Cult of the Seattle sex pastor?

From Christianity Today to The Tennessean, Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has been making a ton of headlines lately. Most, but not all, concern a new book by Driscoll and his wife, Grace, titled “Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, & Life Together.” (Just to be clear for those not paying real close attention, Driscoll is not the sex-on-the-roof pastor, although both were mentioned in the same ABC News report on Valentine’s Day.) magazine produced one of the more interesting pieces on Driscoll that I’ve seen. Fascinatingly  (or strangely?) enough, the 1,650-word report published Friday does not even mention the sex-in-marriage book, even though the story is about a disgruntled former member who alleges Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church subjected him to heavy-handed church discipline after he violated the megachurch’s sexual conduct covenant.

The Slate story — dubbed “A Shunning in Seattle” — bills itself this way:

A powerful megachurch’s harsh tactics raise questions about how much control churches should have over their members’ lives.

It’s intriguing subject matter, but sadly, the report falls short as a piece of serious journalism, assuming that’s how the magazine intended it.

There’s too much innuendo — and too few named sources — to deem this an accurate, evenhanded accounting of the facts and key players involved. That’s unfortunate, given that — in some ways — the writer flashes remarkable insight into the makeup and mechanisms of the modern megachurch.

The top of the story:

Until last fall, a 25-year-old Seattle man named Andrew was happily committed to Mars Hill Church, one of America’s fastest-growing megachurches with more than 5,000 members. He volunteered weekly for security duty at his branch of the church, joined a Bible study group, and had recently become engaged to the daughter of a church elder. Then he made a mistake that found him cast out: He cheated on his fiancee with a community college classmate. The fury over Andrew’s experience—and his decision to publicize the church’s internal disciplinary procedures—has led to accusations by other Christians that one of the most powerful evangelical voices in the country, Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll, employs a cultlike leadership style. Now, for the first time, Mars Hill is speaking out in response to its former member’s charges.

My three main problems with the story:

* The squishy approach to the facts:  About one-third of the way into the story, the ex-member — indirectly — gives his side of what happened:

According to that account, Andrew cheated on his fiancee, engaging in some kind of sexual contact short of intercourse with another woman. Racked with guilt, he quickly confessed to both his fiancee and another member of his small group. About two weeks later, he also admitted to having a premarital sexual relationship with his now ex-fiancee.

Slate takes that side of the story and uses it as the overriding narrative. Not until the next-to-last paragraph — roughly 900 words later — does the report present the other side of the story:

Dean describes Andrew as “a man who cheated on his fiancee, lied about it, and only confessed after being pressed about suspicious details.”

* The ‘cult’ label without adequate probing: In the lede, the story introduces the C-word, attributing it to “accusations by other Christians.” Later, “fellow evangelical Christians” are cited as those concerned about Driscoll’s practices. In another case, “some critics” is the all-encompassing attribution used.

The only actual named source using the term “cult-like” is a blogger, while a separate reference cites an unidentified ex-member who compared his experience — in a separate newspaper report — to people “drinking Kool-Aid.”

Is there true concern that Mars Hill Church is a cult? If so, more serious — and more in-depth — reporting is needed.

The Religion Newswriters Association’s stylebook guideline on cults is helpful:


A term that has come to be associated with religious groups far outside the mainstream that have overly controlling leadership or dangerous practices. For that reason, journalists should use it with the greatest care and only when they are certain it fits. On rare occasions, cult is an appropriate description. Two groups whose members committed mass suicide are examples: the Peoples Temple (Jonestown in Guyana, South America, 1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1997, California). Another example is the Branch Davidians, whose founder, David Koresh, died along with 75 followers in a 1993 standoff with government officials.

* The one-sided perspective: From beginning to end, it’s pretty clear in this piece who’s right (hint: it’s not Driscoll) and who’s wrong. That approach works great for an editorial, but not for a news story.

It would be interesting to see an actual mainstream news report on these allegations and Mars Hill Church’s approach to church discipline. In seeking to uncover the truth, such a report would, of course, need to quote actual church members by name — and not just one disgruntled ex-member identified by his first name only.

