A final goodbye with an eye on the future

Since joining GetReligion three years ago, I have felt like a giant walking paradox.

I would write a GetReligion post about the missing religion angle or the unfair twisting of the facts to fit a narrative. Then I would try to cover religion in a smart and interesting way for Christianity Today magazine, knowing I could easily make the same kinds of mistakes I would critique of the mainstream media.

Religion reporting is hard.

In my role at GetReligion, I analyzed. In my role at CT magazine, I covered. And then I decided to continue to cover by taking a new job with Odyssey Networks, a multimedia outlet that covers religion, especially through video. Odyssey has worn many hats over the years, and I’m hoping to rethink how we cover religion news through new media.

During my time at CT, I stepped out of several potential critiques where I might feel most qualified because it could interfere with my role as reporter. Reporters just don’t get religion, especially evangelicalism. When you ask a reporter, who works very nicely within structure and obvious hierarchies, to cover something inherently unstructured and rapidly changing, you can almost guarantee a messy story that misses the bigger picture.

I have also been caught between our desire for truth and the hope that we can extend some grace. Yes, it’s true that many, many reporters miss the angle or do sloppy stories. But I also know many, many reporters are terrified for their jobs, their families, their livelihood. Journalism thrives on telling true stories, though we also extend some grace knowing that the reporter is probably also worrying about their future employment.

Journalists are no longer going into an office to write one story a day. They are often covering several a day, flying from one thing to the next, churning out copy for the web and for print, pleasing their direct supervisor as well as doing something for the bottom line.

While reporting a story, a journalist is also probably tweeting, recording video, making sure she has enough batteries for whatever devices she’s been given, getting ready to upload or dictate the story back to editors in the office. It’s challenging, especially if you’re wondering if you’ll have a job the next day.

My husband worked night, weekend and holiday shifts at a newspaper during our first two years of marriage. I know firsthand it isn’t smooth sailing being a journalist or being married to one. You wonder if you could get laid off, you churn out stories at a rate barely humanly possible, you fly by the seat of your pants hoping a copy editor will catch you if your writing “fly” is down.

Thanks to smartphones, you’re wedded to your device like the world could explode any second. Because you can be on the ball, you can constantly worry you’ll get beat by another reporter and you’ll face a public chiding in the next editorial meeting. And tools like Twitter have come along to shake our collective understanding of gatekeepers, how to chase and report news and how to understand the world we live in.

And we wonder why journalists drink and smoke and abuse substances?

With the low pay, the high stress, the insane hours, the lording editors, the competition within your beat, you might understand better why some reporters would miss the religion angle. But on a positive note, I think we can be grateful to many, many reporters who work hard to cover the news, especially the religion beat. Religion reporters are the ones filling in the holes, the religion “ghosts,” the why question we often so question. My colleagues at GetReligion have helped me immensely in understanding how to cover religion more thoroughly.

With all the dire news about the media, it’s easy to focus on what hasn’t worked, but I hope we can better understand and figure out what is working, editorially, financially and all the other elements that make media outlets run smoothly. In the coming years, who knows what medium we’ll be in reporting in, as the newspaper, magazine and broadcast models have been merged and diverged, mixed and matched to try to make magic on the internet. It feels like a Buzz Lightyear moment: “To infinity and beyond!” or something like that.

Image of woman with suitcase via Shutterstock.

Pod people: saying goodbye

Friends of GetReligion, it is time for me to tip my hat and say farewell. It’s been a good ride, three years of working with excellent colleagues.

I’ll give one final post with some reflections, but first, in my last podcast, I tried to address a few posts that have encapsulated some of the issues GetReligion regularly addresses. Ultimately, we hope to help reporters understand better how to cover the religion beat, a challenging beat for reporters to cover.

Recently, we considered how the religion beat is changing, looking at what’s new that we didn’t have a few years ago. Here’s a hint: we’re all recovering from this great recession and we have this thing called Twitter on the scene. Combine those and you have a few dead religion blogs, reporters moving in and off the beat faster than many people can remember in recent years.

