Open thread on 2011 religion news

How long have I been away from my desk, out on the nation’s highways visiting various encampments of family members?

Well, so long that I have not had a chance to seek the comments of GetReligion readers on the results of the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the top 10 events and trends on the religion beat in 2011 (click here for the full press release).

Comment No. 1: Is it just me, or did anyone else think that the poll results received less ink (digital or analog) this time around? Less coverage than normal?

At the same time, this was clearly a year when there was one event that drew the most mainstream news coverage and the biggest headlines. However, this was also an event that was so important that many editors probably didn’t think of it as a religion-beat story, in and of itself.

In other words, this news story was too important to be a religion-news story. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

You can sense this paradox in the CNN Belief Blog analysis of the poll results. Here’s the top of that essay:

Washington (CNN) – The killing of Osama bin Laden was voted the top story of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association, beating out Rep. Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of U.S. Muslims and Catholic Bishop Robert Finn’s failure to report the suspected abuse of a child.

Though on face bin Laden’s death is not a religion story, it created conversation on a number of faith topics, the RNA said.

“Faith-based groups reacted to the terrorist leader’s death with renewed sympathy for victims’ families, scriptural citations justifying the demise of evil, and hopeful prayers for peace among the nations,” stated the RNA release.

In other words, the killing of the world’s most famous Islamist radical was not really a religion story, just as bin Laden’s career was not really rooted in his religious worldview and his interpretation of Islam?

Also, this year’s poll results were, for me, a clear, but painful, illustration of harsh reality in the news biz. Some events are big stories because they are big stories. Other stories are not as important to editors because they are not as important to readers, even if the consequences of these stories may be greater in the long run.

That’s how I felt about bin Laden’s death. I mean, everyone knew that U.S. officials were going to find him sooner or later. It’s also easy to argue that his real power, his power to shape world events, had already declined sharply during his years in hiding.

Meanwhile, other bloody events were taking place in Pakistan during 2011 that I was convinced offered sharp, clear insights into the confused state of affairs in that tense, confused and potentially deadly land.

Thus, I focused my Scripps Howard News Service column on a pair of events that didn’t even make it into the RNA top 10 list. Instead, they drifted all the way down to the No. 16 slot. Thus, while opening with bin Laden’s death, I quickly offered this summary of these other religion-news events that I am convinced were the year’s most poignant and, perhaps, significant:

… (When) I think about religion news events in 2011, another image from Pakistan flashes through my mind — a shower of rose petals.

I am referring to the jubilant throngs of lawyers and demonstrators that greeted 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Qadri with cheers, rose petals and flowers as he arrived at an Islamabad courtroom to be charged with terrorism and murder. Witnesses said Qadri fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer’s back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching.

Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation’s secular political leaders — including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer — declined to attend the funeral. Many Muslim clerics, including many usually identified as “moderates,” even praised the act of the assassin.

Calling himself a “slave of the Prophet,” Qadri cheerfully surrendered. He noted that he had killed the moderate Muslim official because of Taseer’s role in a campaign to overturn Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam, especially those who convert from Islam to another religion.

A few weeks later, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs — the only Christian in the national cabinet — died in another hail of bullets in Islamabad. Looking ahead, Shahbaz Bhatti had recorded a video testimony (see video with this post) to be played on Al-Jazeera in the likely event that he, too, was assassinated.

”When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized — persecuted Christian and other minorities — these Taliban threaten me,” said Bhatti, who was immediately hailed as a martyr by Catholic bishops in Pakistan. “I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”

Meanwhile, the gunmen tossed pamphlets near Bhatti’s bullet-riddled car that threatened him by name and stated, in part: “From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides … especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari. … In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death.”

So, GetReligion readers, do you have any comments on the RNA poll? Did you see any other coverage of the year’s top religion-news events that you want to share, via URLs in our comments pages? Tee off.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    If you want the religious background on Pakistan/BenLaden, you might want to start with this BBC story which is similar to the one you quoted. Then go to the StrategyPage discussion about the problem of radical Islam and the press pushing hate in Islamic countries.

    Islamicists are often seen as opposing the corruption of the dictatorships, so get grass roots support. The dictators often push the paranoid line against the west and Isarel as a way to deflect criticism from their corruption, and the western press can’t imagine why people getting fed a lie 24/7 might not like the west…their podcast on Pakistan’s descend to the dark side LINK.

  • Julia

    Other stories are not as important to editors because they are not as important to readers, even if the consequences of these stories may be greater in the long run.

    The truly significant appointments of two Catholic Archbishops have greater importance for the future than most of the Catholic news that made the list.

