Sausage making and news reporting on Zanzibar

Otto von Bismark’s reputed maxim: “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made …” could be applied to the crafting of a news story.

Most readers do not concern themselves with how a story came to be and accept the finished product of a news story as “the story.” In the age of the internet and declining standards and budgets for the once great news outlets this is not always a wise move.

Now approaching everything one reads with absolute skepticism is a tedious business. There will always be cranks who see the hidden hands of Freemasons, international Jewry or the vast right wing conspiracy lurking behind the text. Readers must balance their skepticism against the trust they have in the publication or author.

If Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be true. If it appears in the National Enquirer it has to be false.

But as history has shown us, the icons of of good and bad journalism, like the sayings everyone knows to be true because we’ve heard them so often, are not always so. Walter Cronkite in his broadcast of Feb 27, 1968 was wrong about the Tet Offensive, the National Enquirer was right about John Edwards in 2007, and Otto von Bismark never said anything about laws and sausages.

These musings were prompted by a story in the Washington Post from the Religion News Service entitled “Bombs explode Zanzibar calm as religious tensions flare” where RNS bungles the lede.

In the classical Anglo-American style of reporting the lede sentence is where the voice of the author is heard. The lede lays down the tracks that sets the destination for the news train that follows. My instructors in the craft likened the process to organizing a goods train. While the lede gives the destination and names the passengers and freight, the paragraphs that follow are akin to freight cars — each with its own cargo.

Opinions are welcome, but they should be from identifiable third parties, as is analysis, but it should be identified as such. This differs from advocacy reporting where facts are interspersed with opinion throughout a story in order to convince the reader of the merits of the writer’s view.
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Miscues in news on gay blessings and marriage from London

The Valentine’s Day statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England on gay marriage has fluttered the Anglican dovecots.

The story received A1 treatment from the British press and it spawned commentaries and opinion pieces in the major outlets. The second day stories reported some activists were “appalled” by the news whilst others were over the moon with delight — but being British their joy did not rise to continental expressions of euphoria.

The story continues to move through the media and on Sunday the BBC had one bishop tell the Sunday Programme that clergy who violated the Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage protocol might be brought up on charges — and could well be sacked.

So what did the bishops do? A scan of the first day stories reports that they either said “no to gay marriage but yes to gay civil unions” or “no to gay marriage and no to blessing gay unions.” The first day reports were evenly divided between the “no/yes” and “no/no” schools.

The Independent interpreted the document as no/yes.  The lede  in its story entitled “Gay marriage: Church of England to offer prayers after weddings but no same-sex marriage for vicar” stated:

Gay couples will be able to have special prayers following their weddings but members of the clergy are banned from entering same-sex marriages when these become legal next month.

The Church of England issued its new pastoral guidance following a meeting of the House of Bishops to discuss the issue on Friday. Despite condemning “irrational fear of homosexuals” and saying all were “loved by God”, the document sent a clear signal separating the Church’s concept of marriage and the new legal definition. …

Civil partnerships will still be performed and vicars have been warned that married couples must be welcomed to worship and not subject to “questioning” or discrimination. Same-sex couples may ask for special prayers after being married but it will not be a service of blessing.

The Telegraph also took the no/yes line. The lede to its story entitled “Church offers prayers after same-sex weddings — but bans gay priests from marrying” stated:

Gay couples who get married will be able to ask for special prayers in the Church of England after their wedding, the bishops have agreed. But priests who are themselves in same-sex relationships or even civil partnerships will be banned from getting married when it becomes legally possible next month.

Compare this to the dispatch from Reuters which took a no/no line. Its lede stated:

Church of England priests will not be allowed to bless gay and lesbian weddings, or marry someone of the same sex themselves, according to new guidelines issued by the church, which is struggling to heal divides over homosexuality.

Why the disparate interpretations? Was this a case of the Church of England speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time? Offering an ambiguous statement that allows individuals to read into it what they are predisposed to find?

Perhaps. One should never underestimate the skill of the Sir Humphrey Appleby’s at Church House in churning out drivel. But in this case I believe the reporters’ suppositions as to the meaning of phrases drove their interpretations. The problem was not imprecise language from the bishops but a lack of understanding of technical language from reporters.

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Jim Davis agrees to join GetReligion’s thriving Florida bureau

EDITOR’S NOTE: What can I say? When I lived in South Florida this guy was the local professional on the religion beat whose work landed in my front yard. Also, surely it means something that one of his email addresses is “religionwriter.” To cut to the chase, I’m happy to report that James Davis, one of the gentlemen of the profession in recent decades, is joining us here at GetReligion.

