RNS gets a bigger blog

sally quinnThe professionals over at Religion News Service would like us to pass along the fact that they have radically updated and enlarged their blog about religion news.

In other words, they have a religion news blog.

As opposed to GetReligion, which is a blog about how the mainstream media cover religion news.

It’s always good to underline that difference, since so many people get confused about what we’re trying to do here.

The note that RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom is sending around takes you right to a hot item, on that is directly linked to the whole “What in the heckfire is that massive ‘On Faith’ site all about?” discussion that pops up here from time to time.

Here’s that opening post from Eckstrom, which has a punchy headline: “Sally Quinn doesn’t get it.”

The folks over at The Washington Post‘s On Faith blog opened a cybercan of worms when On Faith hostess Sally Quinn weighed in on the gay marriage debate and asked what the big deal is all about:

“Homosexual couples are simply two people who love each other. Please explain to me how that can be wrong in the eyes of God. Didn’t God make us all in his image? Please explain to me why it is not better for society that two people who love each other cement their relationship in a legal union. Please tell me how it could possibly be harmful to society to have two loving people form a union.

I simply don’t get it. I really don’t.”

So she asked for some help, and as could probably be expected, she’s getting quite an earful.

Well, there is this thing called the Bible, you see, and people in different pews on left and right violently disagree with one another about the meaning of its contents and how the ancient churches have read key scripture passages about marriage and sexuality and sacraments for 2,000 years or so. And, well, it’s a long story.

Bookmark the new RNS blog. Now. There’s only one RNS.

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Shameless plug for friends of Godbeat

popemedialargeThere they go again.

As I keep mentioning, no organization in Washington, D.C., is having a greater impact on serious coverage of religion news than our friends over at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. They keep turning out waves of information, including large chunks of the kind of media analysis work that is catnip to your GetReligionistas.

Sometimes, you simply have to say — especially to the journalists who frequent this weblog — here’s the Pew stuff, come and get it (in case you haven’t already heard). The two new reports are, no surprise, about the recent tour of the American Northeast power grid by Pope Benedict XVI. The study on media coverage notes, focusing on the days April 14-20:

(1) The media devoted significant amounts of time and space to the story. All told, the pope’s visit accounted for 16% of the overall “newshole,” the time or space available in an outlet for news content. … In the first four months of 2008, the only stories that received more coverage during a single week were the presidential campaign, the troubled U.S. economy and the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal.

(2) Two story lines dominated the coverage. Out of all the newshole dedicated to the pope’s visit, more than half (54%) was comprised of stories that focused on the impact of the clergy sex abuse scandal (37%) or on the relationship between Pope Benedict and American Catholics (17%).

(3) Coverage, for the most part, ignored the pope’s relationships with external constituencies. Just 1% focused on the pope’s relationships with other religious leaders or other faiths, and only 3% focused on the pope and the Bush administration or the pope and American politics. Only 2% of the coverage made any reference to the U.S. presidential campaign.

That third point is especially interesting, seeing as how Benedict was visiting territory at the very heart of America’s left-of-center ecumenical establishment. So, there was no photo op for the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in New York City.

It is also interesting to note the stories that the mainstream press elected not to cover. I’ll let you take some guesses about that list and then run over and see the results.

To no one’s surprise, the visit — click here for this particular study — also improved the pope’s popularity in the U.S. It appears that he was a hit with many Protestants.

Check it out.

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Shameless plug for Godbeat friend (and moi)

BurleighBillI feel like there should be a string orchestra playing in the background as I type this.

I rarely post my Scripps Howard News Service column on this site, but this is not a normal week. While doing some lecture research a few weeks ago, I was reminded that I filed my first column for the wire service on April 11, 1988, while I was still working full-time as a reporter and columnist for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

Do the math.

Well, on my 10th anniversary I saluted the writer and scholar who I felt had influenced my work as a journalist more than any other in the previous decade — that would be sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. That column was called “Ten years of reporting on a fault line.”

I shipped this one out with this cryptic headline: “Politics, opera and religion (20 years).” You have to read at least halfway through to understand the reference, but I hope you do. This time around, I decided to salute a journalism executive who has long been outspoken in his support for quality religion-news coverage in the mainstream press — William R. Burleigh (photo).

