A quiverfull of kudos for the BBC

As an Evangelical in the media, I’m sympathetic to the struggle journalists have with reporting on our peculiar tradition. When simply defining what the term “Evangelical” means poses a challenge, it can be difficult to know how to report on shared beliefs within Evangelicalism, much less the on the more controversial sub-movements within the tradition.

The BBC news magazine recently ran a feature on the Quiverfull movement, though, that had me taking notes on how to do it right. Here are a few Journalism 101 tips about reporting on religious trends that I gleaned from the article:

1. Explain the movement in terms its adherents would agree with. – The BBC provides some helpful background by mentioning the term “Quiverfull” comes from Psalm 127:

The psalm – where children are compared to arrows for war – is the inspiration for the Quiverfull movement.

“Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They shall not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.”

Christians in the movement believe in giving up all forms of contraception and accepting as many children as God gives, both as a sign of obedience to God and in a bid to ensure the future of the faith.

2. Explain why the movement is newsworthy. – Almost any genuine religious trend is worthy of coverage, but the average reader should be given some reason for caring enough to read the article. The BBC provides a helpful, succinct explanation:

In the US, Quiverfull families frequently reach up to a dozen children with the numbers of adherents in the tens of thousands. But now the movement is gaining popularity in other countries.

In the UK, where the average family size is 1.7 children, this makes couples who follow its teachings stand out.

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A nun, some nukes and a haunted holy ghost story


So a nun and two peace activists walk into a nuclear facility …

It’s not the start of a bad joke, but the start of what could turn out to be a bad dream for a trio of protestors convicted of trespassing and defacing a nuclear weapons site.

A few weeks ago tmatt mentioned the activists in his post on the massive 14-part feature entitled “The Prophets of Oak Ridge.” As tmatt noted, the engaging profile was pure hagiography: “That’s exactly what we are dealing with here, in this feature that runs 9,000-plus words and is illustrated with cartoonish, yet powerfully iconic, drawings and photos.”

While that feature certainly created an idealized version of the protestors, it also painted a clear picture of what motivated the activists: religion.

Compare that with the recent CNN story about how the activists are now facing decades in prison for breaching the nuclear site. Although the story identifies them as a “nun and two peace activists” the article almost completely ignores the religion angle. The closest it comes is a mention of the activists singing hymns:

When the guilty verdict was read Wednesday evening, the three defendants appeared content, even singing along with protest hymns before they were taken into custody, according to WATE.

What exactly is a protest hymn? Is it merely a protest song that is sung by a nun, or is there some religious content to the songs? That should have been a tip off that more needs to be said about the religion in a story that includes a nun. Also, since the term “nun” could apply to a variety of Christian traditions (Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) as well as other religions (Jains, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, etc.) it’s helpful to clarify what religious order the woman belongs to rather than assuming that all nuns are Catholic.

Clarifying what type of protestors they are would have also been helpful. While the trio is shown in a video wearing anti-war t-shirts and are described by their attorney as “peace makers,” the CNN feature refers to them as “environmental protesters.” The only reason I could find for the description is that in the video clip the (Catholic) nun, Sister Megan Rice, says the real sabotage wasn’t any act committed by the protestors but rather the “sabotage to the planet.” While the use of nuclear weapons would certainly harm the environment, I suspect the sister had a broader, more human-centric, meaning in mind.

Had I not read the previous Washington Post feature, though, I would have had no clue there was a strong religious aspect to the story (even activism by nuns — of whatever religion — can be mostly politically motivated). The CNN article treats the activists mainly as pawns in a broader story about the security of nuclear materials.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the national security aspects, of course.

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An Army (trend) of one (or maybe two)

There’s an old journalism joke that goes, “Q: How do journalists count? A: One, two, trend.”

You can tell the joke is old since it implies that it takes at least three examples for a journalist to declare a “trend” and to write an article about it.

In the Twitter age, journalists who wait ’til they find three examples will get scooped, whatever that word means these days, which is why we now have trend stories based on a single-data point or worse.

A prime example is the Associated Press “Big Story” feature that ran with the headline, “Soldier Says She Faced Harassment Over Muslim Name.”

