So long, GetReligion

It was about eight years ago exactly when I surprised Terry Mattingly by shouting his name as I encountered him on the street. His visage was familiar to me because I’d grown up reading him in “the Rocky” — the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado. My parents had always encouraged my siblings and me to read the newspapers and I devoured both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News every day. Front page to last page. I was interested in journalism from a young age, starting a newspaper at my elementary school and eventually editing the Yearbook at my high school in my junior and my senior year.

But for some odd reason, I never thought of journalism as an actual way to earn a living. I studied economics and headed into a different career field. But all of my journalist friends were having so much fun, even if they didn’t make a lot of money. I asked for advice and then took the plunge, somehow faking good enough Spanish-language skills to get a job at Radio & Records (and its sister publication Radio y Musica). One job led to another and I was living the dream — covering the federal bureaucracy on the waste, fraud and mismanagement beat for a Gannett publication.

I wanted to be writing about things that really mattered, though. Mostly that meant baseball, but also economics. And religion. Like most people, I’m religious. And while I loved reading a good news story about religion, I couldn’t believe how poorly much of the media covered religion news. The laughable mistakes, the complete distortion of doctrine, the hostility. So when GetReligion launched in 2004 or so, I was an early reader. I learned so much. It helped me develop a critical eye — an important first step to becoming a good writer.

By the time I chased Terry Mattingly down the street in 2005, I had begun writing about religion in my freelance time. I found that editors were actually quite anxious to pay people to write reported pieces on news and responded well to informed writers.

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Cheesiest Godbeat write-up of the year?

Via the Deacon’s Bench comes this example of how not to write a story about a scandal involving a Roman Catholic priest. Deacon Greg Kandra’s piece is headlined “Great moments in journalism: priest fathers a child, newspaper smirks.” He thinks it’s so cheesy that the journalists should get remedial training.

The story in the New York Daily News begins:

A Catholic priest in California is about to be another kind of father — after he unleashed his unholy spirit and begot a child.

Father Daniel McFalls quit his job at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Stockton after he was led into temptation and broke his vow of celibacy.

The popular preacher stunned his congregation by revealing in a letter that he will be swapping cassocks and communion cups for sleepless nights and dirty diapers.

“A child will soon be born, and I am the baby’s father,” he wrote.

Good grief! Even for a tabloid, that’s pretty bad.

The story itself is newsworthy and interesting. I mean, it’s not newsworthy that clergy are people, but it’s a good hook for a discussion on clergy celibacy and what happens when priests stray from their vows. It’s interesting to look at how local news covered this. This ABC station kept referring to how the priest stepped down because he “decided to have a child.” For instance, the anchor says here that “He’s leaving his downtown church because he’s decided to have a child.” It also included the priest saying some personal things about the mother of the child he helped conceive as well as viewer reactions ranging from dislike of celibacy vows to dislike of Protestants.

The Stockton Record had a pretty good story. It began with this correction from an earlier version:

Dean McFalls, former pastor of St. Mary’s Church, did not take a vow of poverty when he was ordained a Catholic priest. Incorrect information appeared in the print and initial online version of this article. The error has been corrected.

I love it when papers correct errors prominently. In an case, the story did a much better job with the specifics than the TV reports did:

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The warning in the atheist pastor story

The New York Times today has a piece headlined “Minister Admits Overstating Her Credentials,” an update of sorts to the previous week’s fluffy profile of a mainline pastor (“After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission”) that began:

Nine days before Easter in 2012, the Rev. Teresa MacBain sent a letter to the congregants she had pastored for three years at a Methodist church in Tallahassee, Fla. For much of that time, she had preached the Gospel every Sunday, only to slip each Monday into tormented doubt.

GetReligion readers are familiar with this story, as it was big news back in 2012 when CNN, NPR and Religion News Service covered it. Last week the Times had this follow-up:

Now, 18 months into a new life, Ms. MacBain is bringing much of her old one to the task of building congregations of nonbelievers. She has been hired as the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard with the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.

This line of work draws directly on Ms. MacBain’s experience of seeing her father create and build congregations throughout the small-town South and of her own track record of ministering in churches, prisons, nursing homes and drug-rehab centers. Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.

Gushy. So anyway, turns out the Harvard project won’t be going ahead with Ms. McBain:

A Methodist minister who resigned her pulpit last year after deciding that she was no longer a believer, and who was recently hired by a humanist group based at Harvard to help build congregations of nonbelievers throughout the country, has acknowledged fabricating aspects of her educational background.

The former minister, Teresa MacBain, whose crisis of faith was described in the On Religion column last Saturday, claimed she had earned a master of divinity degree from Duke University.

I think there are two items of journalistic interest in this news.