So here is the top of the column. Yes, I feel old today.

Most editors and reporters would panic, or call their lawyers, if news executives asked religious questions during job interviews.

Yet it’s hard to probe the contents of a journalist’s head without asking big questions. And it’s hard to ask some of the ultimate questions — questions about birth, life, suffering, pain and death — without mentioning religion.

William Burleigh carefully explored some of this territory when he was running news teams, both large and small. His half-century career with the E.W. Scripps Company began in 1951 when he was in high school in Evansville, Ill., and he retired several years ago after serving as president and chief executive officer.

“I always thought that it was interesting to talk to reporters and editors about their education,” said Burleigh, who remains chairman of the Scripps Howard board. “How many people in our newsrooms have actually studied history and art and philosophy and even some theology? …

“I have to admit — quite frankly — I always showed a partiality toward people with that kind of educational background. I didn’t do that because I am a big religious guy. I did it because I wanted to know if we were dealing with well-rounded people who could relate to the big questions in life.”

Burleigh won some battles. For example, a few editors decided to let a religion-beat specialist try writing a column for the Scripps Howard News Service and I’ve been at it ever since. This week marks the “On Religion” column’s 20th anniversary and I owe Burleigh, and other editors who backed religion coverage, a debt of gratitude.

However, it’s crucial to know that Burleigh — a traditional Catholic — didn’t push this issue because he wanted editors to hire more journalists who liked sitting in pews. No, he didn’t want to see newspapers keep missing events and trends that affect millions of people and billions of dollars.

Some journalists, he said, don’t think that religion matters. Thus, many editors get sweaty palms when it comes time to dedicate time, ink and money to the subject. Few seek out trained, experienced religion-beat reporters.

“The prevailing ethos among most of our editors is that the public square is the province of the secular and not a place for … religious messages to be seen or heard,” said Burleigh, in an interview for my chapter in “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.” Oxford University Press will publish this book, produced by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life, late this fall.

“As a result,” Burleigh said, “lots of editors automatically think religion is out of place in a public newspaper. That’s what we are up against.”

By the way, that first column 20 years ago was about presidential candidate Pat Robertson and how (imagine this) he was giving speeches that were hard for news organizations to cover because he kept using evangelical jargon that was hard for reporters to understand. Imagine that.

The more things change, the more….

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The end of an era

WSJI was contacting a few of my favorite religion reporters today to let them know about a some events in St. Louis on Sunday and Monday regarding the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod’s surprising cancellation of the popular radio show Issues, Etc.

Anyway, while I was trying to track down Stephanie Simon, who I have a complete reporter crush on, I found out that today is her last day at the Los Angeles Times!

My heart stopped a beat when I found out but there is great news as well: she’s moving to the Wall Street Journal.

We frequently commend the Los Angeles Times for its quality religion coverage. But this, along with the retirement of K. Connie Kang, is a huge loss to the paper.

I’m not sure what her exact beat is, but it’s no secret the Journal has been wanting to beef up its general news coverage, including the faith and values beat that Simon has covered so well over the years. Simon will continue on from Denver and will cover the geographically tiny region of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.

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Let’s get ready to rumble!

smackdownIt was just yesterday that readers were complaining that I was too hard on a New York Times contributor for her piece expressing surprise that Christians can be funny. But usually I think I’m too understanding of the mistakes reporters make.

Some wise but unnamed scribe over at the “unholy monsterThe Revealer — another religion and media site — wrote about the challenge of doing effective media criticism when, due to proximity or disposition, you’re just too deferential. I completely sympathize. And I’m resolving to sharpen my fangs and go for blood!

The Revealer directs readers to a new media criticism site run by the well-funded Knight Chair in Media and Religion. As voracious consumers of media criticism, readers of GetReligion should wander on over and sniff around.

Diane Winston, who runs the site, has reported for the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of a few books dealing with religion and has directed religion and media projects at New York University and Northwestern University. And she has lots of fancy book learning in religion, too. She hopes to help round out journalists’ coverage of politics, science and sex by encouraging understanding of how religion shapes stories. She explains her site’s niche this way:

There are already a growing number of websites and blogs that look at religion reporting and we hope to add to the good work they do by specifically focusing on resources for non-religion reporters (as well as those who cover the beat) and for journalism educators.

