eating with strangers as walking during my trip earlier this year along the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile trek connecting several major sites of Jesus’ life, from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias). But that was, according to the Jesus Trail’s founders, the point.

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Odd, unquestioning AP story misses point on University of Wisconsin's 'religion center'

Odd, unquestioning AP story misses point on University of Wisconsin's 'religion center'

Once upon a time, the Associated Press could be depended upon to deliver solid, basic, hard-news stories which informed readers about a given event or issue. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known of course as Mark Twain, famously declared: “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe … the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

Reading the AP's report -- perhaps more properly titled an "aggregation" -- on developments at the University of Wisconsin, one wonders if the AP of Twain's day is far less recognizable today. Instead of insights, we get hints and teases of information, and nothing more. I'd call that a journalism problem, wouldn't you?

Under the rather bland headline "University of Wisconsin-Madison starts new religion center," the AP story, seen online at websites for the Chicago Tribune and other outlets, is short on details:

A new center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hopes to spread religious literacy on campus.
The Center for Religion and Global Citizenry comes after the Luber Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions closed last year due to lack of funding, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Neither the AP nor the original Wisconsin Public Radio story shed much light on the questions raised by the reporting. Who funded the now-shuttered Luber Institute? Who is funding the new Center for Religion and Global Citizenry? What do the funders expect from the new project?

Let's remember that the University of Wisconsin system is a state-funded campus.

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Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

The leader of a billion-plus Catholics met with a leader of a billion-plus Muslims, and media gave it appropriately thorough coverage.

Except for one matter: persecution of Christians in Muslim lands.

Pope Francis himself was oddly timid on the point. But that doesn't mean mainstream media had to downplay it also -- especially when they cover plenty of such incidents.

Typical was the Associated Press report:

Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, reopening an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on Christians.
As Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib arrived for his audience in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said that the fact that they were meeting at all was significant.
"The meeting is the message," Francis told the imam.

Following this press release-style lede, though, AP says the two leaders discussed "the plight of Christians 'in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Mideast and their protection,' the statement said." It adds that Al-Azhar broke off talks alks with the Vatican a decade ago, after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that some Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

The article also retells some bloody specifics:

Benedict had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar nevertheless sought to rekindle ties, with a Vatican delegation visiting Cairo in February and extending the invitation for el-Tayyib to visit.

But if any Mideastern Christian leaders had opinions on the meeting -- and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't -- AP wasn't interested.

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