Such a piece also might explore questions left unanswered in the Slate story, such as the role of church elders at Mars Hill. It’s telling that the ex-member’s fiancee was the daughter of a church elder. Did that connection change the dynamics of how this particular situation played out? Hey, such a piece might even quote the fiancee and her father and seek to tell a fuller, fairer version of the truth.

To love and to cherish till WHEN?

My wife, Tamie, has battled illness for about a year and a half. She hasn’t felt much like going to the movies. But my other sweetheart — my 12-year-old daughter, Kendall — joined me on a pre-Valentine’s Day date to see “The Vow.”

We shared a large popcorn and enjoyed the true story of “a newlywed couple recovering from an accident that puts the wife in a coma. She wakes up with severe memory loss and can’t remember any of her life with her new husband … so he has to fight to win her heart all over again.”

The theater where we saw the film was packed as “The Vow” opened as the weekend’s No. 1 box office draw.

The movie itself has no religious content, as far as I can recall. The wedding does not even occur in a house of worship. Yet the film raises intriguing questions about the institution of marriage.

Kudos to Religion News Service, which recognized a peg for a timely trend story tied to the opening of “The Vow” and other recent examples of “the complexities of love in medically challenging situations.”

Here’s the top of the story by RNS senior correspondent Adelle M. Banks (editor’s note: a veteran speaker at tmatt’s Washington Journalism Center):

Philip Weeks fondly remembers the days when his wife of 56 years, June, was a nurse and an artist whose paintings were compared to Rembrandt’s.

Her paintings still hang in their home in Lynchburg, Va., but almost everything else has changed for the couple after she was diagnosed with possible Alzheimer’s and then an abrupt form of dementia.

In one moment, the retired Charismatic Episcopal bishop said, she would lean over to kiss him. “An hour later, she looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’” he recalled.

When the person you married goes through a dramatic change, what’s a spouse to do? As Valentine’s Day approaches, clergy, ethicists and brain injury experts agree: There are no easy answers.

The examples cited by RNS (including a recent mainstream news story that drew fierce debate here at GetReligion):

— Last summer, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson initially suggested on his “700 Club” program that a man divorce his wife who had Alzheimer’s and “start all over again” with dating. Alzheimer’s, he said, was “like a walking death.” He later said he was “misunderstood.” (See Mollie’s GetReligion post on media coverage of Robertson’s comments.)

— In early January, The Washington Post Magazine ran a story about a woman whose husband suffered a traumatic brain injury after a heart attack. She eventually decided to divorce him but continue caring for him with her second husband.

— On Friday (Feb. 10), “The Vow” hits movie screens, an adaptation of a rereleased book about a young married couple whose serious car accident left the wife unable to recognize her husband. In fact, she thought she was not married.

The RNS story hints at the role of faith in such decisions. For example, this section of the story provides opposing viewpoints:

Page Melton Ivie, the subject of The Washington Post story, said faith played a role in her decisions on how to best care for her first husband, Robert Melton.

“In the context of my faith, I am standing by him and with him,” she wrote during an online chat after the story was published. “I am fortunate to have found someone who will share this with me.”

Others didn’t look at it that way.

“Some day she will have to stand before God and explain why she put herself before her vows to God and to Robert,” wrote Dennis Babish, a blogger for Prison Fellowship’s Breakpoint Blog.

The original Post story, of course, did not offer any kind of depth on the faith angle of the decision. Sadly, readers of the new RNS report are likely to left wanting more, as well. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with the fact that this is a wire service story of less than 1,000 words. Also, it certainly seems that the principle players in the story are not anxious to discuss the faith details. I couldn’t help but wish for more insight on how faith influenced Ivie.

Similarly, NBC’s brushes over the faith angle of the real-life couple on whom “The Vow” movie is based:

In a family built on determination and faith, Kim and Krickitt Carpenter have learned that love not only conquers all, it also fills seats in movie theaters.

Yet the NBC report — like the movie — offers no elaboration on that reported “faith.”

The RNS story ends with a nod to the faith of the bishop quoted in the lede:

Weeks, who has self-published a book called “A Long Dark Night: A Caregiver’s Journey with Dementia,” said he came close to losing his faith, but not his love. Eventually, he said, he stopped doubting God.