    1) The new Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles – the largest diocese in the US – is a native of Mexico, appointed at a time when more than half of the Catholics in that diocese are now Hispanic. He isn’t the child of immigrants; the Archbishop moved to the US as an adult when he had already been ordained a priest for Opus Dei and completed his PhD in Theology. He has an undergrad degree in accounting.

    http://www.la-archdiocese.org/Pages/default.aspx

    The other is the 67 year old Archbishop Charles Chaput, an enrolled member of the Prarie Band Potowatamie of Kansas, who was given the job of cleaning up the big mess in Philadelphia. The Archbishop is a Capuchin as is Cardinal
    Sean O’Malley of Boston.

    http://archphila.org/home.php

    Governance of the Catholic Church in the US is surely changing, big time.

  • carl jacobs

    Harold Camping wasn’t a big story. He was never big enough or representative enough or important enough to warrant the coverage he received. He was just a vehicle that allowed institutional mockery of the Christian faith to be passed off as a story. The collective laughter was the whole point from beginning to end. It was of course all perfectly professional, hidden as it was under the guise of the “people’s right to know.” You will notice that the huge media event in May was not repeated in October. The joke was old by then. People had moved on.

    However, I’m not surprised to see it on the list. A good time was had by all.

    carl

  • Mike O.

    Carl, Harold Camping wasn’t just a big story, it was a huge story. Both religious and non-religious were absolutley fascinated by it. The story had legs despite your personal feelings about Family Radio’s religious interpetations. A story can’t get that much extended attention and not be called a big story — unless the adjective “big” has suddenly lost all meaning.

    And you have to admit part of the reason why the October reaction was so much smaller than the May reaction was the lack of followers with trucks, signs, and t-shirts.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    It says something about our society and our media that the third most important religion story concerned a misdemeanor charge against a Catholic bishop and the diocese which he leads. The interesting thing is that the allegation seemed to get a lot more press than the outcome. It was rather tricky finding the resolution of the charges, which involved an agreement that either saves face for the bishop, who avoids prosecution, or saves face for the prosecution, dealing with a weak case. Take your pick.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Camping put up billboards along major freeways announcing the end of the world. He made this story, not a hostile press.

  • carl jacobs

    Mike O

    Harold Camping wasn’t just a big story, it was a huge story.

    I didn’t say it wasn’t Big and Huge. I said it wasn’t a story. There was no ‘there’ there. Or perhaps I should put it this way. The reason for the Hugeness of the Media event had nothing to do with the story as told. It wasn’t “Harold Camping has declared a date. Let’s wait for his prophesy to fail.” If it was only Harold Camping, no one would have cared. “Unknown radio personality predicts end of world” isn’t a story. How many reporters had even heard of Harold Camping before last Spring? But it can become one when he is placed as surrogate for the whole of the Christian faith. That is what happened, and that is why the story took off. It was the idea of judgment that was repeatedly mocked. The whole of the story from beginning to end was “Where is this coming? Everything proceeds just as before.” Insert laugh track.

    Midst all the laughter, do you think there was any real concern for the people who believed Camping, and suffered genuine harm as a result? They were straight men in a comedy sketch. They were the people who made the mocking crowd think well of themselves. “Look at those fools! We aren’t fools like them!” isn’t much of a story. But it was the sum total of that event in May. When it was over, the crowd went home to seek for a different source of amusement.

    The whole thing was despicable.

    carl

  • sari

    carl said: “If it was only Harold Camping, no one would have cared. “Unknown radio personality predicts end of world” isn’t a story. How many reporters had even heard of Harold Camping before last Spring? But it can become one when he is placed as surrogate for the whole of the Christian faith. ”

    I disagree. What it did do was open the door to conversation. A lot of the coverage focused on what different Christian denominations believe. Yes, certain groups, atheist and otherwise, had a field day, but religious clergy across the spectrum were consulted as well. The educational aspect was invaluable to those who bothered to read the articles all the way through.

  • Jerry

    My issue with that top 10 is that it’s about events not stories. My distinction is that a “flash in the pan” event might be worth covering, but a real story is about something deeply meaningful and important especially in the long run.

    Camping was an event accompanied by Hollywood-style production values. The mostly untold story behind the event concerns why so many believe the end of the world is close at hand. The story, therefore, is the strongly held beliefs of millions. We can see that in the smooth segue into 2012 with the end of the Mayan long count calendar, the great Galactic Alignment and, lo and behold, a Nostradamus prediction.

    Another real story is the tension between those, such as Pope Benedict, who are trying to find ecumenical common ground between religions and those who are preaching a crusade between Christianity and Islam. In this case, I would have put his Assisi trip in the top 10 along with the historical context of Pope John Paul II’s earlier pilgrimage.

    Another story that I would put in the top 10 is the continuing change in what religion in America means and how religion manifests in everyday life. There were some trend stories about how the next generation is different than earlier ones and, in the long term, these trends are a lot more important than a “who did what to whom when” story.

  • Mike O.

    Carl, now you’re saying that Family Radio wasn’t even a story? You’re suggesting that it was completely unnewsworthy and that no newspaper, radio, or TV program would have mentioned it if it weren’t for Harold “But Thank You For Calling and Sharing” Camping?

