Search Results for: Boston

The Boston Globe veers into the doctrines of ‘Kellerism’

Just the other day, I heard a long-time GetReligion reader use a very interesting new journalism term — “Kellerism.”

Wait for it, faithful readers. Let’s walk through this with newcomers to the site. What, pray tell, are the key beliefs in the journalistic philosophy that is “Kellerism”?

Yes, this is another reference to the pronouncements of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, with an emphasis on this 2011 remarks (video) at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Here, once again, is a chunk of an “On Religion” column I wrote about that event, when the newly retired Keller was asked if — that old question — the Times is a “liberal newspaper.”

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” …

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So here is first core “Kellerism” doctrine: There is no need for balance and fairness and related old-fashioned journalism values when one is dealing with news linked to morality, culture, religion, yada, yada. Newspapers should resist the urge to slip into advocacy journalism when covering politics, but not when covering — uh — moral, cultural and religious issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters. You know, non-political issues. Things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans.

The second “Kellerism” doctrine is related to that and can be glimpsed near the end of Keller’s response (.pdf here) to the famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” self-study of the Times, during troubled ethical times in 2005. The key is that Keller insisted that he was committed to diversity in the newsroom on matters of gender, race, etc. However, he was silent or gently critical when addressing the study’s calls for improved cultural and intellectual diversity. The Times was diverse enough, it appears, on those counts.

Yes, criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of traditional religious believers was raised as a concern by the committee that wrote the report.

So why bring up this new term in a post topped with a photo of The Boston Globe building?

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Back in Boston with abortion protesters and fair reporting!


I wasn’t expecting gifts for July 4 weekend, but I feel like I got one in this feature story in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a follow-up on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that overturned a law in Massachusetts meant to keep protesters away from abortion clinics.

The article is a good example of old-school long-form journalism. It’s nuanced, detail-rich and balanced — at least more balanced than I might have feared. We’ll discuss my reservations later.

For now, the Times joins Eleanor McCullen and fellow prolifers in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. McCullen, you may recall, was the main plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court.

First lesson is not to judge a story by its headline, any more than you’d judge a book by its cover. This story starts with a hostile-sounding “Abortion foes get up close and personal after court erases buffer zones.” Sounds like they’re waving and yammering in people’s faces.

But no. Times reporter Alana Semuels joins the protesters on the sidewalk, watching as they gently try to dissuade women from aborting their babies:

The two women climb out of the car in front of Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue and Eleanor McCullen reaches them in two quick steps. She tries to hand them a white rose and a pamphlet about alternatives to abortion, and beseeches them to let her help.

“I can help with housing, medical — we work with St. Elizabeth’s, just down the road, and everything is free,” she says, walking with the women as they approach the door.

Just a week ago, McCullen could not have gotten this close to the women in Massachusetts because of a law passed in 2007 that required that protesters stay behind a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to abortion clinics.

But the Supreme Court struck down that law on June 26, ruling unanimously that the buffer zone violated protesters’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech. McCullen, a cheery 77-year old grandmother who carries knit baby hats outside the clinic, was the lead plaintiff in the case.

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What can we say? Boston Globe hires John L. Allen, Jr.

For several decades now, I have been telling mainstream newsroom managers that all they have to do to improve religion-news coverage is to approach the beat the same way they approach any other major news beat that they respect, such as politics, sports, politics, education, politics and, of course, entertainment gossip.

What’s the magic formula? Here is what I had to say in a 1995 lecture to the editors of Scripps Howard newspapers:

So, you’re a manager in a newsroom and you’ve decided to improve religion coverage. What can you do?

There are only three ways that editors show what they think about a subject: what kind of reporter covers it, how much coverage it receives and where the stories appear in the newspaper. Thus, the solution is obvious: hire one or more quality journalists who are committed to covering religion and give their work the kind of display that is granted to subjects editors consider important.