Sgt. 1st Class Naida Hosan is not a Muslim — she’s a Catholic. But her name sounded Islamic to fellow U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and they would taunt her, calling her “Sgt. Hussein” and asking what God she prayed to.

So before deploying to Afghanistan last year for her second war tour, she legally changed her name — to Naida Christian Nova.

This did not solve her problems.

Before we can get to the trend in the story, let’s talk about that headline and second sentence.

What exactly is a Muslim name? And what types of names sound “Islamic?” Some names certainly have religious connotations. If someone is named Christian that would certainly sound like a Christian name. Similarly, if a man is named Mohammed their name might sound “Islamic.” But Hussein is a relatively common Arabic name meaning “good,” “handsome” or “beautiful.”

Thus, there are Christians throughout the world named Hussein, including Barack Hussein Obama. Does the AP think the president’s name is Muslim and “sounds Islamic?”

The “Muslim name” angle is the necessary for the article, though, since it serves to establish the implied trend that members of the military are being discriminated against for having names that sound Islamic (i.e., a name that would be common in Arab cultures). The AP has stumbled upon a potentially significant religious story.

But if such harassment is occuring, why didn’t the AP make the effort to find Muslim soldiers with Arabic names who can verify the discrimination? Instead, their sole confirmation of extreme anti-Muslim bias is the biased anti-Christian activist Mikey Weinstein:

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Innumeracy on the Godbeat

In the summer of 1992, toy-company Mattel was criticized when their new Teen Talk Barbie included in her list of stock phrases, “Math class is tough!” The company offered to replace the doll for disgruntled customers, but they could have saved both time and money by simply rebranding the dolls as Journalist Barbie.

The fact that math class was tough is the reason many of us (major exception is math whiz M.Z. Hemingway) ended up in the media, working with words. But when it comes to their reporting, even journalists who can solve quadratic equations in their heads often have trouble with basic mathematical concepts.

Consider for example what I call the “Implied Percentage Headline.” These are headlines that imply the article will show that Factor A affects Factor B and C by X percent. A recent example is Matthew Brown’s article in the Deseret News titled,
Faith and work: Accommodating religion boosts morale and bottom line.” The implication is that Factor A (religion) affects Factor B (morale) and C (the bottom line) by X percent. But a closer look at the numbers reveals something doesn’t add up.

Brown attributes the bold claim of the headline to Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding:

Dubensky likes to tell that story to underscore a point her organization stresses when training companies and organizations on embracing diversity: Accommodating the religious needs of a workforce can boost morale and the bottom line.

Dubensky said business is finally responding. She cited research by DiversityInc that found 78 percent of the organization’s Top 50 diversified companies now offer floating religious holidays to employees compared with 42 percent nine years ago, and 70 percent provide prayer rooms today compared with 32 percent eight years ago. Awareness by employers and employees alike may continue to increase as America’s religious landscape becomes more diverse and issues of religious freedom arise as a result.

Before putting numbers into a news article, especially ones involving religion-related arguments, every journalist should ask, “Is that a significant number?” If they don’t know the answer themselves, then it’s likely their readers won’t know either.

Take, for instance, the first number in this claim which has to do with sample size: 50 companies. Even if these companies were randomly selected, the sample size would be too small to make a statistically relevant assertion about corporations in America. But the fact that they are 50 companies (our of a survey of 893) handpicked for diversity criteria (including religious diversity) makes the sample all but meaningless.

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So, what do Southern Baptists have to do to get some ink?

A couple of years ago the Southern Baptist Convention explored the option of changing their name to better reflect the national and international nature of the denomination. I thought at the time that it might be helpful to change the name to the “The Episcopal Church” so that the national news media would finally acknowledge the massive SBC’s existence.

Well, tmatt once offered some helpful theories for explaining why Episcopalians get so much ink by the elite press, but I’ve yet to hear a reasonable explanation why America’s largest non-Catholic flock is all but ignored.

A prime example is a story that has — so far — only been picked up by one mainstream media organization, The Tennessean in Nashville, the city in which the SBC headquarters is located:

Two Southern Baptist leaders said Monday that they reject conspiracy theories that the U.S. military will punish Christian soldiers who share their faith.