Stop and think about it. With Father George Conger already based in Central Florida, I think the odds are getting better that there may someday be a GetReligion cruise to the Caribbean.

*****

Thanks to tmatt for the invitation to write for GetReligion. I’ve long admired the blog and I’ve known tmatt as a colleague on the religion beat for (slurred number) years. I’m honored to breathe the rarefied atmosphere here.

For myself, I worked for four decades until November 2012 with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, most of it as religion editor. Most of my work focused on religion at the local level, covering the unbelievably rich mix of religions that is South Florida.

Among the stories I produced were two in-depth articles on Holocaust Revisionism, which were cited in a book by the American Jewish Committee; religious groups’ roles in recovery efforts after hurricanes Andrew and Wilma; Luis Palau’s Beachfest, which drew 300,000 people over two days; three appearances of the Dalai Lama, his first-ever to South Florida; the founding of the Jewish Museum of Florida, and in-depth features on Hindus and Muslims in South Florida.

I’ve taken occasional dips in the national pool, though: covering conferences of United Methodists, rabbis, evangelicals, religious broadcasters and two U.S. tours of Pope John Paul II. I also covered the centennial meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. And I wrote several stories on Heritage U.S.A., before and after the Rev. Jim Bakker was ousted.

I received a religion writing award in 2010 from the Florida Press Club. I was a finalist twice for Religion Writer of the Year with the Religion Newswriters Association and once for the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year. And I’ve been given awards by Hadassah, the United Hindu Front and the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center.

Since leaving the Sun Sentinel, I’ve been working mostly with The Florida Catholic, in the Miami and Palm Beach diocesan editions, and occasionally for the statewide edition. I’ve contributed about 35 stories and a half-dozen photo galleries of art in churches. I’m also branching into copy editing. I’ve worked on two academic studies for the University of Florida and a study guide for a series of devotional films. And I was recently accepted as a copy editor for Zondervan.

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So what is happening with Anglican gay marriage?

Wire service reporting takes a special skill that not all writers posses. In less than 300 words, for most stories, a reporter must present the relevant facts and sufficient context to allow a reader to understand the story, while also be entertaining and interesting.

A problem arises when a wire service story substitutes analysis or opinion for news. While some stories are labeled news analysis or opinion — and as such it is proper to load a story with the author’s views of what should be rather than what is — when a news story substitutes opinion for journalism we have a problem.

An item from the Religion News Service that came across my desk yesterday illustrates this peril. In a story entitled “Church of England’s bishops defer gay marriage decision” that came in at a little under 300 words, RNS devotes only half of the story to reporting on what happened at the meeting of the Church of England’s House of Bishops and what they said and the balance to what RNS thinks we should think about the story.

And RNS neglects to mention the most news worthy portions of the report — that the bishops are hopelessly divided over the issue of homosexuality.

The lede is rather anodyne, but does mention one fact from the report:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) With little more than two months to go before Britain’s first same-sex marriage, the College of Bishops issued a statement saying that “no change” to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisioned.

Next comes a sentence providing the setting:

The statement came after an all-day meeting at Church House in central London Monday (Jan. 27) attended by 90 bishops and eight women participant observers.

And then a paragraph on the purpose:

The aim of the meeting was to discuss the recommendationsof the Pilling Report on human sexuality that was published in 2013. That report was the result of a recommendation made by church leaders at the end of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 that Anglicans should embark on a discussion process to help heal the rift on the subject of full rights for Christian homosexuals.

Followed by a quote from the report on what happens next:

“The House of Bishops will be meeting again next month to consider its approach when same sex marriage becomes lawful in England and Wales,” the statement reads.

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Religion ghosts in the politics of abortion? Obviously …

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It happens at least once a year.

A GetReligionista will write a post about media bias in mainstream coverage of abortion (click here for that classic series on this topic by the late David Shaw, media-beat reporter for The Los Angeles Times) and then someone will post a comment saying that abortion is a political, not a religious, issue and that this site should stick to religion. Often, these correspondents will note that the only people who think abortion is a religious issue are crazy fundamentalists and radical Catholics, etc., etc. — an observation that does little to help make their case.