There’s the old editor’s adage about how if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. There’s a reason that we’re encouraged to be skeptical about — everything. But I don’t think that means reporters should be expected to call universities to verify degrees received. I would be particularly unlikely to check the veracity of obtaining a degree if the person had been hired at Harvard.

Although, it seems, Harvard was not doing its due diligence:

“Clearly we should have verified Teresa’s M.Div. degree rather than relying upon her résumé and the frequent, public references to it as she worked for and with several Freethought organizations.”

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Generic ‘God talk’ or something more?

YouTube Preview ImageWell here’s a pretty good example of what appears to be the failure to get religion details into a story. Here’s the top of the story from Yahoo! sports:

Concordia College Alabama coach Don Lee can’t help but think someone was watching over his team Saturday when the second of two buses headed for their game against Miles College blew up in front of them.

Lee, who is also the athletic director of the small school in Selma, Ala., was on the first bus when his phone and the phones of others on his bus started ringing. He looked behind him and saw his second bus wasn’t there. The driver of the second bus said they had blown a tire and, as they tried to pull off the road safely, blew another tire, which started a fire in the back of the bus.

“We had about 56 or 57 people on that bus,” Lee told Yahoo Sports. “When we didn’t see it, we got to a stop sign and turned around. We got to the bus and pulled everyone off. About 5 or 10 minutes after that, after we had gotten everyone to safety, the bus blew up. I mean blew up. We were just so blessed that we got everyone out safely.”

OK. So the coach thinks “someone” was watching over the team. He says they were “just so blessed” that everyone got out safely.

As the reader who submitted this piece noted:

The author writes the coach “can’t help but think someone was watching over his team” and and later cites a quote mentioning the team was “blessed.” Generic ‘god talk’? Or perhaps it might have to do with the fact the team is from a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod college?

Even if I weren’t a member of this church body, I’d want to see the affiliation of the school in a story of this nature. This is perhaps one of the most pervasive problems in mainstream media today — failure to just identify the religious affiliation of a given individual or group. Remember, journalists, that religion may not be important to you does not mean it’s not important to readers. Or heck, it’s not even about religious affiliation so much as just basic details about a story. When I read about a college in another part of the country, I like to know if it’s public or private and, if private, what affiliation it has. It’s why I read the news. To learn more about other places and events.

Anyway, the point is that even if the coach weren’t referencing religion in his quotes, it would still be important information. But it’s even more glaring when the quotes clearly indicate a religious posture on the part of the coach or school.

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Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Toasting the Godbeat

Last night the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty honored Eric Marrapodi, manager of CNN’s Belief Blog, with its first Vine & Fig Tree Journalist Award. I had the pleasure of attending and had an absolutely fantastic time and enjoyed meeting or seeing again many folks on the Godbeat.

I hadn’t really thought about what the evening would be like going in so I was pleasantly surprised at what a celebration of religion reporting it was. It’s really unusual to have even a small portion of a day set aside to honor good work or reflect on the importance of religion reporting.

Becket Fund President William P. Mumma got things going by talking about the Becket Fund, which fights for religious liberty on behalf of believers and non-believers alike. I wasn’t recording what he said but I was touched by his discussion of how difficult it is to cover religion, pointing out that believers are particular about their doctrines and that it can be difficult to navigate the conflict between religious adherents. He said he admired those who did it well. He noted that religion and the press are linked by a desire to find truth — a rather important point that I think we neglect. I recently read an essay about how the United States’ emphasis on a free press is actually rooted — from the infamous Zenger trial on — in a particular understanding of the importance of voluntarily seeking religious truth.

Sally Quinn toasted Marrapodi with a nice speech about how every story is about religion and how CNN’s BeliefBlog has done a great job showing that.

But it was Marrapodi’s speech that was the best. He joked about how he grew up freelance Protestant (which, he said, just meant that they went to a lot of different churches). When he was younger, he was utterly convinced that the media were biased against believers. Once he got into actual journalism work, he came to realize it wasn’t bias so much as ignorance. As he matured, he realized he was also ignorant of some things, which motivated him to study religion at Georgetown. He thanked his bosses who let him leave work early to take advantage of Lilly religion grant-funded courses at Georgetown. For three years!

Marrapodi talked about CNN’s Belief Blog and how he started it, giving props to fellow founder Dan Gilgoff. He joked about the site’s “broccoli and ice cream” approach — a balance of light and substantive stories. “You’ve got to keep the lights on folks!” he said. “This is a business!” The site has been wildly successful, with some 90 million hits in its first year. And I think he said the site had some 250 million hits at this point. Marrapodi said that there is a great audience for good, honest reporting on religion — and no religion.

It was all lovely. Marrapodi is a gracious award winner (and a great guy). And the night was a fun celebration of religion reporting. Congratulations to Marrapodi and to all who cover religion news well.