We also have often discussed what religion ghosts look like, stories that should include religion but they don’t. I made a few assumptions when watching London’s opening ceremonies, for instance, filtering religion through my own set of beliefs. Religion is truly everywhere, so sometimes it’s worth getting over yourself and admitting you don’t know the answer. Then you go to a religion scholar and ask some basic questions. Or you crowd source and ask Twitter for help. There are more ways of reporting when we get creative.

Remember this summer when everyone was getting all hot and bothered over Chick-fil-A? The stories were perfect for social media, so what do you do when you have a really hot story the internet loves? I say, maybe you should give it a little bait and then quickly ignore it. Truly, the internet honors stupid stories. Additionally we see seen time and time again reporters who show biases, undercutting their own objectivity.

Because my husband is a sports reporter, I regularly make comparisons between the religion beat and the sports beat. Think about it. There are passionate fans in both beats, people who will spend a lot of money in both areas. So why, then, do sports reporters often ignore an athlete’s faith? I’ve made the case time and time again that sports reporters expect the faith narrative and think it’s cliche. But reporters who ignore the glaring religion angle, as some did with the story on Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, do a disservice to their readers. So how do they keep it fresh? Examine the Grantland piece on athlete Mo Isom for ideas.

There are always ways to tell stories about religion in fresh and interesting ways. Just ask the religious leaders who give sermons every week. And enjoy the podcast.

A religiously fashionista story

I love a good fashion story, especially one that taps into religion behind the inspiration for the different styles.

The Associated Press recently assessed the state of style among evangelicals in Brazil, no small story for the potentially steamy topic.

Strolling down the main shopping drag in this working-class Rio de Janeiro suburb, it’s not the second-skin dresses in shocking pink spandex that catch the eye or even the strapless tops with strategically placed peekaboo paneling.

The newest look can instead be found in stores like Silca Evangelical Fashion, where the hot items are the demure, long-sleeved frocks with how-low-can-you-go hemlines and the polyester putty-colored potato sack dresses.

In the birthplace of the “fio dental” or dental floss string bikini, so-called evangelical fashion has emerged as a growing segment of the country’s $52 billion-a-year textile industry, catering to the conservative sartorial needs of Brazil’s burgeoning numbers of born-again Pentecostals.

What makes the piece a winner is that goes into detail not just about the clothes but about the history and context for why the clothes matter.

Introduced in the mid-19th century by American missionaries, Brazil’s neo-Pentecostal churches were long regarded as fringe groups. Aggressive proselytizing, particularly among the poor and disenfranchised, has produced a dramatic spike in the community’s numbers in recent decades and eaten away at Brazil’s status as the world’s largest Catholic country.

In 1980, evangelicals represented just over 6 percent of the population, according to the country’s IBGE statistics agency. In the 2010 census, more than 42 million people, or 22 percent of the country’s 190 million, identified themselves as evangelicals. Some statisticians predict that if current trends hold, evangelical Christians could become the majority here by 2030.

I would quibble with a few word choices like proselytize and the interchangeable use of “evangelical” and “pentecostal,” but the piece weaves the religion and style fabrics pretty well.

Customer Ana Paula Fernandes agrees. As a nonpracticing Catholic, Fernandes converted to an evangelical church two years ago. Dressed in cutoff shorts and a white tank top with spaghetti straps permitted by her congregation for day-to-day wear, Fernandes said it took her a while to get used to the modest garments required for services.

“Once when I first joined, I went to church in pants, and the pastor called me out on it,” said the 25-year-old manicurist and mother of a 7-year-old daughter. “It seemed strange at first, but now I see how what you wear affects other people, not to mention your own sense of self-worth.”

Now, she says she wears only modest, loose-fitting dresses to church.

“I feel dignified,” she said.

