So there: Rod Dreher goes and writes a GetReligion post

So, yes, I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed (stage cue: slight choke in voice) to find out — while reading Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s usual 10,000 to 15,000 words of daily blogging output — that I was not one of the two newspaper columnists that he consistently gets to read. But, hey, I run in small- and mid-sized newspapers and I know that Rod’s a very busy guy. I mean, really, look at his blog: He must read 10 books and journals a day!

So, what really interested me was that, right in the middle of that particular post (a meditation on whether news columnists still matter during these online-commentary-saturated days), the working boy went and produced a genuine chunk of fantastic GetReligion work.

So without further ado, I hereby claim said chunk of type as a guest column.

So there.

You probably have examples in mind from your own experience of ways that current newspaper columnists could make their work more inspired, and therefore inspiring. I’d like to hear them. Whether you and I, readers, are coming from the left or the right or somewhere in between, I think we can agree that the uniformity of consensus opinion in our newspapers and on TV is a big part of the problem. And it’s not only uniformity of opinion about the left-right boundaries of our discourse. It’s a uniformity of opinion about what constitutes news.

Let’s take Fox News for example. This is supposed to be the conservative news network, but their idea of what constitutes conservatism, and news of interest to conservative viewers, is deeply Washington-centric, and deeply centered in the media class and its prejudices. In this, they’re no different from the competition; it’s just that as someone who has been part of the conservosphere for most of my adult life, it frustrates me to see how much Fox is ignoring for the sake of observing media conventions. For example, I’ve long marveled over the lack of religion and culture coverage on Fox. By religion and culture, I don’t mean the “War On Christmas” and other tabloid staples. I mean any sort of serious, sustained coverage, both in reporting and commentary, of stories emerging out of the world of religion and culture — stories that tell us, for better and for worse, something important about the world we’re in.

Here’s an example. In my little Southern town, the Methodist church is about to get a new minister — a woman pastor. She follows a woman pastor, who broke the clergy gender line at the church. My folks, who attend there, gave me the news the other night, and I mentioned to them that they will probably not live to see another male pastor at that parish. I explained to them that this is partly because of their age, but also because in mainline Protestant churches, the clergy class is becoming more and more female. Women make up about 20 percent of the clergy in mainline Protestant denominations, including Methodism — but that is fast changing. According to a 2006 New York Times report:

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Yo, Globe: Why settle for fog when you have a better option?

So I had a meeting the other day with a former GetReligionista and, within minutes, the topic of the conversation turned to a subject many religion-beat professionals (past, present and future) have been discussing in recent weeks: Now that the folks who run The Boston Globe have John L. Allen, Jr., what precisely are they going to do with him?

In a way, this is a variation on one of the big questions looming over our age, journalistically speaking.

At the heart of the debate is an agonizing economic equation that is driving many old-school journalists crazy: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive. Some people word the second half of that equation differently: Opinion is cheap; reporting is expensive. The end result is usually the same, as far as I am concerned. And, of course, freelance opinion is the cheapest option of all. We’ve been on this foggy road (yes, that fog) for quite some time now.

Allen, of course, is a great reporter whose years of work — while at the liberal National Catholic Reporter — was taken seriously because he relentlessly provided waves of new information from high-quality voices on all sides of Catholic debates at the local, regional, national and global levels. He was working at a publication with an obvious point of view, but he kept producing real reporting, even in his columns and works of analysis.

Now Allen is at the Globe, which is a mainstream newspaper that, one can only hope, remains committed to coverage built on the classic American model of the press, with journalists striving (yes, often imperfectly) to achieve high standards of accuracy, balance and fairness. Some professionals continue to use the word “objectivity” with a straight face. However, the Globe team has also talked about starting its own online publication about Catholic news, period. What approach would that start-up use?

Allen has started work and is producing a wide range of material. I thought his mini-feature on the style of Pope Francis — which was for some reason labeled “analysis” — was especially delightful, as a quick overview of symbolic details that add up to a larger whole.

The headline: “New reality in Vatican: Surprise, it’s the pope!” Basically, the idea is that it’s getting harder to predict where Pope Francis will, literally, show up. Here is a key slice:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a member of a Vatican council that oversees the Synod of Bishops, a summit of Catholic prelates from around the world. The council meets every so often in a building a few blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica, and the practice has been that it passes conclusions to a papal aide without getting face time with the boss.

In October, however, Francis decided to walk down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad Roman street leading away from the basilica, to join one of their meetings. It was an act akin to the President of the United States heading over to Congress to sit in on a meeting of a House committee – i.e., something almost inconceivable to anyone accustomed to the usual protocol.