Was the Navy gunman Buddhist? Does it matter?

YouTube Preview ImageSome 12 people were killed by a gunman at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yards on Monday morning. This being near the U.S. Capitol, reporters hit the scene early. Details came out slowly and sometimes incorrectly, even when sourced to D.C. police spokesmen. It was a difficult slog for reporters trying to figure out just what happened.

The Washington Post had a team of reporters on the scene, including Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein who lives nearby. She and the others did excellent work, getting stories from survivors that helped give a picture of the chaos and destruction that hit the military installation. At some point the shooter was identified as Aaron Alexis. Somewhat surprisingly, two journalists at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram actually knew him as their waiter at a favorite Thai restaurant. You can watch a video of them talking about the alleged shooter at the bottom of this story or embedded above.

Soon acquaintances were talking about what they knew about him, including that he was a regular worshiper at a Buddhist temple. Boorstein tweeted:

Suspect had been at least for a time a practicing Buddhist #navyyardshooting

She received some push back for tweeting this, which seems unfair. One person wrote, “Forgive me for thinking it’s of secondary importance at this early stage. It conflates his spirituality with his crime. I suspect deliberately.” Boorstein noted she was just sharing information, which is her job as a journalist.

It’s not that reporters always perfectly handle religious affiliation as it relates to news stories. But I think people would be hard-pressed to argue that religious affiliation is not a good piece of information to share, if well substantiated.

If the Post had been rushing to tie religious affiliation to motivation or make it the predominant fact of the case, that would be inappropriate — or would be inappropriate outside of any substantiating facts. But simply mentioning that someone had, at least for a time, been a practicing Buddhist? That’s simply sharing information that reporters have about someone of much interest. Again, this is all with the caveat that these pieces of information should be well sourced.

As for the Washington Post story on the alleged shooter, the religious affiliation was mentioned there, too. Here’s the relevant portion:

By Monday afternoon, a portrait of Alexis had begun to emerge. He lived until recently in Fort Worth, where he was seen frequently at a Buddhist temple, meditating and helping out. He was pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics as an online student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

But Alexis also had been accused in at least two prior shooting incidents, one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle, according to police reports.

The story then spends many paragraphs discussing those prior shooting incidents. But it returns to the affiliation with the Buddhist temple. An assistant to the monks at the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center is interviewed:

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Closer to God than all the diagrams in the world

An obituary of Father Robert F. Capon in the New York Times? Sounds great. It begins:

Robert F. Capon, an Episcopal priest, author, theologian and food writer best known for “The Supper of the Lamb,” a sui generis book about cooking and metaphysics that has remained in print almost continuously since it was first published in 1969, died on Sept. 5 in Greenport, N.Y. He was 87…

Mr. Capon, who lived for many years on nearby Shelter Island, wrote 27 books from 1965 to 2004, most of them works of theology or New Testament interpretation that gave voice to a passionate, entertaining and sometimes unorthodox view of Christian teachings.

In books like “The Third Peacock: The Goodness of God and the Badness of the World” (1971) and “Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace” (1996), Mr. Capon (pronounced KAY-pun) dismissed most forms of conspicuous religious piety, construed the Gospels as a radical manifesto for freedom, and for better or worse championed what he called “the astonishing oddness of the world.”

It’s a great beginning, but I fear that the obituary focused on the food writing at the expense of some of these deep theological concepts. In my mind the two were woven more closely together. Take this passage that the Times quoted:

The onion passage became a favorite of readers. Before explicating a lamb recipe, Mr. Capon instructs readers to set the lamb shank aside and first spend some time with an onion — an onion they will cut into pieces for sautéing. “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are,” he writes. “Savor that for a moment.”

Noting that “an onion is not a sphere in repose” but “a linear thing, a bloom of vectors thrusting upward from base to tip,” he invites his readers to recognize their little onion “as the paradigm of life that it is — as one member of the vast living, gravity-defying troop that, across the face of the earth, moves light- and air-ward as long as the world lasts.”

But it leaves out the line “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

I think this passage Rod Dreher quoted at the time of Capon’s death is worth noting. It’s a benediction from the end of the Supper of the Lamb chapter about how to stage a dinner party:

I wish you well. May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys. And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its won. May you relish them indeed. May we all sit long enough for reserved to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.

We are great, my friend; we shall not be saved for trampling that greatness under foot. Ecce tu pulcher es, dilecte mi, et decorus. Lectulus noster floridus. Tigna domorum nostrarum cedrina, laquearia nostra cypressina. Ecce iste venit, saliens in montibus, transilens colles. [Behold, you are beautiful, my love, and fair. Our bed is blooming. The beams of our house are cedar, the ceiling is cypress. Behold, he is coming, leaping over the mountains, jumping across the hills. (From the Song of Solomon) -- RD]

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