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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So what is the new ‘On Faith’ about, in these early days?

Through the years, your GetReligionistas tended to offer rather mixed views of the “On Faith” project at The Washington Post.

First of all, it had tremendous potential as a religion-news hub, in part because of the presence of several writers in the Post newsroom — in a variety of departments — who clearly were interested in religion topics and showed ability when dealing with religious subjects. I mean, in addition to the obvious scribes, I would put entertainment writer Hank Stuever in that crowd, along with Hamil Harris, my long-time friend over in Metro.

Throw in the obvious resources of Religion News Service and you had a big head start on being a serious religion-news hub.

However, from the beginning, the “On Faith” project founders appeared to believe that religion is a corner of life that is dominated by emotion and opinions, not facts and reporting.

You do recall that first “On Faith” question to the commentators in its Parliament of Religions panel?

If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?

The basic question back then, for me, was this: Is religion a topic that, for journalists, is uniquely rooted in opinion? As I wrote in one rather urgent post called “On Fog — A Meditation,” back in 2008:

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people — left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call “fringe.” Facts and doctrine matter to religious people, even to people who are very specific and highly creedal about the doctrines that they reject. I have interviewed many an atheist who had more doctrines in his anti-creed than I recite in the Nicene Creed.

This isn’t about emotions and feelings. It’s about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion. Amen.

Now, as most GetReligion readers will know, “On Faith” has left the Post world and been handed over to the FaithStreet project in New York. Here is the link to an opening PR salvo on the move. Also, here is a link to the current version of the new site. What do you think of the current topics and content?

Recently, a veteran religion-writer type send me a copy of a note that editor Patton Dodd at FaithStreet sent out, seeking contributions to the new site.

Here is a key chunk of the letter:

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What? The press overlooked key Catholic stories in 2013?

First of all, I would like to stress that I had already decided, several days ago, to write the following post in praise of John L. Allen, Jr., and his relentless focus on the Catholic-beat news missed by so many other scribes.

That’s my story, friends and neighbors, and I am sticking to it.

In other words, I am not writing this post today because of the rather stunning announcement — almost universally cheered in religion-news land — that that Allen would be leaving the progressive National Catholic Reporter and signing on with The Boston Globe for several projects linked to religion-news reporting, with a heavy emphasis on Catholic coverage (duh). I was going to write this post last week, but I was still out on the road due to family issues down South.

One of the keys here is that Allen, while writing for a newspaper with a distinct editorial point of view, has always been known as a reporter who focused on providing waves of accurate information, which takes time and expertise, as opposed to merely offering an endless stream of editorial opinion, which is rather inexpensive and primarily serves the needs of a niche readership. It is to the credit of NCR leaders that they allowed Allen to do what he did, for so long.

Yesterday, I praised the Globe team for making a strategic move that is oh so logical, yet one that many mainstream news editors reject. They treated religion like a serious news topic and hired an experienced, trained, respected reporter to cover it. Trust me, newsroom managers, there are more than a few other skilled religion-beat pros available out there — old and young — in Internet land who are more than willing to do this work.

Anyway, I was pleased to see this tweet from Allen himself:

So back to our delayed subject for today. It focuses on one of Allen’s newsy journalistic rites:

It’s an “All Things Catholic” tradition to dedicate the first column of the new year to the most under-covered Catholic stories of the previous 12 months, which in the past has always seemed a good use of time given the sporadic and often radically incomplete coverage the church typically draws.

This year, however, it feels a little silly to be talking about Catholicism as under-covered, given the astronomic media interest generated by the resignation of Benedict XVI and the rise of Francis.

You think? Perhaps you noticed that tsunami of ink in the past year? If there is a Pope Francis effect, it primarily exists in newsrooms.

But, Allen rightly notes, that doesn’t mean that the mainstream press didn’t miss important Catholic coverage.

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What can we say? Boston Globe hires John L. Allen, Jr.

For several decades now, I have been telling mainstream newsroom managers that all they have to do to improve religion-news coverage is to approach the beat the same way they approach any other major news beat that they respect, such as politics, sports, politics, education, politics and, of course, entertainment gossip.