Religion is a stunningly complicated beat, with dozens of major and minor religious groups and institutions dotting the intellectual and emotional landscape. Buddhists don’t talk, pray or do business like Baptists. Catholics and Pentecostals have totally different concepts of what it means to be a “charismatic” leader, except, of course, for Catholics who also happen to Pentecostals. It’s impossible to navigate these waters without a working knowledge of the charts.

So with that in mind, faithful GetReligion readers will join me in celebrating this tweet:

 

In recent years, your GetReligionistas have sadly published more than a few “black flag” notices marking the closing of a religion-beat job in a major newsroom or the departure of a skilled Godbeat veteran from active duty in the news biz. Every now and then, we can cheer when a Cathy Grossman, after an exit from USA Today, is able to make a much-deserved comeback in a shop like Religion News Service.

So now we need to ask, what is the opposite of a black flag?

Obviously, a white flag represents surrender.

That’s not what people who care about solid religion-news reporting should be feeling after that tweet from Allen, who — while writing for the progressive National Catholic Reporter — has won wide respect on both sides of Catholic sanctuary aisles for his informed and accurate coverage.

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Bravo, Boston Globe: An Episcopal anti-violence winner

I love a good story. Thanks to Lisa Wangsness, Godbeat writer for the Boston Globe, I got to read one.

Wangsness paints an artful image of 19-year-old Jorge Fuentes a year after he was struck and killed by a stray bullet while walking his dog. Fuentes was, as the vicar of his church put it, “the poster child” for the success of anti-violence program B-SAFE at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the city’s South End.

It could have been stale, a follow-up to last year’s coverage by the Globe and several other outlets on the popular young adult. It might have gone the martyr direction, focusing on Fuentes’ transformation from troubled youth to standout worker. But with a nice blend of retrospective, detail and call to action, this feature stays true to its religious roots throughout while adding new insight to the as-yet-unsolved case.

The historical context of the program is highlighted through Fuentes’ childhood:

A largely white denomination once dubbed “the Republican Party at prayer,” and more recently best known for its internal battles over gay bishops, the Episcopal Church has quietly increased its commitment to combating urban violence in Boston and nearby cities, a commitment that shaped Fuentes’s life.

The church has focused on prevention, embracing a simple philosophy: Begin with children as young as 5, give them help with homework, playtime, field trips, and cultural activities. Invite them, as they become teenagers, to work on community service projects and help with younger people. Then, as they reach adulthood, offer them a job and a chance to lead. Put children at the center of a caring community, the thinking goes, and they will be OK.

And it’s defined further through the organic details of his tragic death:

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The Boston Globe shows how to write about church planters

Earlier this month I called a story about a church planter in Brooklyn the worst religion story of the year. I don’t like to write harsh critiques (really, I don’t) but it’s frustrating to have an interesting story mangled by shoddy reporting. While reading that terrible Daily News piece I wondered, “What could this article have done right?”

To my surprise, the Boston Globe recently provided an answer. While their feature is about a group of church planters in Boston, rather than in Brooklyn, the similarities are close enough to show “what could have been.”

Most everything about the Globe article is praiseworthy so let’s begin with the biggest flaw, the lazily provocative title: “On a mission to save godless Massachusetts.” The headline is not only unfair to religious believers in an area once nicknamed “The Puritan State,” it’s unfair to the reporter and the subjects being written about in the article. Many readers will begin the story assuming the Evangelical Christians mentioned in the subhead claim the state is “godless,” when that is nowhere mentioned in the story.

What is claimed, and adequately defended by the reporter, Jonathan Fitzgerald, is not that the state is godless but that it has a low level of religiosity:

Once upon a time, Boston was a “city upon a hill.” Anyway, that’s what Governor John Winthrop told future Massachusetts residents sailing here in 1630. Evangelism practically started in this region in the 18th century, with Northampton’s Jonathan Edwards and his fiery sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yet today only about 11 percent of New Englanders consider themselves evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s compared with 26 percent nationwide and more than 50 percent in Bible Belt states.