Explaining how demographics have changed within the country are the icing on the cake of the story, which is more about style and fashion. Kudos to the reporter who dug beneath the surface on style and went into the fabric of Brazilian religious life.

Image of casually clothed woman via Shutterstock.

A defense of reading the news

It’s easy to spot so many human errors in religion coverage that sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why we should read and engage the mainstream media.

Yes, reporters and editors often do not go to great lengths to understand and cover religion, but there are good reasons why we need general interest news outlets still. Otherwise, we’ll run off into our own silos and forget that there’s a bigger, wider world out there.

Forgive a little bit of shameless self-promotion, but I wrote a defense of reading the news in Tabletalk magazine, a piece that was just posted online this week. Here’s how it begins:

It’s no secret that many Christians harbor deep skepticism of the “liberal media elite.” Some have been burned by the media, noting unfair or unfriendly coverage from the past. “I never just accept what newspapers say about people. I’ve seen them get facts, quotes, and reasons wrong far too many times,” California pastor Rick Warren wrote on Twitter earlier this year. Or, as popular blogger Jon Acuff has suggested, Christians tend to treat the secular media as though it were Satan’s newspaper.

Now, I do go into specifics as to why Christians in particular should engage in the news, using theological arguments throughout the piece. The themes apply broadly but the premise is that our world is plagued with a sin.

An early form of reporting can be found in the New Testament, where Luke launches his Gospel with the defense that he relied on eyewitnesses. He says he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” so that the recipient of his letter, Theophilus, could have “certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” The Bible offers us four different Gospels and two accounts of the kings of Judah to help us understand different sides of the story. Similarly, journalists aim to report eyewitness accounts and carefully investigate the truth.

These portions of the Bible remind me that reporters are needed to document stories, positive and negative first drafts of history. The Bible itself is not one big puff piece. You can get juicy details of king David’s affair with Bathsheba or Noah’s rampant nakedness. Even as we read and watch for religion news, we shouldn’t expect puff pieces the same way we wouldn’t expect it from religious texts.

Those who avoid engaging in the media might say that the news makes them anxious or depressed, knowing humanity’s depravity has crippled possible perfection. But the Christian who understands both the fallen nature of humankind and our ultimate hope in things unseen will be better able to combat discouragement.

I’m not sure if anything frustrates me more than when someone gloats about knowing nothing in the news. Why would you use that as a selling point? If anything, we should be ashamed for not knowing more about how our “neighbors” are experiencing the world. Read the rest of the piece to find more arguments, but if nothing else, I hope to encourage people to become bigger engagers of a wide, complex world, one full of religion stories.

Romney is still Mormon? Stop the presses

It’s almost obligatory now for religion reporters to write their own version of “Romney is a Mormon,” ensuring readers know precisely what they’re getting into if they vote for him in two months. Or you have the general assignment reporters who think no one has already written that tired narrative.

In this case, we have the religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times connecting Romney’s faith to his view of personal responsibility. The piece launches with a Mormon couple who had never thought to seek government assistance, somehow tying it to Romney’s recent remarks about personal responsibility.

That worldview, focused on church and not government, is part of the culture of American Mormonism, paradoxically rooted in both self-reliance and communitarian idealism. It may help explain the roots of Mitt Romney’s conservatism, which in many ways mirrors the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When Romney said in a secretly recorded video that 47% of Americans lacked personal responsibility and believed they deserved government entitlements, it reflected a conservative political view rooted in the idea that freedom demands responsibility.

But it also may reflect his history as a Mormon bishop, whose duties included giving the needy among his flock a hand up — but never a mere handout.

I don’t necessarily doubt that the above paragraphs could be true, but I would like to see some evidence, either from Mormon teaching or from more of what Romney has said. Otherwise, from a readership standpoint, it feels like the reporter is reading into a remark.

Two-thirds of American Mormons describe themselves as politically conservative and only 8% as liberal, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Nearly three-quarters lean Republican. Mormons are significantly more conservative, on balance, than evangelical Christians, the religious group most identified with the political right in this country.