“He was giving me a quality of love for her that I did not have before,” the bishop said of his wife. “I think I’m a better husband now because I’ve learned how to deal with this.”

For those looking for deeper meaning, one of the more thought-provoking scenes in “The Vow” concerns not the young couple but the woman’s mother. The young wife learns that her father had an affair with her young friend and confronts her mother about why she stayed with him. The mother responds:

I chose to stay with him for all the things he’s done right; not the one thing he’s done wrong. I chose to forgive him.

Back to the original theme — the question of what exactly “till death us do part” means — it seems that an enterprising religion writer might tackle issues related to how specific faith groups would handle such a traumatic situation. For example, under what circumstances, if any, would a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam advise a spouse to untie the knot?

Not a pretty kind of truck stop

I like to read a good story.

Story, I said.

A story is not the same thing as a report. A report might give you all the facts you need to know (the five W’s and H). But a story tells a tale. A story has characters, details, insight. There’s a beginning, a middle, an end.

A story by CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi caught my attention this week. Here’s the top of Marrapodi’s story on “The new Christian abolition movement”:

Greensboro, North Carolina (CNN) —The truck-stop hooker is no Julia Roberts, the trucker in the cab with her no Richard Gere, and this truck stop off the highway could not be any farther from Beverly Hills, the staging ground for “Pretty Woman.”

The woman sports baggy shorts, a white T-shirt and frizzy hair. Her fat middle-aged pimp sits in a beat up red Honda, watching as his “lot lizard” moves from truck to truck, in broad daylight.  If this pimp has a cane it is for substance, not style.

She moves through the parking lot, occasionally opening a cab’s passenger-side door and climbing in.

The trucker and hooker disappear in the back for 10 minutes.

Danielle Mitchell watches from the other end of the parking lot and shakes her head.

Keep reading, and you learn that Mitchell is (or was) the North Carolina human trafficking manager for World Relief.

The nut graf:

Mitchell is trying to tackle a disaster in her home state.   And she is not alone.

Motivated in large part by their religious traditions of protecting the vulnerable and serving “the least of these,” as Jesus instructed his followers to do in the Gospel of Matthew, World Relief and other Christian agencies like the Salvation Army are stepping up efforts and working with law enforcement to stem the flow of human trafficking, which includes sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

“Jesus didn’t just go around telling people about himself.  He also healed the blind and healed the brokenhearted, he freed captives, and I think that it would be ridiculous to walk up to someone who is hurting and tell them, ‘Let me tell you about the Gospel,’ and then walk away while they’re still hurting,” Mitchell says.

Up high, the Godbeat pro does a fine job of capturing the religious motivation of the main character. Overall, this story benefits from at least three P’s (none of which is “prostitute”):

Place: The reporter takes readers to the scene of the action and provides specific, compelling details.

— Personality: The reporter includes gems such as this:

This truck stop is the type you think twice about. It’s grimy and run down.

How badly do I really have to use the bathroom?  I bet I could hold out for another 12 miles.  That kind of place.

— People: The reporter puts a real human face on the movement, in the form of Mitchell.

However, there is one peculiar aspect to the story (hey, there’s another “P”). After proclaiming up high that World Relief is “stepping up” these efforts, the writer drops this minor bombshell deeper in the piece:

“Victims are not going to self-identify,” says Mitchell, who has since left World Relief and is considering going back to school after a lack of funding threatened to cut her hours to part time. “ They’re not going to say ‘I’m a victim of human trafficking.’ So the burden is really on the service providers and law enforcement and the community.”

Not sure I understand how World Relief can be “stepping up” efforts if it’s cutting back on staff. I’m sure this wrinkle did not make the journalist who’d already invested time in this piece overly jubilant.

My other nitpicky question: According to the story, the number of victims of human trafficking being referred to World Relief for services is up “700% in 2011.” That’s a big jump, yes. But what specific number of victims are we talking about? Is the writer quoting actual verifiable records? Or is that figure coming straight from Mitchell’s mouth?

Alas, this is not a perfect story. But I enjoyed it.

I like to read a good story.

The narrow Prop 8 decision

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”Mark Twain

That quote is one of my favorite.