Truth is, lots of people oppose abortion for different reasons. Tomorrow’s annual March For Life will draw thousands of Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and the usual suspects. However, those paying close attention will also see banners for pro-life atheists and agnostics, as well as the Pro-Life Alliance for Gays and Lesbians (“Human Rights Start When Life Begins”). Marchers will show up from Feminists For Life, Democrats For Life, Libertarians For Life and a host of other groups from off the beaten journalistic path.

However, it is safe to say that the majority of the marchers will be there for reasons that are based, in part, on their religious convictions. In the United States of America, and lots of other places, that is the statistical reality.

Thus, it was rather strange to see such a faith-free approach used in that New York Times story that ran under the headline, “Parties Seize On Abortion Issues in Midterm Race.” As a reader noted, in an email to this site:

Other than quoting someone from the Faith and Freedom Coalition, there is no allusion that some people see this as an issue of faith or morality.

As a person of faith who is against legalized abortion on demand, this bothered me. It seemed very deliberated on the part of the writer. Most people, however, probably know the basics of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Does an article mentioning this debate as it pertains to an election have to mention the religious aspect? Or should readers already just know?

That’s a very good question.

Consider the top of the story, for example. Can one address the political clout of those who oppose abortion inside the modern Republican Party without mentioning the “pew gap” or the role played by married, religious women in this cause?

WASHINGTON – When the Republican National Committee gathers for its winter meeting here on Wednesday, the action will start a few hours late to accommodate anyone who wants to stop first at the March for Life, the annual anti-abortion demonstration on the National Mall. And if they need a lift to the meeting afterward, they can hop on a free shuttle, courtesy of the Republican Party.

“We thought it only fitting for our members to attend the march,” said Reince Priebus, the party chairman.

Abortion is becoming an unexpectedly animating issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Republicans, through state ballot initiatives and legislation in Congress, are using it to stoke enthusiasm among core supporters. Democrats, mindful of how potent the subject has been in recent campaigns like last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, are looking to rally female voters by portraying their conservative opponents as callous on women’s issues.

This story does cover a lot of ground, but the reporters are following a strictly political map. At several times it was easy to spot the ghosts that the Times team either didn’t see or made a conscious decision to avoid. For example:

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Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral?

The financial difficulties facing the Washington National Cathedral were the subject of a local news item in the Washington Post this week.

The basic story line is valid: “cathedral short of cash seeks creative ways to generate income.” But as  GetReligion editor tmatt observed in an an impromptu story conference, this piece had journalistic “holes you can drive a ’60s VW Microbus through… .”

The few errors in Anglican polity found in the story would likely distress only the perpetually aggrieved, but the real difficulty is that the Post declined to ask or explore the question: “why?”

It assumes the worldview of the liberal wing of mainline churches, making this the measure of all things religious. By not asking “why” this story could just as well be written about the troubles facing the local symphony orchestra or art museum.

I was hesitant in taking this story, however, as my theological sympathies are not with the cathedral’s leadership. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Diocese of Washington’s cathedral, last year told the Post he was a “non-theistic Christian.” The Aug 1, 2013 story in the Style section penned by Sally Quinn quoted him as saying:

Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. .?.?. He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

It is the glory, or the curse, of Anglicanism that the ranks of its clergy contain men and women who think this way — and others who see this as nonsense.

The divide is not merely local or new — in 2009 I interviewed the Argentine leader of the Anglican churches in southern South America and he told me that meaningful debate between left and right was not possible. He and his conservative colleagues from Africa, India and Asia believed the leader of the American Episcopal church was “not a Christian” as they understood the term.

The disdain does not go one way. Liberal American and English Anglicans have described the theological and intellectual worldview of their third world confreres as being one step above witchcraft.

The split between left and right, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists — none of these terms adequately describes the combatants — did not arise in 2003 with the election of a “gay” bishop in the Episcopal Church. While there have always been factions within the Anglican world for centuries — high/low, Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic — the latest Anglican wars began in the 30s and hit their stride in the 60s.

Fights over women clergy, premarital sex, abortion, euthanasia, contraception/family planning, divorce and remarriage, pacifism, the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, Vietnam and the civil rights movement and its various permutations of race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation have been debated ever since.

The temptation I faced was to cloak my criticisms of the underlying issues in the story with the cover of discussing proper journalism and write about bad religion rather than bad journalism. Hence, my reluctance to jump on this story.

What then is the GetReligion angle? What holes are there in this story through which I may drive my VW microbus? The lede states:

When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11.