But Mormon conservatism differs from its evangelical counterpart. It can be more pragmatic, more flexible. It springs from different sources, some theological, some rooted in the Mormons’ rugged pioneer history. Those steeped in Mormon culture can hear echoes of it in Romney’s political rhetoric, although he generally avoids explicit mentions of his faith.

It might be worth mentioning just how many Mormons there are in the electorate as a whole. Can they really be compared to evangelicals, who dwarf the sheer number of Mormons when it comes to voting? I also don’t know that a reporter can definitively say Mormons are more pragmatic, more flexible than evangelicals. Says who? I don’t necessarily deny it, but how would you even begin to measure those qualities?

Romney is not in lock step with his fellow Mormons on all issues, and he has shown a willingness to take positions at odds with LDS doctrine, as when he took a stance in favor of abortion rights. (He now espouses antiabortion views similar to those of his church.) But it is difficult to fully understand him without grasping how his faith and its unique culture play out in political belief.

The reporter starts this section of the piece showing how Romney hasn’t been 100% in line with the LDS Church but then proceeds to show historically where the Republican Party and the LDS Church have met or diverged. The narrative set up seems too forced.

For many Mormons, the idea of free agency, with its intrinsic emphasis on individual responsibility, translates into a belief in limited government and an abhorrence of the welfare state, which is seen as crushing individual initiative. This meshes neatly with the ideals of the Republican Party, and was echoed in Romney’s recorded comments about Americans who believe they are “victims” and are entitled to help.

…But Mormons are quick to point out that, unlike many evangelical churches, their church allows for exceptions for abortion in the cases of rape, incest, when the life or health of the mother is in danger or when the fetus has such severe defects that it is not expected to survive beyond birth.

…Mormons tend to be less conservative on immigration than evangelicals, a position some attribute to the fact that so many of its young people serve abroad as missionaries.

Seen by whom, exactly? The reporter continues to suggest where Mormons and evangelicals diverge, but last time I checked, evangelicals really do not hold official church positions the same way the LDS Church would hold. That’s what you call apples and oranges, right? Generally, the piece seems to include quite a bit of conjecture, connecting dots that might not be worth connecting without more evidence.

Remember Chick-fil-A? Still making news!

Even as we head into beautiful fall color changes, we’re still talking about Chick-fil-A apparently.

No news becomes news apparently, if you read this Associated Press report that spends most of the story rehashing what happened earlier this summer.

Chick-fil-A is once again in the public relations fryer.

The controversy flared up this week when a Chicago politician said the company was no longer giving to groups that oppose same-sex marriage, angering Christian conservatives who supported Chick-fil-A this summer when its president reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage. Civil rights groups hailed the turnabout, yet the company never confirmed it and instead released two public statements, neither of which made Chick-fil-A’s position any clearer.

The events suggest the Southern franchise may be trying to steer clear of hot-button social issues while it expands in other, less conservative regions of the country. In its statement Thursday, the Georgia-based company said its corporate giving had for many months been mischaracterized.

Or here’s the headline from the Los Angeles Times: “Chick-fil-A vows to stop donating to anti-gay groups” that tmatt went over yesterday.

Perhaps there’s a style question going on, but does Chick-fil-A consider the groups “anti-gay”? I highly doubt they would use that language. Also, “vow” is a pretty strong word. So let’s look at what CFA actually said:

A part of our corporate commitment is to be responsible stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. Because of this commitment, Chick-fil-A’s giving heritage is focused on programs that educate youth, strengthen families and enrich marriages, and support communities. We will continue to focus our giving in those areas. Our intent is not to support political or social agendas.

The LAT story has a funny attempt by the reporter to gauge all of social media’s reactions:

On social media, reaction was split.

“Yes, Chick-Fil-A was wrong but they’ve changed their policy and I think they should be thanked for that,” wrote user DoubtcastFletch.