Those numbers are for evangelical Christianity, but the rate of religiosity doesn’t seem to be much higher regardless of what (if any) faith New Englanders practice. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that the five least religious states in the country, based on the percentage of self-identified “very religious” Americans living there, are all in New England. Vermont is the least religious, followed immediately by New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. At number 11, Connecticut might as well be New England’s shining beacon of faith.

Throughout the article, Fitzgerald not only does a good job of providing context for why “church planters are eyeing the region” but he also explains why a trend that has been going on for decades (urban church planting) is worthy of a renewed attention:

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Covering a Boston mosque’s radical ties

The latest headlines give some indication of where the Boston bombing story is going. From the New York Times, for instance:

Bombing Suspect Cites Islamic Extremist Beliefs as Motive

A more informative article from the Associated Press is headlined:

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Influenced By Mysterious Muslim Radical, Turned Towards Fundamentalism

Headlined in the Huffington Post, I hasten to add, since the “F” word violates the AP Stylebook. It begins:

In the years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev fell under the influence of a new friend, a Muslim convert who steered the religiously apathetic young man toward a strict strain of Islam, family members said.

Under the tutelage of a friend known to the Tsarnaev family only as Misha, Tamerlan gave up boxing and stopped studying music, his family said. He began opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world.

“Somehow, he just took his brain,” said Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who recalled conversations with Tamerlan’s worried father about Misha’s influence. Efforts over several days by The Associated Press to identify and interview Misha have been unsuccessful.

We focus on religion angles and how they are treated in the media, and will continue to do so in this and subsequent posts. That should not be interpreted as reason to focus exclusively on those angles. Journalists should heed the counsel of terrorism experts when they caution that “Complex rather than single causality is the norm, not the exception, for terrorism.” It’s definitely an egregious error to downplay the role religion plays in stories but that doesn’t excuse an exclusive focus on it.

The AP article suggests that Misha and Tamerlan met at a local mosque, though that mosque isn’t identified. I’ve been particularly intrigued with stories about the mosque(s) that the Tsarnaev brothers attended. Initial reports stated that no local mosques had heard of the brothers. By now we’re progressing to stories such as the Associated Press one above. I don’t even know if I can find it but I read a Boston Globe story that had a video featuring Suhaib Webb, an imam at a sister mosque. The story and the accompanying video emphasized how very moderate those mosques were — and how Tamerlan found their moderation difficult.

So I was surprised when some folks sent me a video suggesting that the mosques themselves had ties to radicals. I won’t link to it because the very first item the video mentioned had an error. It said that the founder of the mosque the brothers attended was sentenced to prison for his role in an Al Qaeda plot. I looked it up and found that description lacking. He is serving a 23-year sentence for his role in a terror plot, but it wasn’t identified as an Al Qaeda plot. I should add that when I looked up the name of the imam in the Globe video mentioned above, I saw this FBI document about how he had appeared at a legal defense fundraiser for Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Muslim man on trial for (and later convicted of) killing two police officers … with U.S. citizen and drone victim Anwar al Awlaki back in 2001.

It got me thinking. Are these things newsworthy? Politically, there’s an argument for balance that might be described as finding a middle ground between ignoring the role of Islam, and putting the “Muslim community” under surveillance? There’s a journalism corollary to this, I’m sure. So how does one present this information?

USA Today took the approach of investigating various ties the mosques have to terrorists and just laying it all out there. Headlined, “Mosque that Boston suspects attended has radical ties,” it begins by saying several people who attend “have been investigated for Islamic terrorism, including a conviction of the mosque’s first president, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, in connection with an assassination plot against a Saudi prince.” It adds that the sister mosque has invited guests who defend terror suspects and that a former trustee advocates “treating gays as criminals, says husbands should sometimes beat their wives and calls on Allah (God) to kill Zionists and Jews.”

