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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Flowers, cakes and objections to same-sex weddings

In two recent posts — here and here — I critiqued media coverage of proposed religious exemptions for florists, bakers, photographers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.

Last month, I examined news reports on a federal judge striking down the ban on same-sex marriage in my home state of Oklahoma.

In Sunday’s Tulsa World, those subject areas came together in a front-page story:

Oklahoma may soon join a growing number of states where same-sex marriage laws and religious liberty concerns are on a collision course.

A federal judge’s ruling last month that Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional raises questions that eventually will need to be addressed by lawmakers and judges.

If the ruling is upheld, will a church that rents its facilities to the public for weddings be allowed to turn down a gay or lesbian wedding?

Can a photographer be fined for refusing to photograph a wedding over which he or she has religiously founded moral objections?

Can a bakery decline to make a wedding cake for such services?

These are not hypothetical questions.

In New Mexico, wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin was fined $6,000 for refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.

In Colorado, Jack Phillips, a baker who would not bake a cake for a same-sex ceremony because it violated his religious principles, was ordered by a judge to bake the cake. And in Washington, a similar case against a florist is pending.

For those who have followed this issue closely, the World treads pretty basic ground (see the Wall Street Journal’s report on the subject from last fall). Still, I give the Tulsa newspaper credit for tackling this important angle.

And while some news stories have treated the religious concerns with seeming contempt, the World leans perhaps too far the other direction — quoting a number of exemption proponents before including an opposing voice:

These types of cases generally are based not on the legal status of gay marriage but on nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation. Tulsa and Oklahoma do not have such laws, but some people remain concerned.

“I think it’s a slippery slope, if you crack open that door,” said Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris, whose office will represent the defendant in the Oklahoma case, Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith, who issues marriage licenses.

Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist  Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the religious liberty concerns are “justified by virtue of what’s happening across America.”

“Whether florists, caterers, or photographers, what we’re seeing is that any Christian who owns a business that provides material or artistic goods for weddings is liable for prosecution under state nondiscrimination law.

“What’s at stake is whether an individual will be coerced into  providing services for a practice that Christianity considers sinful,” he said.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the lead attorney in the New Mexico photography case, agreed that the threat to religious liberty is real.

“This is a genuine concern. There have been a number of cases nationally,” he said.

But after reading the entire 1,400-plus words, this story left me with one of those empty feelings you get after eating rice cakes for breakfast (not that I’ve ever tried that, but you get the point).

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Same-sex marriage vs. religious liberty … another twist

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love is in the air. Or at least more marriage headlines are filling up my computer screen. (And perhaps this would be a good time for me to give a shoutout to my lovely bride and fellow GetReligionista, Tamie. I know she’ll love this video.)

But I digress …

Earlier this month, I highlighted — and praised — Reuters’ coverage of what it called a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates: proposed religious exemptions for florists, cake makers and others opposed to the practice. In a straightforward account of an Oregon proposal, the wire service presented the facts and quoted both sides.

But in perusing this week’s news, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Oregon anymore. So, let’s try Kansas.

Here’s the top of a Yahoo! News report:

Gay rights advocates are outraged over a bill — passed by Kansas lawmakers earlier this week — that would allow businesses and state government employees to deny services to same-sex couples if “it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Honk if you have any idea which direction that story is headed. Let’s just say that the phrase “so-called religious exemptions laws,” which appears later, does little to hide the writer’s point of view.

A Time magazine trend piece to which Yahoo! links is better but still a little breathless for my liking (it reads like a written version of disagreeing talking heads going back and forth on Fox or MSNBC).

But then I clicked the Yahoo! link to a Wichita Eagle story on the issue. For anyone wanting to read the actual news and understand the arguments pro and con, this is the story to read. It’s a factual news report quoting a variety of perspectives. It’s just good, old-fashioned journalism.