But Twitter user Glam_Star77 accused the company of trying “to play neutral.”

“I feel like I’ve been betrayed,” the user wrote. “No integrity or ethics!”

An editor should have deleted that whole section. Why would you use 10 second reactions from Twitter instead of talking to real people on the street? Why not go to a food court and find out whether people choose or don’t choose Chick-fil-A? The social media plug screams laziness.

Hey, here’s an idea: Call real sources on the other side of the issue. It’s like these journalists were thinking, “Oh dear God in heaven, don’t make me talk to a religious traditionalist of any kind!”

Meanwhile, Focus on the Family released a CitizenLink story correcting media reports saying CFA would be stopping its donations to groups like Focus.

Contrary to reports first made by the gay-activist group The Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA) on Tuesday and later picked up by mainstream media outlets, Chick-fil-A and its charitable-giving arm, the WinShape Foundation, did not agree to stop making donations to groups that support the biblical definition of marriage in exchange for being allowed to open a franchise in Chicago.

…Moreover, many news agencies reported that Chick-fil-A had specifically agreed not to give money to Focus on the Family or the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). NOM said Wednesday it has never received money from the foundation. Focus on the Family has.

This time it looks like the media is fishing for stories, pouncing on ones that seem to obvious. Sometimes the story isn’t as juicy as it appears and could be left alone. Remember, the Internet often honors stupid stories, so it takes discipline to resist them.

Changes in the Godbeat

The Godbeat (or religion beat) is in the middle of some major shifts again, ones that can leave glaring holes in several newspapers across the country.

For instance, we watch and read several religion blogs, including Reuters, RNS, CNN, among others. One we regularly read was USA Today‘s Faith & Reason, run by Cathy Lynn Grossman. Grossman, with some spiffy glasses, posted this update on the blog, though.

First, the important thing that’s not changing: I still cover religion — the best beat on the print/Web/smartphones/tablets-you know-what-I-mean. Many great stories lie ahead.
However, how and where you find my work — and top wire stories and the best of Gannett’s religion correspondents such as Bob Smietana at The Tennessean — will change.
Several digital subject-area pages, including the online religion page, will vanish as stories are mainstreamed into News. If you read on a smartphone or tablet, you won’t notice any change. But if you read religion coverage at USATODAY.com on your laptop, these stories will be running in News, Nation and Politics, just as they already do in print.
So this is not good-bye. It’s more of a change-of-address notice.
You can find my stories with a Google alert on my byline (don’t forget that pesky Lynn in the middle) or as my friend on Facebook. My new Twitter handle is @CLGrossman. You can also e-mail me at cgrossman@usatoday with your ideas and thoughts.
Don’t I sound chipper? Well, sure, I’m a little sad. This has been exhausting, glorious fun!

On one hand, it’s nice to see editors who want to incorporate religion into the national, politics and other section beats. On the other hand, its nice for religion to have its own outlet, its own silo if you will. It allows a reporter like Grossman to cover specific stories without having to make the case for national news. But if you’re a company like Gannett that owns USA Today, you’re thinking about whether that reporting time is making $$.

It’s certainly a tumultuous time for the religion beat as newspapers are desperately trying to make money. Sadly, while religion trends really well on the internet, it doesn’t make a lot of money in traditional newspaper sections, since religious organizations don’t advertise as heavily as those who want to place ads in a section like sports or business. It just isn’t an obvious money-making beat.

In recent months, we’ve noticed Tom Breen has left the Associated Press, Kate Shellnutt left the Houston Chronicle, Bruce Nolan left the Times-Picayune, Meredith Heagney left the Columbus Dispatch, Joshunda Sanders left the Austin American-Statesman, several reporters have left to run websites for RNA/RNS, and some reporters are still freelancing religion stories or are still in the religion writing world, but many aren’t doing it for a traditional mainstream outlet. Did I miss others who should be noted? This is just off the top of my head. Or, are there new people on the Godbeat we should be watching?

