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Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

I realize this may sound like a rather obvious question. However, after 40 years of religion-beat work (in one form or another) I still think that it's relevant.

The question: To cover religion news events and trends, does it help if journalists know enough about religion to ask detailed questions about, well, "religion"? When I say "religion" I am thinking about details of doctrine, tradition and history.

In other words, when covering Iraq over the past decade or two, would it have helped to know the doctrinal differences between Sunni Muslims and the Shiites? If covering debates between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians, would it help to know something about the doctrine of God and the Holy Trinity? If covering debates about citizenship in Israel, do you need to know something -- doctrinally speaking -- about Reform Judaism and its emergence out of Orthodox Judaism in Europe?

This topic came up in this week's "Crossroads" podcast because of the recent GetReligion post about a nasty split inside a "Lutheran" megachurch in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, in the heart of what has long been known as the "Lutheran Belt." Click here to tune that in.

The problem was that a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press never got around to telling readers which brand of Lutheranism was found in this specific megachurch. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Star Tribune report clarified this big denominational question in its lede and in a follow-up paragraph a few lines later.

Did this picky detail really matter? Only if readers wanted to know what the fighting was actually about.

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Can a pope and a female philosopher have a deep friendship without, well, you know?

Can a pope and a female philosopher have a deep friendship without, well, you know?

Talk about strange. Under what circumstances is one of the most famous clips from the classic comedy "When Harry Met Sally" relevant to news reports about the life of a Roman Catholic saint who also was one of the most pivotal popes in church history? The scene features a rather blunt debate about whether men and women can be friends without having sex.

In this case, the scene is relevant because one gets the impression that some journalists in high places -- starting with the BBC -- are having trouble picturing a brilliant male philosopher-pope having a strong (we will return to this adjective question), multi-decade friendship with a brilliant, married female philosopher without it involving sex. Affection? That's another question.

The headline on one of the original BBC reports sets the stage: "The secret letters of Pope John Paul II." The key adjective is "secret," implying a secret relationship. Another BBC report used this headline: "Pope John Paul letters reveal 'intense' friendship with woman."

Vatican officials, however, note that this long friendship and, at times, professional partnership was know to those working with the Polish pope and to his biographers (even a Watergate veteran).

Here is the top of one of the BBC reports that started this mini-wave of news coverage:

Pope John Paul II was one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century, revered by millions and made a saint in record time, just nine years after he died. The BBC has seen letters he wrote to a married woman, the Polish-born philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, that shed new light on his emotional life.

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