Religious exemption supporters such as this lawmaker gets their say:

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A ‘new twist’ in states’ same-sex marriage debates

A time or two, we’ve highlighted media coverage of what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported back in October:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

Now comes Reuters with what its headline characterizes as a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates.

The top of that wire story:

(Reuters) – Oregon voters will likely face two questions about gay marriage when they go to the ballot this year: whether to become the 18th state to let same-sex couples wed, and whether the state should be the first to allow florists, cake makers and others to refuse to participate in these weddings on religious grounds.

The ballot initiatives set up what some activists have said is the next frontier in the marriage debate — as more states move to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, those who object on religious grounds want a legal right to opt out.

“This is not a sideshow issue,” said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the Oregon ballot initiative and the coming debate over religious exemption. “This is going to be the issue that we fight about for the next ten years, at least, in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement.”

The next frontier in the marriage debates? Perhaps.

A new twist? Maybe, although two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a story for Christianity Today with this headline:

Should the Marriage Battleground Shift to Religious Freedom?

But back to the Reuters story: What to make of the journalism?

Here’s my take: It’s a straightforward piece that presents the facts and quotes folks on both sides. (It’s written in inverted-pyramid style, but I don’t think it falls into the “suitcase lead” trap, to borrow a phrase I came across on Poynter.org this week.)

Among Reuters’ sources, we hear from an advocate for the proposed religious exemption:

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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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AP skirts key element of ‘tips for Jesus’ story

As anyone who’s done it can testify — or, to be candid, so I’ve heard — waitering is a tough job. People are rude, hours are long, and wages are often sub-sub-minimum wage, all in the hope of getting some tips. Thus it ever has been, apparently, and thus it ever shall be.

Or, shall it? Someone, the Associated Press informs us, is running around leaving massive, and verified, “Tips for Jesus” on restaurant charge slips:

NEW YORK — The $111.05 New York restaurant receipt includes a $1,000 tip and the words “god bless!” scrawled across it.

The handle @tipsforjesus is stamped next to an illegible signature.

In recent weeks, similar tabs have popped up in restaurants from coast to coast and even in Mexico, with tips of as much as $10,000 — all charged to American Express.

So who’s the anonymous tipster leaving a trail of generosity across the continent?

Tips for Jesus — an Instagram account filled with photos documenting the tips — has more than 50,000 followers. The account displays photos of smiling servers holding receipts with outlandish gratuities on bills also tallied in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix and Ann Arbor, Mich. On Twitter, Tips for Jesus has nearly 3,000 followers but no tweets.

The Instagram feed comes with the tagline, “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.”

Well, that’s made the day for several servers, and good for them. But, there’s something missing here, isn’t there? Let’s look a bit further:

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AP’s not-too-religious airport chaplain story

The entire long Thanksgiving weekend, it’s widely reported, is the busiest air-travel season in the United States. So, it’s not too difficult to imagine human interest stories about life in and around major airports, which The Associated Press rightly declares are “mini-cities” with a life and culture all their own, right down to a local church or, in most cases, an interfaith chapel.

Said chapels are staffed by either volunteer or paid chaplains, and that’s where the AP comes in with an interesting discovery: they may be called “Reverend,” but from the AP’s telling, these folks aren’t all that, well, religious.

Here’s the top of the report:

ATLANTA – The Rev. Frank Colladay Jr. stood at the end of the gate waiting. On the arriving plane was a passenger whose husband had just died of a heart attack on another flight. Her name was Linda Gilbert. The two had never met before.

Colladay’s parish happens to be the world’s busiest airport. His flock consists of people passing through who might need comfort, spiritual advice, or someone to pray with.

On this day, a traumatized Gilbert needed even more. Colladay guided her through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, drove her in his silver Ford Fusion to the medical examiner to see her husband’s body and arranged for a flight home for both of them.

“He didn’t say a whole lot. But just his presence being there, it just felt comforting and reassuring,” Gilbert says. “I didn’t know that airports have chaplains.”