It’s hard not to feel a little depressed about the lack of reporters who are dedicated to following and covering religion. Yes, anyone can write a religion story. But not everyone can write one with the sensitivities a reporter needs to understand history and context. We would love to see the religion revive itself in some way. Are there ways of doing that? Do chime in, especially if you an offer a new business model.

Frustrated writer image via Shutterstock.

Attention: Your next must-read sports piece

Stop whatever you are doing. If you read one story this week, make it this one from Grantland.

But brace yourself. The piece is more than 7,000 words. Add it to Instapaper, Pocket, bookmark or whatever you use to read stories later, because you’ll be in it for the long haul, at least in Internet time.

Why do I like this somewhat random story so much? I’m not even drawn to reading many sports stories because I assume my sports journalist husband will filter the interesting ones out for me or tell me about them over dinner. There are so many hours in a day, you know?

But this story stops me in my tracks and makes me want to email it to everyone I know. It’s that good.

Here’s the premise: former LSU goalie Mo Isom tried to become a kicker for the Tigers football team. I’ll be honest: I don’t care about LSU, I don’t care about college soccer, I probably wouldn’t naturally care about a story about a football kicker, even as a woman. But her path to tryouts is what makes her story interesting.

I’m torn by how much to reveal without giving away the beautiful writing you read to understand Isom’s story. There are bits and pieces along the way that if I were to summarize and offer a nugget here and there, it would be like spoiling plot points. But here’s a small section that gives you a tiny sense of what she’s been through.

There is a website called Tiger Droppings, where a few thousand LSU fans gather each day to post emoticons and anonymous opinions. Back in March, a poster started a thread titled, “Mo Isom is a buck-90????” Apparently, TigerTaterTots couldn’t believe Isom weighed 190 pounds.

It took one minute for the first reply: “Don’t care. Would hit it.” Eight posts later, someone rekindled a longstanding message board debate: Who’s hotter? Isom or Erin Andrews? Two pages passed before the first picture of Isom in a bikini, five pages before someone casually suggested date rape. “Mo is a great girl with an amazing life story,” wrote one poster. “She is gorgeous and way too respectable to have people shallowly critique her looks.” Two posts later: “Does anyone know her bra size?”

Reducing athletes to something less than human has been a favored pastime among SEC fans for at least a decade, but it’s safe to assume there are no date-rape jokes about Russell Shepard or Barkevious Mingo. No matter how well she blends, how much she is accepted, how perfectly she navigates the obstacles that arise when a woman enters a man’s game, there will still be someone, somewhere, for whom Isom is nothing more than a thing to be picked apart and appraised — a subject for the enduring online debate, Would you hit it?

The quote above doesn’t even capture the storyline in the rest of the piece, but it’s an example of the serious issues addressed. From a GetReligion point of view, the reporter not only gets a good story about a woman’s physical, athletic and family struggle, but guess what: Grantland writer Jordan Conn captures the faith element. “She’d been raised Methodist, and her faith had always been important, if not all-consuming,” he writes, not just generically explaining that she was vaguely spiritual or religious.

The writer takes the time to go into pretty significant detail over not only just her faith, but her intense struggle with her faith, doubt, frustration and other feelings as she faced hurdles.

So I remember driving home and literally crying out to God — “You’re full of crap. This is all fake. God, if you’re so real, if you love me, if you love me the way that you say that you love me, then show me. Do something.” Because everyone’s sitting there the whole time telling you, “God’s gonna, he’s gonna act in your life, and move in you, and you’ll feel it and know that he’s real.” And you’re just like, what a load of B.S. I never felt like that. So I said, “If you’re so real, show me in a way that I will know.” 

Again, without giving away the story, you’ll have to read it to find out how the reporter deals with this tension with everything else she had going on in her life. So, with the precious Internet time you have left, stop scrolling through Reddit or Pinterest or watching that kitten falling asleep clip; this story is that good, one you’ll find worthy of your time and attention.