In an extremely loose fashion, I think it applies to the two news stories I’m about to review — each of which appeared above the fold on the front page of a different Times today, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles.

I first read the New York Times’ story on a federal appeals panel’s ruling Tuesday throwing out California’s Proposition 8, a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage passed in 2008. I found the coverage confusing, beset with legalese and lacking any real insight on the repeated characterization of the 2-1 decision as “narrowly framed.”

Then I read the Los Angeles Times’ story and was amazed by how much more effectively it explained the judges’ reasoning (on both sides), analyzed the potential national ramifications and clearly made me understand the meaning of “narrowly written.”

The top of the L.A. Times report:

Reporting from San Francisco and Los Angeles — A federal appeals court has declared California’s 2008 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, concluding that the prohibition served no purpose other than to “lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians.”

The 2-1 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was narrowly written to limit its scope to California’s borders and possibly even avoid review by the U.S. Supreme Court, legal experts said. Nonetheless, gay-rights advocates hailed Tuesday’s decision as historic, while supporters of Proposition 8 immediately vowed to appeal.

Instead of expanding the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians, the court based its decision on a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court precedent that said a majority may not take away a minority’s rights without legitimate reasons.

The two stories, dare I say, epitomize the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

The N.Y. Times story boils down the decision to two judges on one side who believe Proposition 8 “serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gay men and lesbians in California.” Then there’s the dissenting judge, who “wrote that the court was overreaching in nullifying a voter initiative.” That’s the full extent of the dissent, if all you read is the N.Y. Times. 

Contrast that with the L.A. Times’ report, which explains why the 2-1 decision may be seen as narrowly applying to California and not a potentially precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court case:

But other lawyers and legal scholars said the 9th Circuit might have the final word on Proposition 8 because the ruling was so pointedly limited to California, a state where voters stripped a minority of a right that already existed and where the usual justifications for a same-sex marriage ban, responsible parenting and procreation, are undercut by domestic partner laws.

Proposition 8 passed as a constitutional amendment six months after the California Supreme Court struck down a state law that limited marriage to a man and a woman, and an estimated 18,000 same-sex couples married during that time. The initiative also did not affect parenting rights of gays and lesbians, which are protected under other state laws.

“That legal background does not exist in most states,” said University of Minnesota Law School professor Dale Carpenter, who has followed the case.

As for the dissenting judge, whose only rationale was upholding the will of the voters? According to the L.A. Times, there’s a little more to his position:

Judge N. Randy Smith, a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, dissented, arguing that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples could be justified on the grounds that heterosexual couples are the only couples who can procreate naturally.

“The family structure of two committed biological parents — one man and one woman — is the optimal partnership for raising children,” Smith wrote.

He also noted that states may legitimately prohibit bigamy, incest, bestiality and other sexual relationships condemned by society, as well as impose age limits for marriage or require tests for venereal disease without running afoul of constitutional rights.

Barry McDonald, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University, called Smith’s arguments “very reasonable.” Whereas the Colorado case barred gays from receiving all sorts of protections from discrimination, Proposition 8 was limited to marriage, McDonald noted.

“It’s going to be tougher to make the case that the voters of California were animated by pure animus alone” in passing Proposition 8 “since they already had done so much in giving gays and lesbians all the rights of marriage,” McDonald said.

Alas, and maybe it’s just me, but the N.Y. Times gave me a chuckle by including a parenthetical statement in one sentence suggesting that “some view” the Ninth Circuit as “liberal.” Actually, “the most notoriously liberal appeals court in the nation” is how a leading evangelical describes the circuit that in 2002 declared the “one nation under God” phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional.

Even more humorous, given the Ninth Circuit’s notoriety, the N.Y. Times apparently got the circuits confused in its original story. This correction is appended to the online story:

Correction: February 7, 2012

A previous version of this article said supporters of Proposition 8 might ask a larger panel of the 11th circuit to review Tuesday’s decision. It would be the Ninth Circuit.

(A quick Google search reveals that the 11th Circuit is based in Atlanta.)

For its part, the L.A. Times characterizes the two majority judges this way:

Joining Reinhardt, a liberal lion of the 9th Circuit appointed by former President Jimmy Carter, was Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, a former Arizona federal prosecutor and an appointee of former President Bill Clinton.