Although some headlines on this widely published story almost hinted at an almost Kevorkian-esque tone — “Airport chaplains help fliers reach heaven,” the Redwood Times of Garberville, Calif., topped it — that’s about the only mention of heaven, or anything else religious here, albeit with some contradictions:

They aren’t at airports to proselytize and — surprisingly — very few passengers confess to a fear of flying. Often, they just roam terminals offering a friendly face and occasional directions. Some walk up to seven miles a day.

“When I came into the job, my predecessor said you have to buy good shoes,” says the Rev. Jean-Pierre Dassonville, a Protestant who just retired after 12 years at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Chaplains need outgoing personalities. They have to recognize the signs that something is wrong and know how to approach strangers.

The Rev. Wina Hordijk, a Protestant minister at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, recently saw a teenage girl sitting by herself, crying. The girl was supposed to travel throughout Europe with her boyfriend, but he dumped her at the start of the trip.

“I always have a lot of handkerchiefs in my bag,” Hordijk says.

A “Protestant.” That’s pretty vague. On the other hand:

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Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the NYTimes

As a rule, conflicts between church and state are extremely complex and often produce headaches, even among those who have years of experience working in such dangerous intellectual terrain. Frankly, I have no idea how general-assignment reporters can handle this stuff without the help of thick research folders and very experienced editors.

Today’s New York Times article on the Hobby Lobby case is, in my opinion, a better than average effort when it comes to church-state coverage in the mainstream press. This is important because the Hobby Lobby case is quite strange, since it focuses on whether the leaders of for-profit corporations can argue that their institutions are protected by religious liberty. In other words, this is a “church-state conflict” — I added the distancing quote marks — that does not involve a church.

This report does, however, oversimplify one or two important pieces of the maddeningly complex HHS mandate story. I’ll get to that shortly.

So what went right? I thought that the top of the piece was especially strong:

WASHINGTON – Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, closes on Sundays, costing its owners millions but honoring their Christian faith.

The stores play religious music. Employees get free spiritual counseling. But they do not get free insurance coverage for some contraceptives, even though President Obama’s health care law requires it.

Hobby Lobby, a corporation, says that forcing it to provide the coverage would violate its religious beliefs. A federal appeals court agreed, and the Supreme Court is set to decide on Tuesday whether it will hear the Obama administration’s appeal from that decision or appeals from one of several related cases.

Legal experts say the court is all but certain to step in, setting the stage for another major decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act two years after a closely divided court sustained its requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.

So Hobby Lobby is clearly not a non-profit, religious voluntary association, like a Catholic school, an Orthodox Jewish clinic or a Pentecostal homeless shelter. So why is this case complex? Why is this even an issue?

This is where the Times report is quite strong. You see, there was that 2010 decision called Citizens United, the one the Obama White House detests so much because of its impact on campaign financing, the one that said corporations have free speech rights.

The question now is whether corporations also have the right to religious liberty. In ruling for Hobby Lobby, the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said it had applied “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United.”

“We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression,” Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich wrote for the majority.

A dissenting member of the court, Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, wrote that the majority’s approach was “nothing short of a radical revision of First Amendment law.”

But Judge Harris L. Hartz, in a concurrence, said the case was in some ways easier than Citizens United. “A corporation exercising religious beliefs is not corrupting anyone,” he wrote.

However, the religious owners of such a corporation may in fact be denying basic health care to their employees — employees of a company that is ultimately seeking profits, rather than operating under the defining umbrella of a doctrinal mission statement.

Then again, Hobby Lobby is not your normal corporation, as the story notes, because founder David Green and his family control it through a privately held corporation. At this point, Hobby Lobby has “more than 500 stores and 13,000 employees of all sorts of faiths.” It faces federal fines of $1.3 million a day if it fails to offer “comprehensive” health-care coverage, as defined under Obamacare.

So what is missing from this otherwise detailed and rather balanced report?

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