What’s the magic formula? Here is what I had to say in a 1995 lecture to the editors of Scripps Howard newspapers:

So, you’re a manager in a newsroom and you’ve decided to improve religion coverage. What can you do?

There are only three ways that editors show what they think about a subject: what kind of reporter covers it, how much coverage it receives and where the stories appear in the newspaper. Thus, the solution is obvious: hire one or more quality journalists who are committed to covering religion and give their work the kind of display that is granted to subjects editors consider important.

Religion is a stunningly complicated beat, with dozens of major and minor religious groups and institutions dotting the intellectual and emotional landscape. Buddhists don’t talk, pray or do business like Baptists. Catholics and Pentecostals have totally different concepts of what it means to be a “charismatic” leader, except, of course, for Catholics who also happen to Pentecostals. It’s impossible to navigate these waters without a working knowledge of the charts.

So with that in mind, faithful GetReligion readers will join me in celebrating this tweet:

 

In recent years, your GetReligionistas have sadly published more than a few “black flag” notices marking the closing of a religion-beat job in a major newsroom or the departure of a skilled Godbeat veteran from active duty in the news biz. Every now and then, we can cheer when a Cathy Grossman, after an exit from USA Today, is able to make a much-deserved comeback in a shop like Religion News Service.

So now we need to ask, what is the opposite of a black flag?

Obviously, a white flag represents surrender.

That’s not what people who care about solid religion-news reporting should be feeling after that tweet from Allen, who — while writing for the progressive National Catholic Reporter — has won wide respect on both sides of Catholic sanctuary aisles for his informed and accurate coverage.

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Are there any culture wars inside the Great Gray Lady?

Here’s a safe prediction for 2014: Look for another year with tough culture wars cases — whether from courthouses in Utah or your local Christian university or parachurch ministry — rolling toward the church-state crossroads at the U.S. Supreme Court.

If that’s the case, journalists will continue to face a numbing barrage of stories in which they will be challenged to accurately and fairly report the views of activists on both the religious left and Religious Right.

Yeah, right.

With that in mind, consider this interesting Quora.com comment by elite columnist Nicholas Kristof, in response to this question: “What is the culture like at The New York Times?”

Things start rather slowly, before candor strikes:

There isn’t really a simple answer to this question, because the culture of the Times varies by section and even time of day. In my part of the building, where the opinion columnists have their offices, it tends to be a bit more relaxed, even sleepy, while the metro desk at deadline on a big story will be frenetic and full of electricity. When I started at The Times in 1984, it was mostly male, and we wore jacket and ties; there was plenty of smoking and drinking. These days, the dress code is much more casual, and somewhat more earnest; not a lot of whiskey bottles hidden around today. There are also lots of women, which means there’s less of a locker room atmosphere. …

But what about the word “culture” as in, well, you know what?

People sometimes ask if everybody is liberal politically, but I’d say that journalists define themselves less by where they are on the political spectrum and more as skeptics providing oversight to whoever is in power.

Classic answer. How many Americans still accept that, when looking Times coverage of, well, you know, certain issues?

I would say, though, that while there is a range of ideology from liberal to conservative on political and fiscal issues, on social issues most journalists (everywhere,not just at The Times) tend to have an urban bias: They are more likely to be for gun control and gay marriage than the general public, and much more likely to believe in evolution. They are also less likely to have served in the military or to have working class backgrounds.

That’s more like it. Now, what is the religious, the doctrinal content (even strictly secular beliefs have doctrinal implications) of an “urban bias”? Is that essentially saying that elite urbanites find it easier to embrace doctrinally liberal forms of religion, as opposed to those who believe in transcendent, eternal doctrines?

What was it that William Proctor — author of “The Gospel According to the New York Times” — said long ago?

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Pod people: What was top 2013 story for Pope Francis?

I am sure that GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked to know that the Godbeat professionals in the Religion Newswriters Association selected the election of Pope Francis Superstar as the top religion-news story of 2013. It goes without saying that Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

Click here to read the official RNA release about the Top 10 stories of the year.

Faithful GetReligion readers will also be shocked, shocked to know that I understood the logic of the RNA vote, but had a slightly different take on the top news event or trend in 2013.