Francis spent six hours over two days with the council. Aside from his presence, what struck members was the informality of his approach.

“He came over like it was just another day at the office, with his lunch box,” Dolan said. “We couldn’t believe it.”

And this, too:

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10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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10 years of GetReligion: Arne’s view from 10,000 feet

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Dr. Arne H. Fjeldstad is a veteran journalist who worked at a variety of mainstream Norwegian newspapers and then as a publisher in Egypt and North Africa. He is also a Lutheran pastor and has a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He leads The Media Project, which includes GetReligion.

***

Mainstream media is up for a big challenge in the coming years. Nope, I am not talking new technology, lack of finances for print media and rapidly declining numbers of readers both for magazines and the daily newspaper. Or any other of the many rapid changes in media reality today. I am talking about the challenge of a paradigm shift in mainstream media.

Possibly the challenge is even greater in Europe (where I live when I am not on the road or in an airplane at 10,000 feet) but also US media as well as many media elsewhere in the world will need to change their attitude and policy. Start focusing for new ways to meet the growing demands for real knowledge about the world, the society and the neighborhood. Real knowledge that will include knowledge about history, culture and religion. Yes, religion.

Religion will be the key to the ongoing paradigm shift. It’s all about religion and the impact of faith in any culture, in any country or region of the world. The challenge for any news media is to “get religion.” Understand its impact — good and bad. Simply because religious faith, religious culture and religious history again and again are the key to understand why news happens.

“We are at the end of the secularist era. The New Religious Era is upon us,” says the British expert on religion and media, Dr. Jenny Taylor who runs Lapido Media in the United Kingdom. Great Britain is home to a conglomerate of faiths and cultures with the Anglican church in sharp decline and a growth of postmodern and post-postmodern spirituality. They are facing a rapidly changing society and a changing culture as well. Religion is starting to play a crucial role. Tayor adds:

“Religion is trendy. (Not Christianity of course. Not church. Perish the thought.) But any shaven-headed sociologist with an ear-ring, any hijabbed and articulate ‘outreach worker,’ any multi-faith professional in fact will look oddly at you if you mention the traditional reticence of the British about faith. Good grief. Even the leader of the English Defence League is ‘taking religious instruction’ from the sheikh — Usama Hasan — who runs Quilliam Foundation.”

The new religious era is still at its beginning and will need to fight its way through the minds of people and into the newsrooms.There is a lot of “old beliefs” still present in the minds of very intelligent, highly educated and tech savvy journalists in the West. They are in for a surprise — and a challenge.

Dr. Stewart M. Hoover (click for .pdf) expresses the “old faith” of media professionals in these words:

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Pod people: Russell Wilson, ghosts, 10 years of GetReligion

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Let’s do this one backwards.

In a perfect world, the easy way to do mainstream news criticism is to find a really bad example of a problem and then, a few days later, find an example of an equally important news outlet that managed to do the story right.

In this case, we are talking about one of those GetReligion ghosts, a religion angle woven into a major news story — yet missed by reporters and editors working on the story. For the past 10 years, spotting ghosts has been one of the primary duties of your GetReligionistas.

Hours before the Super Bowl, I posted an item praising the ESPN.com team for a feature story about the life, work and faith of Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson. Thanks, by the way, to the 20,000-plus readers who passed that post along in social media.

First of all, the creators of this story did the obvious, which is discuss the connections between Wilson’s Christian faith — which he talks about all of the time — and his life on and off the gridiron, focusing on his behind-the-scenes work as a real volunteer in a children’s hospital. That was the easy ghost to spot, one that 99 percent of the people writing profiles of Wilson (and the influence of his late father) manage to see.

However, in addition to that almost non-ghost ghost, the ESPN team went deeper and touched on a more subtle question: How are folks in the highly secular Pacific Northwest, in Seattle the Mecca of the so-called “nones,” handling the fact that this new Seahawk hero is a young, charismatic, African-American evangelical?

Now, I didn’t think ESPN nailed down that angle of the story, but I was impressed that this elite newsroom raised the question and made the attempt.

So three cheers. High fives all around.

As it turns out, that post on the ghosts in the Wilson story was where “Crossroads” podcast host Todd Wilken wanted to start out this week in our conversation. Click here to tune that in.

That’s where we started, but that isn’t where we ended up.

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The Guardian: Ridiculing the saints, the Virgin and prayer

Why do we fight? Why do we write? What motivates our editor tmatt and the team at GetReligion to do what we do?