    Here are three reasons why I think the story was so big:

    1) It started with a sane man. This wasn’t the tin foil hat crowd. This wasn’t Oral Roberts saying he heard the voice of God telling him he needed to raise eight million dollars or else. Harold Camping is not crazy. He came to his conclusions through study. And while you and I can agree that he was wrong, the fact is that he was not another apocalypse loon drew interest to the story.

    2) There was a giant and unavoidable media blitz. This wasn’t some unwashed vagrant lurking Times Square with a “The End Is Near” sign. This was a professional assault on multiple fronts. And think about how many news stories there are each year that focus solely on a controversial advertising campaign. Just on that point alone you can’t say this isn’t a story.

    3) The people who believed the world was going to end were regular people. They had families and jobs and normal lives. These weren’t people living on a compound. They hadn’t committed ritual castration awaiting a ride on a comet. They weren’t all named Jane. Whether the people on the outside looked at those ordinary people with confusion, anger, or derision doesn’t matter. It got people talking. That’s newsworthy. That’s a story!

    While we may disagree on the importance of the story (and remember important is not synonymous with big) it’s ridiculous to say that because you didn’t like or were offended by talk around it that somehow it ceases being a story.

  • carl jacobs

    Mike O

    1. If this had been Oral Roberts, it would have been a big story. It wasn’t Oral Roberts or someone of his presence. Harold Camping is a small-time radio preacher who taught that the entire church was apostate except for the home churches associated with his radio show. He wasn’t insane. He just wasn’t relevant. What suddenly elevated him to relevance?

    2. Lots of people put on media blitzes and those blitzes disappear into the mist. The mere fact that he spent money on this doesn’t explain it either. Why did this advertising campaign generate a reaction? Because the audience didn’t know who Harold Camping was. They simply saw a Christian preacher make a definitive prophesy with a specific date. They seized on it as an opportunity to falsify a prophesy and by extension the entire Christian faith. That was the actual story. That was why the public was so interested in it.

    3. The people who followed Camping over the cliff were principally the subject of mockery and ridicule with the media leading the stand-up routine. You couldn’t find media reports on the subject that weren’t laced with condescension. That’s what the public wanted. That was the whole point. “Let’s stand these people up and laugh at them.” I would agree with you if I thought the media gave a damn about what happened to them. I just didn’t see it.

    A small time preacher predicts the end of the world, and puts up some advertisements. The secular world thinks that this is riotously funny. It anticipates the moment when the prophesy fails. It can’t wait for the Rapture Party. It can’t wait to see the look on those people’s faces when they realize they have given up everything for a lie. Oh, the delicious joy of having your own worldview confirmed in the despair of someone for whom you hold only contempt. Oh the thrill of schadenfreude.

    And there was the Media acting as cheerleader for the whole sordid enterprise. That was the sum total of your story. Dress it up as you like. The body under the clothing is still just as corrupt.

    carl

  • Mike O.

    Carl,

    Harold Camping is a small-time radio preacher who taught that the entire church was apostate except for the home churches associated with his radio show. He wasn’t insane. He just wasn’t relevant. What suddenly elevated him to relevance?

    What is the threshold for the size of a religious group before news organizations should get involved? Let’s take the story from last year where five Torah scrolls were stolen from a Brooklyn synagogue. Should the New York press have first verified the number of regular attendees before doing their job and reported the news? Besides, Family Radio gets millions of dollars in donations annually and has over 60 radio stations throughout the country. This wasn’t some lone crank and a dozen followers meeting weekly at an Elks lodge.

    Lots of people put on media blitzes and those blitzes disappear into the mist.

    Here are two advertising stories that made news yesterday. Advertising often makes news. Just ask Bennetton, or Calvin Klein, or the American Atheists.

    Why did this advertising campaign generate a reaction?

    That almost sounds like a news story.

    They simply saw a Christian preacher make a definitive prophesy with a specific date. They seized on it as an opportunity to falsify a prophesy and by extension the entire Christian faith.

    Who is the “they” in those sentences? Obviously the internet was full of bloggers and youtubers who reveled in the schadenfreude. But it was rare to find an article in the mainstream media about this subject that didn’t quote a Christian objector or reference Matthew 24:36. But that’s not even the point.

    You couldn’t find media reports on the subject that weren’t laced with condescension.

    If you feel that the media is not being fair regarding religious news, there’s a pretty good site I can recommend solely to discuss such things. But your contention was that this “wasn’t a story”. Because it wasn’t a story the media should have ignored people talking about it, the billboards that were everywhere, the tales of the people giving up their whole lives to tell others on the streets of the Earth’s impending doom. I’m not here to argue whether the media was fair. Everyone here did that at great length eight months ago. I’m arguing against your notion that Family Radio should not be on a top ten list of religious stories because you don’t think it’s a story.