Can we get some historical context on the canonized popes?

If you’re elected Bishop of Rome, you join one of the world’s most exclusive lists. As the Supreme Pontiff of the 1.2 billion member Catholic Church, you are — quite literally — one in a billion. But after you die you have a chance to join an even more exclusive group: papal saints. Out of the 264 deceased popes only 78 have the honor of being canonized.

If you were one of the first 54 popes you had a good shot of making the cut (all of the first 35 popes and 52 of the first 54 were canonized). But since the 1500s, only one man — Pope Pius X, who died in 1914 — has been added to the list. Sixteen others are on the track to sainthood, but last week two former popes were moved to the front of the line: Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.

From 1572 to 1954, only one pope was declared a saint. And now, in 2013, two more are added to the list. In other words, this is significant religion story. So why then isn’t it being treated that way?

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the media covered the second miracle attributed to JP II. This weekend tmatt also wrote about the way journalists cover the divine healing in response to the intercessory prayers of the saints. But while some reporters have covered the miracles, the significance of the event seems to be lost on the media.

Consider, for instance, the lede in the New York Times:

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Why atheists who pray should still be called atheists

What do you call someone who reads the Bible, attends church, prays daily, and believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, and life after death? Sometimes you call them “atheists.”

A reporter on the crime beat has clear-cut criteria for distinguishing between criminals and police. Likewise political journalists can typically rely on their readers understanding what they mean when they describe someone as being a Republican or Democrat. But religion reporters have a more difficult task when it comes to using labels.

Religious labels are intended to be prescriptive, a form of shorthand that provides a general overview of a person’s beliefs. If I say that someone is a Presbyterian it not only tells you what denomination they belong to, but implies that a number of other labels could apply as well (Christian, theist, etc.).

How then do reporters decide how to use religious labels? I think there are two helpful rule of thumbs. The first is to rely on a person’s self-description: Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not. This may seems obvious, but it’s a principle that is all-too-frequently violated. For instance, earlier this week I noted that Jeff Chu, who attends a church in a mainline denomination, was described by the AP as an “evangelical,” even though he says, “I don’t think I’d claim that label” and the reporter never contacted him to find out what he believed.

The second rule is that when other members of a religious group would dispute the self-identification, quote a source that puts the controversy in perspective. For example, a current dispute in Christian mission circles is whether someone who coverts from Islam to Christianity can continue to self-identify as Muslim.

As a religious matter it may seem clear: Christianity does not recognize Muhammad as a prophet and Islam does not consider Jesus to be God. Ergo, the label Muslim does not apply to Christian converts. But in many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, the term “Muslim” has broader cultural implications and not using it can be as controversial as converting to Christianity. A reporter should therefore allow a Christian covert to refer to themselves as Muslim but, for the sake of clarity, also quote a source that explains why others – both Christian and Muslim – might consider it inappropriate.

An excellent example of these principles in practice is Michelle Boorstein’s recent feature in the Washington Post on how “Some nonbelievers still find solace in prayer.” Boorstein’s article begins by quoting a self-identified atheist who prays to an image of a 15-foot-tall goddess he named “Ms. X” after Malcolm X.

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Could it be … Satan? Not in the news coverage

When abortion rights supporters showed up at the Texas state capitol to protest, the AP considers it worthy of a 800-plus word feature. The headline on Monday was “Crowd Of Thousands Packs Texas Capitol To Protest Abortion Bill.”

It was the largest demonstration at the Capitol in recent memory, with the Department of Public Safety pegging the crowd size at about 3,000 by mid-morning and The Associated Press later estimating it had grown to at least 5,000 participants at its peak. Scattered among the sea of orange were clusters of blue-clad counter-demonstrators who prayed, clutched crosses, sang and watched the debate from the Senate gallery, but they were far outnumbered by opponents of the legislation.

The AP makes a point of noting the religious activity of the counter-demonstrators (prayed, clutched crosses, sang hymns, the usual stuff), but why do they not mention the religious activity of the demonstrators? For example, what about those who were chanting, “Hail Satan”?

Texas blogger Adam Cahm, who recorded the video, says, “For the record: They’ve been doing this all day, this is just the first time we caught it on video.” So if the protestors were chanting “Hail Satan” all day yesterday, why have we not seen reports about today by mainstream outlets?

The Washington Times appears to be the only newspaper to report on these chants. Meanwhile, CNN producer Josh Rubin mentioned the chants on Twitter (“Crowd of anti abortion activists giving speeches while a group of people chant hail Satan in the background.”) but, so far, nothing on CNN, in terms of actual coverage.

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A tune on gay evangelicals that evangelicals won’t recognize

While working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew “Ring of Fire.” Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, “It goes something like that, right?” “No,” said Cash shaking his head. “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

I’m often reminded of that (perhaps apocryphal) story whenever I read mainstream media reports of conversations going on within evangelicalism. While the reporter may get bits and pieces right, the overall effect is that I finish the story thinking, “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

Take, for example, a feature yesterday by the AP, “Gay, evangelical and seeking acceptance in church.”

Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians, and the pressure isn’t coming from the gay rights movement or watershed court rulings: Once silent for fear of being shunned, more gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups – a development that even younger alumni say they couldn’t have imagined in their own school years

From the article, we can discern that four claims are being made (three from the opening lede, and one later in the feature):

1. Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups.

2. Gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out now, more so than in the past, about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

3. Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals.

4. Gay evangelicals have already prompted a backlash

The claim about students and alumni from Christian colleges forming gay and lesbian support groups is clearly supported by evidence, though the term “support group” is unhelpfully vague. This is a relatively underreported trend and could have been the focus of an entire article itself. Hopefully, the AP will provide additional coverage on that topic.