It might be helpful to know a little bit more about mainstream Muslim thought on some of these topics. And I’d like to hear the comments in context, to know if they’re accurately conveyed. It quotes someone saying that the curriculum of the mosque radicalizes people and that other people have been radicalized there. It includes this quote in response:

Yusufi Vali, executive director at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, insists his mosque does not spread radical ideology and cannot be blamed for the acts of a few worshipers.

“If there were really any worry about us being extreme,” Vali said, U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and Departments of Justice and Homeland Security would not partner with the Muslim American Society and the Boston mosque in conducting monthly meetings that have been ongoing for four years, he said, in an apparent reference to U.S. government outreach programs in the Muslim community.

Now, considering that some groups have been questioning the U.S. government’s involvement with some mosques — and the FBI’s lack of interest in the brothers despite repeated warnings — perhaps a response to this quote would have been in order. But it’s already pretty long and there’s not space for every back and forth. The article again mentions that the two mosques share an owner and later on they mention that they’re both affiliated with the Muslim American Society.

The article states that the FBI has not indicated that either mosque was involved in the terrorism commited by the Tsarnaev brothers. But it does list some of the attendees and officials who have been “implicated” in terrorist activity. And it’s an impressive list:

• Abdulrahman Alamoudi, who signed the articles of incorporation as the Cambridge mosque’s president, was sentenced to 23 years in federal court in Alexandria, Va., in 2004 for his role as a facilitator in what federal prosecutors called a Libyan assassination plot against then-Saudi crown prince Abdullah. Abdullah is now the Saudi king.

• Aafia Siddiqui, who occasionally prayed at the Cambridge mosque, was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 while in possession of cyanide canisters and plans for a chemical attack in New York City. She tried to grab a rifle while in detention and shot at military officers and FBI agents, for which she was convicted in New York in 2010 and is serving an 86-year sentence.

• Tarek Mehanna, who worshiped at the Cambridge mosque, was sentenced in 2012 to 17 years in prison for conspiring to aid al-Qaeda. Mehanna had traveled to Yemen to seek terrorist training and plotted to use automatic weapons to shoot up a mall in the Boston suburbs, federal investigators in Boston alleged.

• Ahmad Abousamra, the son of a former vice president of the Muslim American Society Boston Abdul-Badi Abousamra, was identified by the FBI as Mehanna’s co-conspirator. He fled to Syria and is wanted by the FBI on charges of providing support to terrorists and conspiracy to kill Americans in a foreign country.

• Jamal Badawi of Canada, a former trustee of the Islamic Society of Boston Trust, which owns both mosques, was named as a non-indicted co-conspirator in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation terrorism trial in Texas over the funneling of money to Hamas, which is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The article also mentions a little bit about the Muslim American Society:

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In tsunami of Boston info, there are basic faith questions

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As the drama keeps unfolding in and around Boston, it’s safe to say that journalists now face crucial decisions about the role of religion — specifically radical forms of Islam — played in the motives behind this act of terrorist.

There is no way to read everything that is being written, at the moment, but we’re trying to stay informed (even while, in my case, teaching classes). However, over on the journalistic left, Mother Jones has published this sobering information:

Authorities have identified the deceased suspect in the bombing of the Boston marathon, which killed three and injured more than 170, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A user by that name has posted a video to his YouTube playlist extolling an extremist religious prophecy associated with Al Qaeda. It is not clear yet whether the user is the same Tsarnaev as the deceased suspect.

The YouTube page includes religious videos, including one of Feiz Mohammad, a fundamentalist Australian Muslim preacher who rails against the evils of Harry Potter. One playlist includes a video dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, which is embraced by Islamic extremists—particularly Al Qaeda. The prophecy states that an invincible army will come from the region of Khurasan in central Asia.

“This is a major hadith (reported saying of the prophet Muhammad) that jihadis use, it is essentially an end-time prophecy,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy “This is definitely important in Al Qaeda’s ideology.”