But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats?

The article describes a program of events and activities designed to bring people into the cathedral. The story then moves to context:

As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral?

Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs.

And then moves to a discussion of the dean’s plans to raise income and attendance and to be a voice for progressive values in Washington.

What is missing from this story, though, is a nod to the reasons for the cash shortfall — apart from the occasional earthquake and economic downturn.

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A basic, but tough religion question: What is faith?

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MICHELLE ASKS:

What is faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This is the simplest yet perhaps most difficult question in the brief history of “Religion Q and A.” Not the sort of thing journalists usually write about, but The Guy can at least report on what some thinkers have said about this.

Start with Merriam-Webster definitions:

(1) “strong belief or trust in someone or something.”

(2) “belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs.”

(3) “a system of religious beliefs.”

Number 3 is clear-cut but not what Michelle is asking (e.g. “the Catholic faith claims more than a million adherents”). Number 1 is often secular (“they have faith in the governor” or the New Yorker cartoon quip about stock market investments being “faith-based”). Number 2 is what this question is all about.

In Islam, the prominent scholar Habib Ali al-Jifri told a 2011 dialogue with Catholics, ”the technical meaning of faith is firm belief in something real, based on evidence. Experts in this subject have defined faith as being ‘to believe with the heart and proclaim with the tongue.’ ” He added that some like Abu Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Salam have added “to act on it with the body.”

The Jewish Bible (or Old Testament) puts deeds at the center, says the comprehensive Anchor Bible Dictionary: “Faith is described rather than defined.” The word usually translated as “faith” doesn’t link with “believe” so much as “sustain” or “support,” and the same Hebrew root gives rise to the word for firmness, as with a peg attached in a “sure” place in Isaiah 22:23. Modern Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s Two Types of Faith said Judaism emphasizes faith as firm fidelity toward God, while Christianity sees it more as belief or knowing about God. The latter emphasis is seen in a classic definition from Thomas Aquinas’s 13th Century Summa Theologica: “Faith is the act of the intellect when it assents to divine truth under the influence of the will, moved by God through grace.”

But Christianity involves non-intellectual aspects, too.

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Daily Mail: Welby ‘casts out sin’ in new baptismal rite — not

In my opinion, looking to London’s Daily Mail for religion news coverage is rather like looking to People magazine for peer-reviewed medical studies. Once in a great while there might just be a People article that accurately references some startling medical development — and the studies behind same — but that’s not the publication’s stock-in-trade.

So when the celebrity-saturated British tabloid — “Buffy The Vampire Player: Sarah Michelle Gellar has a blast with daughter Charlotte and her pal as they enjoy day at the beach” is a typical headline — dips into the Godbeat, you know something’s up. How thoroughly accurate that something will be is, well, another matter.

The Church of England, like many communions, practices pedobaptism — the baptism of infants and very young children. Its ceremony has, for years, required both parents and godparents to express their dedication to God and a repudiation of sin and Satan alike. Now, the Daily Mail revealed in a January 5 story that sparked global headlines, the CofE wants to change the script, something with which traditionalists are allegedly none-too-happy.

The report starts with a typical Mail-style headline, this time referencing a popular British soap opera: “Welby casts out ‘sin’ from christenings: Centuries-old rite rewritten in ‘language of EastEnders’ for modern congregation” is the top line. After that, the news:

Parents and godparents no longer have to ‘repent sins’ and ‘reject the devil’ during christenings after the Church of England rewrote the solemn ceremony.

The new wording is designed to be easier to understand – but critics are stunned at such a fundamental change to a cornerstone of their faith, saying the new ‘dumbed-down’ version ‘strikes at the heart’ of what baptism means.

In the original version, the vicar asks: ‘Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?’

Prompting the reply: ‘I reject them.’ They then ask: ‘Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?’, with the answer: ‘I repent of them.’

But under the divisive reforms, backed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and already being practised in 1,000 parishes, parents and godparents are asked to ‘reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises’ – with no mention of the devil or sin.

The new text, to be tested in a trial lasting until Easter, also drops the word ‘submit’ in the phrase ‘Do you submit to Christ as Lord?’ because it is thought to have become ‘problematical’, especially among women who object to the idea of submission.

Apart from the rather odd sight of a newspaper that trumpets the sins of A-list and D-list celebs with great fervor now discoursing on “no mention of the devil of sin,” the story’s superheated explanation for the trial change is another fun bit:

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