The second claim relies on a vague comparison to an undefined past. Still, it too is a relatively innocuous claim. The issue of homosexuality has become more openly discussed over the past ten years, so it would probably be fair to say that you could fill in the blank of “more gay and lesbian ______________ are speaking out” and have it be true for almost any group – including evangelicals.

The third and fourth points, which constitute the main theme of the article, raise the question of exactly how evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals and what sort of backlash is occurring:

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Want balanced coverage? USA Today shows how it’s done

A few weeks ago a study on news media coverage by the Pew Research Center showed that stories with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1.

While the findings weren’t a surprise to most people who read news stories I suspect it came as a shock to some of the folks who write them. While almost everyone in the media will admit they are biased, most professional news reporters are bothered by the idea that their bias is undermining their work as journalists. The Pew study thus served as both a wake-up call and a warning that more balance is needed.

Over the next few days, GetReligionistas will be seeing who learned that lesson as we examine the coverage of religion and same-sex marriage in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions. Tmatt got us started by showing how The Baltimore Sun missed an opportunity, but I want to show an example of a news outlet doing it right.

With a title like “Religious leaders divided on gay-marriage decisions” you normally expect (re: Pew) to see one religious leader — most likely a Catholic bishop — state their opposition while two to four representatives — most likely mainline Protestant pastors — express their support. But the feature by USA Today is not only more balanced than usual but also covers a broader range of the religious spectrum.

Here is a list of sources quoted and where they stand:

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Godless congregations copying Christian churches

Every year, approximately 4,000 new churches are started in the U.S. Out of that number, approximately 4,000 will receive no attention from the New York Times. So what makes Jerry DeWitt’s new church – located in a Hilton Hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – worthy of a feature in America’s greatest newspaper?

Perhaps it’s because DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher, had the marketing savvy to bill his church launch as “Louisiana’s first atheist service.”

It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.

Atheist “churches” are a hot new trend and worthy of broader news coverage. But there is something about this story that strikes me as peculiar. See if you notice anything strange about this sentence:

With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.

The general newspaper reader will likely pass over that sentence without giving it a second thought. But for a journalist – particular one writing a feature for the New York Times – that should be a signal to start asking more questions. For example, the first query that comes to mind is, “If you are starting a new church in Lake Charles, why hold the first service in a hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge – a two hour drive from where your chapel will be located?”

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Round two: How not to report on a miracle

Being recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church is a difficult process — almost as difficult, apparently, as trying to explain that process in a mainstream new story.

I realize that tmatt just wrote an early post on this topic, but, trust me, there’s plenty more coverage out there, complete with new and unique gaffes. Let’s go with round two.

So, an official at the Vatican claims that a new miracle has been attributed to the late John Paul II, clearing the way for his canonization. The news may be fairly straightforward, but journalists seem to make the same three mistakes in their reporting:

Not defining the theological terms — The AP must assume that its readers are familiar with the process since they don’t attempt to define or explain any of the terms used in their report:

A Vatican official says a commission of theologians approved a miracle attributed to his intercession, clearing a key hurdle. The case now goes to a commission of cardinals and then Pope Francis. John Paul’s canonization is possible in autumn to coincide with the 35th anniversary of his election, though the official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to reveal details about the case that it may be too soon.

The Polish-born pope has been on the fast track for sainthood ever since retired Pope Benedict XVI waived the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into his life and virtues to begin just weeks after his 2005 death. John Paul was beatified in 2011.

Leaving terms like “intercession,” “canonization,” and “beatified” unexplained might be acceptable for the National Catholic Reporter. But a mainstream wire service should not assume its readers are fluent in Catholic.

Claiming the process makes a person a saint — As EWTN explains, “By canonization the Pope does not make the person a saint. Rather, he declares that the person is with God and is an example of following Christ worthy of imitation by the faithful.” That’s not the impression you’d get, though, from reading The Daily Telegraph:

The Polish pontiff is likely to be formally made a saint in the autumn.

Or as CBS News says:

Pope John Paul II has moved a step closer to sainthood.

Well, no. John Paul may be closer to being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, but his status has already been determined and is not due to what CBS refers to as “the saint-making process.”

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The New York Times hides abortion editorial on front page

Yesterday after the House of Representatives voted 228 to 196 to limit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, I was surprised to find the following headline at the New York Times:

Democrats Defend Killing of Viable Fetuses to Appease Vocal Base

Only kidding, of course. As Matthew J. Franck of First Things wrote, that’s a New York Times headline we’ll never see. The real headline used exhibits the partisan editorializing we’ve come to expect from the Old Gray Lady:

G.O.P. Pushes New Abortion Limits to Appease Vocal Base

That was the title on the web version. A note says that a version of the article appeared on page A1 of the New York print edition with this headline:

Unfazed by 2012, G.O.P. Is Seeking Abortion Limits

You’ll search in vain for a label indicating the piece is “news analysis,” the fig leaf that allows editorials to be presented as news stories. Instead, the feature by Jeremy W. Peters is one long editorial sigh of frustration that a majority of Republicans are still, despite having lost the last presidential election, sticking with their pro-life agenda.

After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.

Yet after the high-profile murder trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia this spring, many Republicans in Washington and in state capitals across the country seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. …

Much of the movement in recent weeks can be linked to the outcry over the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia physician who was convicted last month of first-degree murder for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions.

His case, coming on top of successful efforts to curtail reproductive rights in several states over the last three years, has reinvigorated the anti-abortion movement to a degree not seen in years, advocates on both sides of the issue said.

If you were still wondering why it took an epic shaming by GetReligionista Mollie Hemingway to get journalists to cover the Gosnell story, there’s a hint. You can almost hear the frustration in the New York Times newsroom: “This is the type of nonsense that comes from bringing attention to Gosnell.”

But it gets better. Check out the next paragraph:

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