And finally, GetReligion podcast patrons will be shocked, shocked to know that host Todd Wilken and I dissected all of this material, and more, in this week’s “Crossroads” episode. Please click here to listen to that.

So here is my logic about this No. 1 story vote.

Of course I understand that the election of Pope Francis produced more headlines and glowing ink over the last year than any other religion-beat story. In terms of mainstream news coverage, the election of the charismatic, yet walk-his-talk humble, pope had to be one of the most powerful earthquakes in this past year’s news — period.

But stop and think about it.

How long has it been since the occupant of St. Peter’s throne resigned his post? That would be 600 years or so, right? Thus, one could make the case that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was one of the most important stories in Catholicism, and thus, Western Christianity in, well, decades — at the very least. Try to imagine the long-term ramifications of Benedict’s astonishing exit.

So how can a story be one of the most important stories in Western religion in DECADES and not be the most important religion story of the YEAR?

I know, I know. Pope Francis was the religion-news earthquake of 2013 and that’s that. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI finished in second place.

Well, I have one more angle I would like readers to pause and consider. Here’s how I put it in this week’s “On Religion” column for the Universal Uclick syndicate:

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Your GetReligion Christmas news bundle (turn, turn, turn)

As you would expect, your GetReligionistas do our fair share of traveling and celebrating during the Christmas season — which often takes us into wintry territory in which wifi sources are few and far between. How am I going to download the Doctor Who Christmas episode?

Anyway, we will be posting less often than formal during the 12-day Christmas season.

This is our normal pattern over the past decade. We don’t completely close down, but we tend to post once or twice a day instead of our usual three times a day. Please keep sending us interesting religion-beat stories that you see in the mainstream press and we will strive to keep up on what’s happening in our email and at the major newsrooms.

However, we also have a piece of news that we need to announce before it is common social-media knowledge.

In recent years, we have posted a depressing number of black-flag (“Turn, turn, turn”) notes announcing that this or that veteran religion-beat professional has had to leave a job in a major newsroom. However, in this case we need to note that a veteran journalist has LANDED a rare opening on the religion (or in this case faith-related) beat.

This time around, the problem for your GetReligionistas is that the journalist in question is our own Mark Kellner, who only arrive a few weeks ago (or months, maybe).

From his Facebook page:

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Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps)

A couple of weeks ago, I flew the black religion-beat flag here at GetReligion to mark the announcement that the Scripps Howard News Service was closing its doors. That was rather stunning news for me, since — to one degree or another — that meant the end of the weekly “On Religion” column that I had written for that wire service for more than 25 years.

The end? At the very least, it meant saying good-bye to many readers who had been reading my column in papers that were linked to the Scripps list, which was taken over by the McClatchy-Tribune organization — which declined to keep my column.

However, there was always a chance that someone else would keep the column alive, especially the folks behind the Newspaper Enterprise Association, which for several years has been sending my column to 600 or so smaller- and mid-sized newspapers in North America. And that, I am happy to report, is precisely what happened.

While we are still working out a few details, I will keep on writing the column for the Universal Uclick company, which many GetReligion readers would know by its former name, the Universal Press Syndicate. I am also happy to report that it appears that some of the Scripps newspapers that have carried me for so long (Hello readers in Knoxville!) will be picking it up from Universal.

So this week I wrote my last column for Scripps Howard, but not my last “On Religion” column. I’ve got that same old Wednesday deadline coming this next week. Turn, turn, turn.

Still, this was an ending of sorts and I wanted to mark that for the readers that I would be losing.

What to say? After all, I had already written a 25th anniversary column last year that said what I wanted to say (Hello retired editor Harry Moskos in Knoxville!) about why I think the religion-beat deserves respect and support in the mainstream media. I didn’t want to write that column all over again.

So I did something different and addressed the question that I have heard from readers more than any other over the past quarter of a century:

Who is the most remarkable person you’ve met while covering religion? That’s a tough one. The Rev. Billy Graham or novelist Madeleine L’Engle? Who was the more charismatic positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale or actor Denzel Washington? What was more amazing, seeing Chuck Colson preach inside a prison on Easter or Bono lead a Bible-study group at the U.S. Capitol?

And the answer?

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