Both stories, meanwhile, end with a jubilant supporter of gay marriage celebrating Tuesday’s ruling. I guess none of the people (including religious leaders) who rallied on behalf of Proposition 8 were available to express their disappointment?

Those are, of course, just two examples of the coverage of the decision. Have you seen other particularly egregious or exceptional stories? Please provide links in the comments section.

A reminder that GetReligion promotes fair, accurate reporting on religion in the secular media. We’re not here to argue the case or the politics, so please focus on journalism or we’ll be forced to overturn your comment with no appeal.

Photos via Shutterstock

Josh Hamilton’s Christian rehab

The demons are back. Not that they ever left.

Baseball star Josh Hamilton’s ongoing battle with alcohol and drug addiction made headlines again this week when the Texas Rangers slugger acknowledged drinking at a Dallas bar.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton’s riches-to-rags story knows that the former No. 1 pick in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft hit rock bottom before a return to the sport’s Promised Land. He credits his recovery to his Christian faith.

A contrite Hamilton appeared before the Dallas-Fort Worth-area sports media Friday and — speaking without notes — delivered a 12-minute statement about his relapse. He opened by mentioning his “relationship with the Lord.” In all, he referenced “the Lord” twice and “Christ” once.

That prompted this Twitter post from Randy, a minister friend of mine:

In presser, Hamilton talked plainly about “Christ being his rehab.” Are you surprised that in quotes on ESPN scroll, no mention of Christ?

I tweeted back:

@OK_Rope12 I’m not surprised. Then again, I write for @getreligion :-)

At that point, I had seen the transcript of Hamilton’s remarks but not any of the actual news coverage.

This morning, I took time to explore some of the coverage. Actually, I was pleased (and surprised) with how nicely many of the reports handled the religion angle.

For example, here’s a big chunk of the main story on ESPN’s Major League Baseball page:

“I cannot take a break from my recovery,” Hamilton said. “My recovery is Christ. My recovery is an everyday process. When I take that one day off, it leaves me open for a moment of weakness and it’s always been that way.

“For everybody that I’ve hurt, for fans, kids, people that have addictions that look up to me, I apologize to you. When you’re doing this, you don’t mean to hurt anybody, but you’re only thinking it hurts yourself, but I know it hurt a lot of people.”

After his public apology earlier in the day, Hamilton appeared as scheduled Friday night at a Christian men’s rally in Katy, Texas, near Houston. He again didn’t take any questions, and spoke only to the congregation.

“I could hide in shame and not show up tonight and be withdrawn, but I didn’t want to do that,” Hamilton told the group while reiterating his Christian faith. “I’m doing what I had to do today. I am fessing up. I am going to be a man about it, I am fessing up. People are going to call me a hypocrite, but I am a sinful man.”

Hamilton’s wife Katie posted a couple of messages on her Twitter account earlier in the day.

“Truly appreciate all the encouraging & supportive tweets we’ve been getting,” one tweet said. “God is Faithful and forgives — so thankful that you all are.”

Another tweet read: “Showing us such love and encouragement during this time.”

No religion ghost there. Please forgive me, ESPN, for ever doubting you. (And please forgive Randy, too.) The Associated Press provided similar coverage.

The Houston Chronicle noted that St. Louis Cardinals slugger Lance Berkman, Hamilton’s foe in the 2011 World Series, showed up at the men’s rally Friday night to support his fellow evangelical Christian.

Alas, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s main story managed to report on Hamilton’s statement without one use of the terms “Lord,” “Christ” or even “Christian.” There was this vague note:

His focus has returned to his plan to stay sober, which starts with his faith and is aided by reaching out to his support network during times when he isn’t as strong as he needs to be.

His faith in what?

Maybe the Star-Telegram (which featured a column Friday that alluded to Hamilton’s “religious faith”) assumes that everybody in its reading audience already knows all about the slugger’s Christianity.

Then again, how difficult would it be to add that one simple word (“Christian”) between his and faith?

L.A. Times fails to draw religious blood

Did you hear the one about the atheist doctor asked to treat Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t believe in blood transfusions?