For me, as I expect it is for my colleagues, it is the love of the game. To showcase the best examples of the craft of journalism — while chiding those that fall short.

I began to follow GetReligion shortly after it went online in 2004. I was a professional acquaintance of one of its co-founders, Doug LeBlanc and a long time admirer of his work and that of the editor, Terry Mattingly. Their call to improve the craft (not police it as some critics have charged) resonated with me. When I joined three years ago I was honored by their invitation and the opportunity to participate in their work by looking at the English, European and overseas press.

I was tasked with looking at stories such as this one from last week’s Guardian entitled: “Spanish government questioned over claims of divine help in economic crisis”, with an eye towards applying the standards of classical Anglo-American journalism to the story, as well as offering American readers a window into the British and European press world.

Critics often charge The New York Times and other American newspapers with spinning the news to advance the interests of a particular party or interest group. Advocacy journalism, as it is called, violates the tenets of classical liberal journalism which rejects overt politicking. The reporter’s role is to establish the facts and let them dictate how the story is written.

European advocacy style reporting draws upon a different intellectual tradition. “All history is contemporary history,” idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce said — history exists but only in the present tense.

In this school the past has reality only in the mind of the author.

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10 years of GetReligion: Labels, labels, labels, labels!

It is my understanding that there was some kind of Jerry Springer-esque debate last night between young-earth creationist Ken (hello dinosaurs) Ham and Bill (The Science Guy) Nye.

Let me state up front that I am not terribly interested in what either man had to say.

However, I am curious to know if any of the thousands of religion-beat pros who live and move and have their being on Twitter can answer the following questions:

(1) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “creationist” defined? Did the definition involve six 24-hour days or was the emphasis on God being meaningfully involved in creation, period?

(2) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “evolution” defined? If so, was the process described as being “mindless, unguided, and without purpose or goal” or words to that effect?

Also, was anyone involved in the debate whose viewpoint resembles the following?

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations.”

And also:

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

These words, of course, were spoken by the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Which simplistic term commonly used in mainstream articles about these debates — “creationism” or “evolution” — is best used to describe this soon-to-be-official saint’s perspective on God, man and creation? Which label, as commonly used by way too many journalists, deserves to be stuck on the forehead of John Paul the Great?

If there is one thing that your GetReligionistas do not like, at all, it is the degree to which the mainstream press accepts the use of vague, simplistic labels. Want to imply that you accept someone? Then call them a “moderate” (like that crucial New York Times self study noted). Want to imply that someone is stupid? Then you know what F-word to pin on them.

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10 years of GetReligion: Why we are still here, part II

Truth be told, your GetReligionistas do not have the power to bust ghosts.

However, we have been known to spot ghosts on a regular basis and to sound warnings. Ultimately, only the editors and reporters who work in mainstream newsrooms can do anything about all of the religion ghosts that haunt so many of their news reports.

So what is this “ghost” thing all about and why, for the past 10 years, has this concept mattered so much to us here at GetReligion? Let me explain.

Many of our readers continue to assume that GetReligion.org exists (a) to provide coverage of religion news events or (b) to provide a platform for people who want to argue about religious doctrines and trends in the past, present and future. In response, we keep chanting: This is not a religion-news site. This is a site about how many professionals in the mainstream press struggle to cover — to “get” — religion news.

As you would expect, we spend some of our time looking at the work of religion-beat professionals. However, it’s important to note that we end up praising the work of religion-beat professionals as much, if not more, than we criticize it.

After all, lots of people who have spent time researching religion-news coverage — including me — have concluded that the quickest way to improve coverage of this beat is for newsroom managers to hire experienced, trained religion writers and then give them the time and space they need to do their work. Consider, for example, that landmark “Bridging The Gap” study (.pdf here) done by the Freedom Forum more than two decades ago.

The bottom line: The main journalistic problem that GetReligion.org was created to address was not that professional religion writers are blind to the religion angles in major news stories.

Heavens no! The big problem is that so many other journalists are blind to the essential religious content and even context that helps shape the news on other beats — politics, science, entertainment, education, sports, economics, etc., etc.

As I have said many times, here at GetReligion.org we are convinced that if you want to cover news rooted in the real lives of real people who live in the real world, then you need to devote serious attention to religion. Newsroom managers need to grant religion news the respect that they give to other serious, complex topics in news at the local, national and global levels.

And that brings us to all of those “ghosts.” Thus, let’s review a few passages from that very first GetReligion.org post that went live on Feb. 2, 2004, as Douglas LeBlanc and I set up shop.

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