Be sure to let her know if you have good ideas for resources. But back to The Revealer‘s endorsement of the site:

Religion and media isn’t about ethics! It’s about smackdowns.

Well, not really. It’s not about ethics or smackdowns — it’s about smart, informed analysis from a woman who’s worked in some of the nation’s most prestigious newsrooms, taken a Ph.D. in American religious history from Princeton, published with Harvard University Press, and left it all behind to train up an even better generation of religion writers. Read Knight Chair.

I hope it can be about ethics, smackdowns and smart, informed analysis. Either way, a hearty welcome to the Knight Chair in Media and Religion.

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Pew Forum marches on (post No. 3,000)

FanfareTrumpetsThis past summer I was talking with another religion-beat professional and this nationally known journalist put something into words that I had been feeling, but had not yet articulated. This scribe who will not be named said that on many days she or he felt like he or she was turning into a public-relations person for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“Amen,” said I. “I know just how you feel.”

In recent years, the pollsters and journalists over at the Pew Forum have been downloading waves of data about into the minds of religion-beat professionals from sea to shining sea and beyond. There are other groups doing research into some of these topics — religion and politics, for example — but no one has been creating as many headlines as the Pew Forum.

There are times when a self-aware Godbeat scribe has to go out of the way to avoid covering some of this material. Last year’s study on Pentecostalism is a perfect example. Now, I have been told, they are gearing up for a nation-by-nation study of religion in Africa. Try to avoid writing about that, in an era where tensions between growing expressions of Islam and Christianity are on the rise. Can you say, “Nigeria”?

I bring this up for two reasons — one obvious and one not so obvious.

The obvious reason is, well, obvious if you have been online this morning. There they goagain. You can run, but you cannot hide, from the results of the Pew Forum’s massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The stories are everywhere and legions of GetReligion readers have been sending us URL’s since yesterday afternoon, when the embargo on the results ended. More on that in a minute.

The less obvious reason is that this — a blast of trumpets, please — is the 3,000th post on this here weblog. And it would be hard to find a more symbolic or appropriate topic for a landmark post than the whole changing landscape of American religion. So here goes.

There is so much coverage out there, and so much information in this survey, that I do not quite know where to begin. I mean, the Forum crew interviewed 35,000 adults. Think about that for a minute. Personally, I plan to munch on it for a week or so, and look at some of the angles that do not draw coverage, before even attempting to find a unique lede. But other reporters, obviously, had to write — on deadline.

So what were some of the MSM ledes? This is a case where diversity was a plus and it’s interesting to note who put what right up top. I’ll avoid the names of reporters, to save space.

* One clear option was what you might call the “post-denominational age” lede. Here is the New York Times take on that one:

More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. If shifts among Protestant denominations are included, then it appears that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations. For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes.

* You had the same basic approach at the Associated Press, only with a hint at the winners and losers:

The U.S. religious marketplace is extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey finds. …

While much of the study confirms earlier findings — mainline Protestant churches are in decline, non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing — it also provides a deeper look behind those trends, and of smaller religious groups.

* This was a story where a classic W5H lede (if you need to ask what that is, you are not a journalist) might have been appropriate. The Dallas Morning News put as much as possible in one sentence and that looked like this multi-sentence approach:

A major new measure of religious belief in the United States confirms trends shown in earlier polls: The percentage of adult Americans claiming no particular religion is at an all-time high. The percentage of Protestants is dropping. And the percentage of Catholics is stable — but only because the overwhelming majority of immigrants is Catholic.

BelieveUSAflag* The Washington Post had some interesting breakout numbers very close to the top, after using the post-denominational lede:

Forty-four percent of Americans have either switched their religious affiliation since childhood or dropped out of any formal religious group, according to the largest recent survey on American religious identification. …

Among other findings, the survey indicated that members of Protestant denominations now make up only a slight majority — 51.3 percent — of the adult population. The 44 percent figure includes people who switch affiliations within one of the major faith traditions, such as a Protestant who goes from Baptist to Methodist. Counting only people who switch traditions altogether — say, from Catholic to Orthodox, or Protestant to Muslim — the number drops to 28 percent.