Well, it’s no joke, as the Los Angeles Times highlighted in a Column One story — the newspaper’s most prime real estate — this week:

The Times’ compelling opening:

Christina Blouvan-Cervantes had been battling aggressive leukemia when her blood count plummeted and she landed in the emergency room in Fresno. Her doctors told her a blood transfusion was her only hope. But her faith wouldn’t allow her to receive one.

So she turned to one of the only doctors who could possibly keep her alive: a committed atheist who views her belief system as wholly irrational.

Dr. Michael Lill, head of the blood and marrow transplant program at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, is a last recourse for Jehovah’s Witnesses with advanced leukemia.

They arrive at Lill’s door out of desperation and a desire to live. Many specialists decline to treat them because of their biblically centered refusal to accept blood transfusions, a mainstay of conventional care for the cancer.

Lill thinks their refusal is risky and illogical but nevertheless has devised a way to treat them that accommodates their religious convictions.

Despite his belief that God doesn’t exist, he has become a hero to many devout believers.

It’s not a terrible story at all. In fact, I’d describe it as almost adequate.

On the positive side, the writer certainly treats the religious beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with respect.

The problem, from a GetReligion perspective, is that the piece handles the religion element in such a casual, shallow way. My suspicion after reading the entire 1,500 words was that a health writer, not a Godbeat pro, produced the story (and I was right). Too bad the Times didn’t employ an editor with religion expertise to ask simple questions that could have improved the report dramatically.

For instance:

— Consider this paragraph:

Jehovah’s Witnesses draw their beliefs about blood from a literal interpretation of the Bible, which repeatedly warns against its consumption. Among the passages often cited by adherents: “You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water.”

Why not cite the specific biblical reference (Deuteronomy 15:23)?

— And this graf:

During Lill’s rounds one recent morning at Cedars-Sinai, he washed his hands and went into the room of Kyle Hester, a 21-year-old Jehovah’s Witness from Fresno who was waiting for a stem cell transplant. Hester lay in his bed, hooked to an IV and an oxygen tube. His face was pale and his arms swollen. A book of Scripture lay open beside him.

What book of Scripture are we talking about? Is it the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own New World Translation?

— And this passage:

Wanda Smith, a Jehovah’s Witness from Texas, sat on an examination table in Cedars-Sinai’s outpatient cancer center. Her husband, Will, clasped a blue bag filled with medications.

Lill greeted the couple and launched into routine questions about her recovery from her stem cell transplant: Any coughing or shortness of breath? Nausea or vomiting? How is your appetite?

Smith, 65, announced in a Southern accent that she had gained six pounds in a week. Lill teased her about a Jehovah’s Witness tenet: “And you aren’t supposed to be celebrating Christmas or anything else.”

“No, I didn’t,” she laughed. “I just got my appetite back.”

You get the vague impression that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas. But why not use the opportunity to share a few details about their beliefs, including why they don’t celebrate Christmas, Easter or other holidays they consider pagan?

— Finally, this graf:

She heard about Lill through her church, and soon she was undergoing chemotherapy at Cedars-Sinai. After returning home, she ended up in the emergency room with a high fever. As she moaned and struggled to breathe, doctors and nurses pleaded with her to accept a blood transfusion. Barely able to speak, she scribbled a note: “Please don’t give me blood.”

The Religion Newswriters Association’s online stylebook notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses call their gathering places “Kingdom Halls,” not “churches.”

That’s a minor detail maybe.

But the lack of attention to it seems to exemplify the story’s overall indifference to the religion angle — both in terms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith and the atheist doctor’s lack thereof.

Photo via Shutterstock

College newspaper in the rough

Back in the Stone Age, when student journalists still cut out headlines with X-Acto knives and pasted chemically drenched text to layout sheets with hot wax, I edited my campus newspaper.

In my early 20s at the time, I felt reasonably confident that I knew everything there was to know about journalism.

That’s why, of course, that I approved a front-page photo one time of a student blood drive. But for some reason, a few readers (OK, a whole lot of readers) did not approve of the close-up shot of the needle going in a donor’s arm.

