Read this story and weep! But ask a few more questions

Every now and then, I receive private emails, or emails sent through our contact link, that sound something like this: So why aren’t you guys writing about this story? You afraid to or are you just too prejudiced or only interested in stories that allegedly attack conservative Christians.

Then the email will include a link to a news story — almost all of them perfectly valid — that talks about an event or a subject in which a minority religious group (in the American context, in most cases) is being attacked or treated badly.

In other words a story rather like the following Associated Press report, which ran at the ABC News site under this headline: “ACLU Accuses La. School of Religious Harassment.” More on that in a minute.

Now the problem is that many of these stories are actually rather ordinary. They get the job done and there isn’t really much to comment on — negative or positive — in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of journalism. Here’s the bottom line: Most of the time, what these correspondents want to do is argue about THE ISSUE at the heart of the story, not a journalism issue in the new coverage.

Consider the AP story mentioned earlier. The events described in this story are so crazy — the church-state violations attributed to these educators so ridiculous — that it almost reads like something from The Onion.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing a school board in Louisiana, alleging officials at one of its schools harassed a sixth-grader because of his Buddhist faith and that the district routinely pushes Christian beliefs.

The lawsuit was filed against the Sabine Parish School Board … in U.S. District Court in Shreveport on behalf of Scott and Sharon Lane and their three children. According to the complaint from the ACLU and its Louisiana chapter, the Lanes enrolled their son — a lifelong Buddhist of Thai descent — in Negreet High School and he quickly became the target of harassment by the school’s staff.

So what is alleged to have happened in this case, at the hands of Superintendent Sara Ebarb, Negreet High Principal Gene Wright and science teacher Rita Roark? If half of this is true the ACLU lawsuit is a slam dunk:

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Debate at NYTimes: Was the March For Life news or not?

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One of the most difficult concepts in journalism to communicate to people outside the field can be stated in this deceptively simple question: What is news? Or try this wording on for size: Why do some events receive major coverage and others no coverage at all?

Obviously the worldviews of the editors making the call play a role, but so do factors that are hard to explain. For example, are we talking about an event that takes place on a day when there are lots of other stories competing for space, time and resources? A quirky story that takes place on a day when there is very little else going on has a much better chance of ending up on A1 than the same story if it happens the day after an election or the day after a major weather event, and so forth and so on.

Long ago, I received a nasty letter from a reader who wanted to know why it was not news when her evangelical megachurch built a large new family life center, but it was news when a tiny downtown Episcopal parish decided to do a bit of remodeling that involved changing a window. Well, I explained, megachurches build new buildings all the time. The Episcopal parish project was symbolic because it involved making changes in the city’s oldest church. This was literally an historic site and, yes, the window was the original window in that part of the building.

Now, if the megachurch project had led to a battle over zoning laws, it might have been a news story, I explained.

Right, she said, journalists only cover disputes and bad news.

I think you can imagine the rest of that conversation.

Year after year, the March For Life in Washington, D.C. — as well as in other major cities — stirs up debates about this topic. After all, in most years this march is the largest public demonstration, by far, in the nation’s capital.

Ah, but it happens every year and this has been going on for decades. Thus, many journalists argue that there is nothing unusual about it.

Participants rarely buy that response and ask what kind of coverage the same march, year after year, if it was linked to an ongoing cause that enjoyed widespread support in elite newsrooms, instead of widespread apathy, skepticism or even scorn.

Ah, but what about 2014? This year the crowd was smaller than the 500,000 or so the previous year, due to stunningly cold weather conditions (which have also happened in the past, truth be told). So was the march LESS of a story due to smaller numbers or MORE of a story for the same reason?

This time around, the debate received some ink in a very important place, as noted by a Religion News Service scribe:

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Pope Francis to the media: Try being good neighbors

Think of this as a one-time GetReligion commentary from a guest who is an expert, in many ways, on the behavior of the professionals who work in the world’s news media. This is, of course, the annual papal message for World Communications Day, marking the feast of St Francis de Sales — the patron of writers and journalists.

Click here for the full document.

Now, parts of this text raise some interesting question. The pope is, clearly, serving as a good cop and a bad cop at the same time, in terms of his commentary on the news business.

But which point of view gets the upper hand in this essay? That’s where I would like to hear from GetReligion readers in the comments pages (those of you who are patient enough for the whole Disqus process).

Let’s start here:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect. A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Would the people charged with moderating the comments pages at The National Catholic Reporter agree? Times have been rather rough over there.

Now, only a few words later, there is the flip side of the coin, with @Pontifex offering some thoughts — plus and minus — on (I’m reading between the lines) everything from that MSNBC vs. Fox News thing to Twitter:

The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests. The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us. We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.