* And there you have it, one of the other strong contenders for a different and more specific angle on the story. Let’s call it the non-Protestant America lede. Here is the Los Angeles Times, which managed to get that note sounded right from the get-go:

Americans are switching religious affiliation in ever-greater numbers or abandoning ties to organized denominations altogether, and Protestants are on the cusp of becoming a minority, according to a survey released Monday.

Barely 51% of Americans are Protestants, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, just 43% identify with this branch of Christianity. … Protestants have always held a majority status in the United States.

* Now get ready for an ironic twist. Just because the Protestants are fading does not mean that the other largest body in American religious life is doing just fine. Check out this lead from the Washington Times, which is sure to raise eyebrows:

Evangelical Christianity has become the largest religious tradition in this country, supplanting Roman Catholicism, which is slowly bleeding members, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evangelical Protestants outnumber Catholics by 26.3 percent (59 million) to 24 percent (54 million) of the population. …

“There is no question that the demographic balance has shifted in past few decades toward evangelical churches,” said Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum. “They are now the mainline of American Protestantism.”

The traditional mainline Protestant churches, which in 1957 constituted about 66 percent of the populace, now count just 18 percent as adherents.

In other words, the post-denominational age is producing churches that are post-denominational and those are called Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. So the fact that America is approaching a post-Protestant majority status does not automatically mean that another form of mainline faith will gain power. Things may simply get more diverse and more confused — period.

I could go on and on with this and, methinks, the other GetReligionistas will join in. But I think you see the major options.

However, I hope to ring up the omnipresent John C. Green of the University of Akron and ask a few questions, like these: Are people changing faiths or is the content of these faiths changing? In other words, what role does doctrine play in all of this? People may flee one pew — in a splitting church — and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend. It may even be a church without pews.

You may have people who are exiting a church because they have lost their faith or radically changed it. Then again, it may be the faith of their old church that has radically changed. There are different reasons to hit the road on a personal pilgrimage (and Rod “friend of this blog” is exploring some of that). It will be interesting to see if there are hints at that down deep in the Pew Forum survey.

Stay tuned. And tell friends about GetReligion. We are 3,000 posts into this and I think we’re hanging around. You think?

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Covering Islam remains a struggle

MuslimMosaicUSA 01You have to be pretty interested in the state of religion reporting to claim the domain name ReligionWriter.com and open up shop. That’s what freelancer Andrea Useem did.

You’re going to hear more about her in a few days, when I grab enough free time to post a new 5Q+1 interview with her, which will focus on her views of religion coverage in general and mainstream media coverage of Islam, in particular. I could include a lot of that information in this post, but then it would get really, really long.

For now, what you need to know is that Useem is a former Episcopalian who studied Quakerism and, after years of study and travel, converted to Islam. She has professional ties to all kinds of people, including Religion News Service, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chronicle of Higher Education, the Dallas Morning News, etc., etc. I had better stop now, before this post turns into her 5Q+1 bio.

At the moment, Useem is in the middle of some research for an RNA “webinar” on coverage of Islam. That’s why she called me the other day for a wide-ranging conversation about mainstream news coverage of Islam. Click here, if you want to read the whole interview, which I urge you to do because she is asking questions that need to be asked. It’s a real dialogue, more than a pure Q&A with, well, me, and a nice plug for GetReligion.

Here is one sample from the transcript that focuses on a crucial issue in religion writing in general:

RW: But isn’t there a problem with taking religious statements too much at face value? I think of the PBS documentary, The Muslim Americans, where Judy Woodruff interviews two Muslim teenage girls in headscarves, who are piously telling her they are never going to date before marriage. She doesn’t challenge them, and the audience is just supposed to be wowed by their commitment. But that seems so shallow. I want to know how their commitment works in real life: Do they have crushes? Are they just saying that for the camera? As a journalist, do you just report it at face-value when someone says, “I love Jesus, he saved my life”?