Buzzfeed has posted a virtual shopping list of information about the accused brothers, who continued to be identified as Chechen even through these appear to be ties that are rooted in emotional rather than lived experience and upbringing.

The Muslim card is clearly in play, after social-media links provided quotes such as these — drawn from Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s “Will Box For Passport” mixed martial arts site.

“Originally from Chechnya, but living in the United States since five years, Tamerlan says: ‘I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.’”

“Tamerlan says he doesn’t drink or smoke anymore: ‘God said no alcohol.’ A muslim, he says: “There are no values anymore,” and worries that ‘people can’t control themselves.’”

To what degree is it news that there are radical Muslims who look at American and feel primarily anger, as opposed to millions of other Muslims who have come to have varying degrees of acceptance and affection for this nation and its emphasis on religious freedom?

What are the crucial questions at this point?

GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that I think the best questions are the old ones, the questions that might yield factual information that journalists can use when attempting to portray the degree to which faith did or did not drive those behind these acts. It is also crucial to learn everything that can be learned about the form of Islam that the brothers claimed, repeat “claimed,” to have been following. Why? Because the world is Islam is large and complex and there is no one monolithic Islam that can be described in simplistic language.

What kind of questions are we talking about?

I was struck by one claim that I have seen in several publications. Here is the Buzzfeed take:

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, is the remaining suspect in the Boston marathon bombings — the subject of a massive manhunt Friday morning in Watertown, Massachusetts, multiple sources reported Friday morning. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, has been identified as the first suspect and died overnight following a firefight with police.

NBC News’ Pete Williams said earlier Friday morning that the two suspects likely had “foreign military training,” and had been in the country for about a year.

Later he said they were brothers, and added, “They were legal permanent residents. They were in this country legally, at least a year. They appear to be from Turkey, possibly Chechens from Turkey. That seems to be the nationality here.”

Just before 7 a.m. Friday morning, the Associated Press confirmed Williams’ reporting and naming Tsarnaev.

Foreign military training?

Now, hours later, some of those claims are in question — primarily since it appears the brothers had been in America for a number of years (as verified by some family members). This NBC interview with an uncle is getting lots of attention:

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Covering the religion angle on breaking Boston news

Yes, this has been a bad week for journalism. And many people are complaining. But it’s also been a great week for journalism. I was one of those folks listening in on the Boston police scanner last night and it was so very difficult to make sense of what was going on (though it was absolutely riveting, thrilling and horrifying).

Suddenly, in the midst of all the chaos, the New York Times published an account of the shootout between suspects and police. It’s since been updated and revised significantly so I can’t point to the original story (which is a shame, since I’d love to revisit it), but it’s just a reminder of the importance of skilled reporting in a breaking situation.

Breaking situations are also when we see problems, including with how religion angles are covered. This morning on Twitter there were reports that CNN had suggested that Islamic extremists never drink. CNN also was suggesting that the suspects were “devout.” In the case of the former, that’s simply naive or ignorant. In the case of the latter, I’d sure like a lot more information before we characterize the suspects in such a manner.

Of course, from what we know now, the suspects are Muslim, American residents, and refugees from Chechnya. They also had something of a social media footprint, which could give clues about their interests. There’s a lot of complexity even in that formulation. The best thing to do is to proceed with caution about what we know. Reuters handled it this way in a piece headlined “Boston suspect’s web page venerates Islam, Chechen independence“:

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posted links to Islamic websites and others calling for Chechen independence on what appears to be his page on a Russian language social networking site…

His “World view” is listed as “Islam” and his “Personal priority” is “career and money”.

He has posted links to videos of fighters in the Syrian civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles like “Salamworld, my religion is Islam” and “There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts”.

He also has links to pages calling for independence for Chechnya, a region of Russia that lost its bid for secession after two wars in the 1990s.

The brief article ends with something showing Tsarnaev’s sense of humor as well. Not bad for a quick piece based on limited information.

Are you seeing religion angles handled informatively and responsibly? Send us the links. Duds? Share those, too.


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