While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement. What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.

Some would consider that final statement to be quite wise.

Others in the world of social media will simple scream: LOL!

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Oh, those religious fund-raisers

GRETCHEN ASKS:

(Paraphrasing) She attended a fund-raising event for an unnamed organization where a slide show began by saying that “on the eighth day God created” this group and then presented its purposes. She found that “arrogant and self-serving” and it “bothered me beyond belief. Am I being overly sensitive?”

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In The Guy’s eyes, yes, you are.

Still, religious offenses are in the eye of the beholder and fund-raising is well worth some examination. The late Henri Nouwen observed in A Spirituality of Fundraising (Upper Room Books) that work for financial support should be seen as a “ministry” of the kingdom, not “a necessary but unpleasant activity.”

Since this question is posed to “Religion Q and A” we can assume the organization is religious. Though The Guy wasn’t present, sounds like the leaders of this group were simply saying God created the cosmos in six days and rested on the seventh, while from day eight forward to the present divinely aligned activities depend upon our human efforts.

Understood correctly, that’s no heresy, and seems to The Guy he’s heard a sermon or three saying precisely that. This agency presumably believes it is working to carry forward God’s purposes in the world, which almost any church or religious charity might think or say about itself.

The “eighth day” trope, meant to be clever or humorous, is also widely used in secular sloganeering.

A quick Internet scan finds that on the eighth day God created, among other things: the Latina women on a dating site, the United States Marines, pricey automobiles, favorite TV shows, rock ‘n roll, football, hackers, teachers, donuts and — inevitably — beer (does this offend you Muslims and Protestant teetotalers?) and coffee (does this offend you Mormons?).

Perhaps The Guy’s sensitivities have been dulled by all those media references to religion that are sloppy, stupid, snide or downright nasty. But he’s seen far worse than this eighth day pitch.

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On the cautious use of loaded terms such as ‘messianism’

So let’s try this again.

The other day I wrote about a news report that ran in The Los Angeles Times that used a very interesting and, in the context of Israel and the Middle East, very loaded term. Here is the lede on that piece, once again:

WASHINGTON – The White House on Tuesday condemned as “offensive” the reported comment of Israel’s defense minister that Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s campaign for Mideast peace grows from his “messianism.”

My question was quite simple. I suspected, based on the coverage offered by other mainstream outlets, that Moshe Yaalon had not actually used a specific noun best translated as “messianism,” but had used words that would best be translated, as my post noted, either as “messianic fervor” or words to that effect. Perhaps the goal was to say that Kerry suffers from some kind of “messiah complex.” Yes, I also wondered if — because of a variety of controversies linked to Christians in the Middle East — any use of a term similar to “Messianism” would have been considered especially cutting.

Thus, I thought that a reference to the noun “messianism” would have needed some explaining, no matter which definition was selected from a typical dictionary online:

mes·si·a·nism … noun

1. (often initial capital letter) the belief in the coming of the Messiah, or a movement based on this belief.

2. the belief in a leader, cause, or ideology as a savior or deliverer. …

The crucial question, once again: Did Yaalon used a term best translated as “messianism”?

As it turns out, Prof. Mark Silk at Trinity College has offered a post that offered some helpful information on this question, working from the Hebrew text at the heart of the story.

Aided and abetted by my religion department colleague Ron Kiener, I am happy to report that the term in question is … techushah meshichit … which is better translated as “messianic impulse” than “messianic fervor” (as the Yedioth translator put it). In English, “messianism” (or “Messianism”) is usually used to refer to belief in an imminent coming of the messiah (or The Messiah), rather than a conviction of one’s own messianic status, which is what Ya’alon intended to tag Kerry with.

Quite interesting and, as I said, helpful.

In other words, the point was — using that second definition — to imply that, in his quest for peace in the Middle East, the U.S. secretary of state seems to think that he is acting in some kind of messianic role or that he is being driven by a messianic impulse. Did I get that right?

The only issue, apparently, on which Silk and I disagree is in his next statement:

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Journalists editing Pope Francis: Who are we to judge?

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Sometimes, in this tricky world of media criticism, it’s hard to pay attention to what someone said without focusing too much on which person, from what group, did the alleged media criticism.

So in this case, let’s read some of the words in a specific op-ed essay before we get to the issue of who wrote them.

This is a short piece, so we can actually parse most of the actual contents. Let’s begin at the beginning:

Not a day goes by without a pundit or editorial writer opining on what Pope Francis said about some controversial issue. While every pope, as well as every religious and secular leader, properly has his remarks subjected to scrutiny, Pope Francis is having his words sliced and diced far beyond anything his predecessors were accustomed to. Quite frankly, the goal of many commentators is to make the pope’s statements appear to underscore their own ideological agenda.