Mattingly: No, it’s only half the story. My point is not that religion is the sole factor, but that it has to be taken seriously. It’s a piece of the human equation.

RW: So what should the reporter’s next question be after someone says, “I did such-and-such for God”?

Mattingly: You can ask a quick question about that person’s religious life. Take the Michael Vick story. When he says he has found Jesus and is going to change his life, you can ask, “Can I call your pastor? If you’re claiming to have a religious identity, which is to some extent defined by a religious community, can I know more about that community?” If someone says “no,” they just practice all by themselves, you can at least report that.

Reporters have to push their reporting toward facts about a newsmaker’s faith.

This discussion leads us into the heart of the issue. Many Muslims do not want to talk to the press. Some fear that journalists will twist their faith or fail to get the facts right. Others fear what other Muslims will say or do in response to public comments. How can reporters find quotes that represent to complexity of modern Islam if many Muslims cannot or will not speak freely?

Then, of course, there is the ultimate issue: Whether or not to link Islamic beliefs with acts of violence. How can reporters cover the facts — the terrorists themselves trumpet their faith — without implying that this interpretation of Islam is “normal” or “right” to millions of other Muslims? This was a major concern, both to me and to Useem.

It’s crucial to remember this fact — there is no one Islam.

RW: In Jimmy Allen’s 2007 update to Bridging the Gap (text here), Allen lamented that most editors did not see 9/11 as a religious story. But in a way I agree with the editors: Is calling 9/11 an Islam story like saying the Virginia Tech massacre is an Asian-American culture story?

Mattingly: To leave out the religious content of the lives of the bombers would be strange. Let’s look at an example in Christianity. Remember the man who lived out in the woods in North Carolina after blowing up abortion clinics? He had been thrown out of several different very conservative religious groups, and was living as a kind of Christian loner. Yet the press continued to identify him as a Presbyterian. First of all, there’s like 15 different Presbyterian churches: which the heck denomination do you mean? He doesn’t strike me as a PCUSA kind of guy; the world is not full of PCUSA bombers. But for that matter, the world isn’t full of PCA conservative bombers either. In fact, the PCA had thrown Rudolph out — the Orthodox Presbyterians had thrown him out. If you want to accurately describe Rudolph’s life, you end up saying, “Here is a man who said he acted on strong religious motivations, yet the religious groups he was involved with threw him out, and here is why they said they did.” …

There, once again, is a debate that has to be covered. You can’t say Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics because he was a conservative Christian. You can’t say the guys flew the planes into the towers because they were conservative Muslims. There are too many other conservative Muslims who disagree with them. But the question for journalists is: What are they disagreeing about? And where are the conservative Muslims who will stand up and critique Osama’s interpretation?

Strange times. We live in a day in which conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney seem to know more about the writing of, let’s say, Sayyid Qutub, than many journalists covering the Muslims who are inspired by his teachings.

Please read the whole interview and let Useem and me know what you think. And tune in a few days, when I return the favor and let her share some more of her views on religion and the news.

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Celebrating four years

celebrateKeeping with the spirit of celebrating GetReligion’s fourth anniversary, I am sharing a handful of my favorite blog posts. I am sure there are others out there that dealt with more substantial issues or generated more comments, but for one reason or another these are a few of my choice posts.

January 2008: “Old churches converted to new condos” — Old abandoned inner-city churches are converted into fancy condos. The best part of this post was reader feedback reporting from all around the country with similar stories.

February 2007: “Is talking about God news?” — The Indianapolis Colts win the Super Bowl, and Dungy talks about his faith and how it affects his coaching style on national television. There’s not much left to say here.

January 2007: “Ford’s quiet faith was just wonderful” — President Ford passes away and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gives readers a sermon/Sunday-school lesson on why Ford’s personal quiet faith was a presidential ideal. My wife was able to take a photos of the president’s motorcade as it went by the Washington, D.C., apartment building that was our home for three months.

July 2006: “Rooting out radicalism” — British journalists struggle to understand the differences between radical Islam and everything else that is Islamic in their country.

November 2005: “Missing Lewis” — In a preemptive strike against Aslan and his fans, The New York Times launches an attack against the mind behind the Land of Narnia.

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