But they are worried about religious freedom in the military.

Kevin Ezell, head of the Baptist’s North American Mission Board, which endorses military chaplains, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, issued a statement Monday about religious freedom in the military.

The full statement (which can be found at the Baptist Press news site) offers a number of hooks for reporters who are late writing about the story that was discussed in churches and on military bases across the country.

The fact that such sober-minded, media-friendly and thoughtful Baptist leaders as Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, felt compelled to write about this issue is a signal that there’s a story out there that needs some calm, nuanced, informed reporting.

What, for instance, are the conspiracy theories they’re attempting to debunk?

If you’ve been following Smietana at The Tennessean you’d know.

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The powerful ghost in the death choir story

While I have listened to choirs that have bored me nearly to death with their singing, I never knew there were choirs that would sing to you when you are near to death.

Turns out, there are, and there’s a story there.

Jaweed Kaleem, the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post, highlights the small but growing trend of deathbed singers in his recent article on Threshold Choirs.

Death used to happen solely at home or in a hospital, with company limited to family, close friends and clergy. Solemn music would be reserved, perhaps, for the funeral. But as the options for the end of life have grown to include hospice, palliative care and other avenues that recognize not only physical but also emotional and spiritual well-being, Synakowski and like-minded volunteers are offering another service to the dying: soothing through a cappella song.

Each week, Synakowski and between five and 10 people gather around an imaginary bed to practice original songs written for the dying. The D.C. circle formed in January, and is one of the newest in a little-known, mainly U.S.-based network that began in Northern California 13 years ago and now includes dozens of groups across the country.

The full potential of web journalism is on display in Kaleem’s superb article. Just when you start to wonder what a deathbed song might sound like, the article drops in a sound clip of the choir performing two original songs. He even includes a slideshow of various choir groups and the people they sing for. From start to finish, it’s well-done, a solid piece of reporting.

But an article on death choirs shouldn’t be haunted by a holy ghost.

The choir members are recruited from churches, sing in churches and their practice session opens “as if it were a worship service.” So why don’t we hear more about the religious angle? The closest we come to finding out what sort of relationship the groups have toward religion is a line buried in a description of the singing events:

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Joe Carter: From GetReligion reader to scribe

Having been a reader and fan of GetReligion, I’m thrilled and honored to be joining as a contributor. Although I’ve been reading this site since its inception in 2004, my interest in the intersection of religion and journalism extends back a long, long time — maybe even back to the dark era before Terry Mattingly had a syndicated column.

As a high school student in the late 1980s, I applied for an internship at my hometown paper, The Clarksville Times. “This isn’t a news article, this is an editorial,” said the managing editor after seeing my first submission, “and only editors get to write editorials.”

I knew then I wanted to be an editor. What better job could there be than to write opinion pieces and criticize reporters?

My ambitions were delayed, though, by a 15-year hitch in the Marines. Soon after I worked as a writer, columnist and editor for a couple of daily Texas newspapers. For a short time, I even co-owned a small regional newspaper (The East Texas Tribune) before waking up to the frightening realization that I was a co-owner of a small regional newspaper.

After that I took a series of more stable communications-related jobs. I worked for a think-tank (Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity) and even a presidential campaign (Mike Huckabee for president) before returning to editing, first as the managing editor for the now-defunct webzine Culture11, a start-up (Daily Dish salute here) with the late David Kuo, and then as the online editor for the religious journal First Things.

Currently, I serve as a senior editor for the Acton Institute, an editor for The Gospel Coalition, and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College, that famous liberal arts college that is linked to the home-schooling world.

I’ve been interested in religion even longer than journalism. Growing up in Texas, my family attended almost every type of Protestant church, from Pentecostal, to Methodist, to Presbyterian. These days, I consider myself a Southern Baptist even though I attend a non-denominational church near my home in Ashburn, Virginia.

Here at GetReligion, I’m particularly interested in examining (think of it as the Sarah Pulliam Bailey chair) how the media covers the diverse, broad, confusing world of Evangelicalism (whatever that word means). I look forward to the opportunity to point out how journalists often get it right when it comes to Evangelicals or, on what I’m sure will be rare occasions, noted what the mainstream press get wrong.


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