Another time, a colleague (now a veteran city beat writer at The Oklahoman) reported on the arrest of a student leader on a rape complaint. We decided to identify the complaining party — the alleged victim — as well as the person arrested. We argued in print that granting rape victims anonymity contributed to the stigma of the crime.

That was 20-plus years ago.

Alas, I mention all of the above as full disclosure because I am about to question the journalistic sanity of the fine folks at The Daily O’Collegian, the student newspaper at Oklahoma State University. This week, that paper ran a glowing front-page story about a new strip club.

The top of the story:

Jerry and Amber Elledge have made bare breasts their business.

As husband and wife, the two own the Blue Diamond Cabaret, a strip club, at 7320 E. Sixth St.

The club opened Jan. 13, less than a month after the Doll House closed.

Jerry, who has worked in adult entertainment for 15 years, said his passion for his work started when he was an Oklahoma State University student.

“I went to my first topless club at 21, and I never really left,” Jerry said.

As riveting as that lede is, it’s the headline that the paper, um, stripped across the top of the story that’s generating discussion:


I learned about the brouhaha from my friend Kenna Griffin, an Oklahoma City University journalism professor and a former metro desk colleague of mine at The Oklahoman. In a blog post titled “Student Newspaper Pushes Boundaries,” Griffin opined:

While I’m not offended by the headline, it seems this is a good time to practice the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” standard of journalism ethics.

The O’Colly’s editors should have considered the mass of their newspaper readership, which goes beyond the student body. They also should have considered how the headline might impact people’s views of the legitimacy of their publication. As one newspaper adviser said in an email during the discussion:

“I believe a rule of thumb for the editors to measure the acceptability of a headline is to determine if it wants to be a tabloid or a credible newspaper. ‘What would the New York Times do?’ versus ‘What would the National Enquirer or a similar publication do?’”

One thing is for certain. The O’Colly got people’s attention.

My reaction is less subtle: It’s crappy journalism.

The sensationalism screams for attention. But where’s the healthy dose of journalistic skepticism?

Is there no source who might discuss the potential negative side of a business selling women’s bodies? Is there no leader who might weigh in on whether this is the kind of establishment the community needs? Is there no one at the sheriff’s department who might respond to the story’s claim that the new-and-improved strip club has brought a higher level of (bare-breast-loving) clientele?

Again, we’re talking about student journalists. They’re still learning (hopefully) and may be unfamiliar with GetReligion ghosts. But this kind of performance does little to inspire confidence in the future of the profession.

Then again, look who’s talking.

Photo via Shutterstock

Pod people: More on Romney’s tithing

Last week, I critiqued a Sacramento Bee story tied to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon tithing.

The top of the Bee’s report:

Mitt Romney’s tax returns reveal that the Republican presidential candidate does something fewer Americans do these days: He tithes.

Romney’s 2009 and 2010 tax returns, released Tuesday, show that he and his wife, Ann, gave 10 percent of their income, about $4.1 million, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The couple reported income of about $43 million for the two years.

While generally positive about the California newspaper’s approach, I played editor and proposed a few questions that my markup of the reporter’s draft would have included.

My first question concerned the specific amount that Romney gave:

Can you explain the figures in the second graf? By my calculation, $4.1 million of $43 million is 9.5 percent, not 10 percent. Has there been any explanation of the apparent discrepancy?

In the comments section, Frank Lockwood of Bible Belt Blogger fame chimed in with some helpful clarification.

Meanwhile, as I had time to read other news coverage of Romney’s tithing more closely, I discovered that Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll had offered helpful explanation:

A campaign official said the governor bases his tithes on estimated income, since he donates to the church at the end of the calendar year before his taxes are finalized. He plans to pay above the 10 percent in 2011, to make up for the underestimate the year before, the campaign official said.

For many Mormons, the percentage of tithing varies from year to year.

“In one given calendar year, I might actually `pre-pay’ some tithing and then the next year, I’ll kind of work that into my calculation,” said Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News, which is owned by the LDS church. “I think that most Latter-day Saints can recognize it looks like he’s giving roughly a 10th, whether it’s one calendar year or over an extended period of time.”

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about the media coverage of Romney’s tithing.

We also spent a few minutes discussing my recent post on a Denver Post story on cowboy churches.

By all means, check out the podcast.