Frankly, there is a lot of that going on out there. This is almost as big a problem on the right, when dealing with papal statements on, oh, capitalism (hello, Rush Limbaugh) as it is on the left (hello college of cardinals at The New York Times editorial pages). However, since the Times is much more important than Limbaugh, when talking about mainstream journalism, let’s proceed on that tact.

Nothing excites the passions of those on the left today more than gay rights. Their obsession is shown with Pope Francis’ comment, made over the summer, “Who am I to judge?” …

What Francis said was, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” The difference between what he is quoted as saying, and what he actually said, is not minor. Those who parse his words agree, which is why they parse them. It is important to note that the pope did not offer two sentences: his one sentence was chopped to alter his message.

We will get to the full papal transcript in just a minute. However, based on my own reading of waves of coverage of this pope and this statement in particular, I believe that this is an accurate statement about how this one papal phrase is being yanked out of context.

Yes, the statement is important and, yes, the tone of the statement is important. But so is the content of the full quote.

Here is the paragraph of this op-ed that I thought would most interest GetReligion readers, especially those working in mainstream newsrooms:

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New to the Godbeat in St. Louis: Lilly Fowler

In case you missed our tweet — you do follow GetReligion on Twitter and Facebook, right? — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has hired a new religion writer.

This past fall, Post-Dispatch “religion-writing superstar” Tim Townsend left to become a senior writer and editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. We might have mentioned his departure once or twice or five times — here, here, here, here and here.

The journalist hired as Townsend’s successor? Lilly Fowler, a longtime Religion News Service contributor.

Post-Dispatch assistant metro editor Matthew Franck shared this internal announcement on Fowler’s hiring:

We are pleased to announce that Lilly Fowler will join the metro desk as a religion reporter. Lilly has master’s degrees in journalism, from the University of Southern California, and religion, from Notre Dame. Her freelance work on religion has appeared in Slate, Salon and a host of papers, including the Post-Dispatch. Most recently, she has been an assistant editor at FairWarning, a nonprofit in Los Angeles, where she has written investigative projects on health, safety and corporate conduct. She also has multimedia experience as a web producer for the public radio broadcast Marketplace.

One respected Godbeat pro told me he was unfamiliar with Fowler. “I don’t know anything about Lilly — do you?” he asked.

When I shared the memo copied above, that writer replied, “Great credentials. Any clergy who have something to hide should be nervous.”

Let’s not put too much pressure on Fowler to start. It takes a while to build a new beat in a new city. And as she said herself, she has “big shoes” to fill.

But like her predecessor, we welcome her hiring by the Post-Dispatch and look forward to reading her stories.

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What M.Z. said: Doctor Who vs. Jesus at BuzzFeed?

First things first: Yes, I am a big Doctor Who fan.

Thus, I find the role that the whole “Whovian” phenomenon plays in the following M.Z. Hemingway post to be fascinating, to say the least.

Nevertheless, suffice it to say that I think our beloved Divine Mrs. M.Z. nails this one and, yes, this is clearly a case of serious religious content giving some journalists sweaty palms.

So, I’ll simply say, “What M.Z. said.” And does the top of her post — at The Federalist, of course — sound kind of familiar here in the context of GetReligion.org? Take that double-decker headline, for example:

Why Is Religion Invisible To The Media?

A 12-year-old girl wrote herself a note before she died. It contained an amazing message of hope and redemption. That was before the media got to it.

And here is the top of the M.Z. manifesto. You really need to read it on their site to get the impact of the URLs, embedded tweets, etc.

Seven in 10 Americans identify as “very religious” or “moderately religious,” according to a recent Gallup survey. Each week, hundreds of millions of Americans go to houses of worship, pray, or just ponder the higher things related to our religious views. But it’s not news that this religious reality is not well reflected in our media.

There is some great work being done by mainstream media outlets, but much room for improvement. For those of us who are religious, we notice the weird way the media handles religion news and religious topics. We see it every time a broadcaster interviews someone live and stumbles when the subject mentions something religious. We see it in the egregious mistakes the New York Times makes about basic teachings of the Christian faith. We see it in the unmasked disdain for religious people.

But usually the media treatment of religious people and their religious views isn’t so much hostile as absent. We may not be invisible to them, but our religious views certainly are. I thought of this when I came across an interesting BuzzFeed post titled “After The Death Of Their 12-Year-Old Daughter, Parents Find The Letter She Wrote To Her Future Self.”

So here is how BuzzFeed summed up the crucial element of 12-year-old Taylor Smith’s epistle to her future self. The quotes from “Tim” are from her father, of course:

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