Attack of the confident headline writers

bellnhandSomehow we missed this when we discussed coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey. We discussed this Dec. 1 article from the Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson.

But check out the headline for Wilkinson’s Dec. 2 story that ran on the front page of the paper:

Pontiff strikes right tone

I’m glad the employees of the Los Angeles Times believe there is no debate on this notion (scroll down to find the item in question).

Nope, the Pope just plainly struck the right tone in his visit. No one in the entire world could disagree with this theological and political opinion, right?

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Pardon my French-Canadian

profanity mugI wish all newspapers had foreign correspondents. They’re such a throwback to pre-globalization, when you had to trust the eyes and ears of a lone fellow countryman in a far-off land.

Even though the Web has broken down many of the language, cultural and physical boundaries in the world, we still rely on them for their insightful analysis. And in exchange we get overly broad characterizations of complex societies. But what are you going to do?

Earlier this week Doug Struck, a Washington Post correspondent in Montreal, had a fascinating piece on Quebecois linguistics. Turns out that the terminology of choice when expressing profanity is religious:

English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad. They adopt commonplace Catholic terms — and often creative permutations of them — for swearing.

In doing so, their oaths speak volumes about the history of this French province.

“When you get mad, you look for words that attack what represses you,” said Louise Lamarre, a Montreal cinematographer who must tread lightly around the language, depending on whether her films are in French or English. “In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms.”

The story is fascinating, if you can stomach many quotes from people like Lamarre. One linguistics professor says taboo words relate to Christ, Communion wafers, vestments and elements of the altar. It all ties back to oppression from the Roman Catholic church, the article says.

The Catholic Church was overwhelmingly dominant in Quebec from early in the province’s history — England’s King George III gave the French Catholic clergy enormous power in 1774, in part to counter the growing American insurgency to the south. In the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, Quebecers rebelled. They “just stopped going to church one Sunday,” as Lamarre put it.

It’s a great idea for an article, and nicely written. But for those of us who are ignorant of Quebec’s history, a bit more perspective is in order. Let’s throw in a few more sources as well. I’ve heard of the Quiet Revolution, but I could use a few quick words on what exactly is the nature of the rift between the church and the Quebecois.

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Thou art Paul, so rock on

Peter PaulGetReligion reader Arnold Barlow has, without a doubt, discovered the religion-news mystery of the day.

You may have heard on the radio or seen on the Web that archaeologists at the Vatican have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of St. Paul and the discovery was made right under Rome’s second-largest basilica.

But what you may not have heard is that, in doing so, the researchers radically altered the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church and, thus, all of Christian history.

What? You didn’t read that story?

Well, head over to the Associated Press report on the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We pick up the action in the middle of the wire story:

“Our objective was to bring the remains of the tomb back to light for devotional reasons, so that it could be venerated and be visible,” said Giorgio Filippi, the Vatican archaeologist who headed the project at St. Paul Outside the Walls basilica.

The interior of the sarcophagus has not yet been explored, but Filippi didn’t rule out the possibility of doing so.

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where tradition said the saint, the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church, had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

Did you catch the gaffe?

Barlow did. It’s the part about St. Paul being the “first pope of the Roman Catholic Church.” Actually, I think that was St. Peter — the gray-haired man shown greeting St. Paul in this traditional icon from Eastern Orthodoxy.

In an email to the GetReligion crew, Barlow raised a good question. Other versions of this Associated Press report online do not seem to contain this rather obvious error — at least, none of them do that I can find with Google News. Here is the wording in the International Herald Tribune:

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where tradition said the saint had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

This raises a crucial question: Did the Associated Press catch the error early on or, perhaps, do Catholics in the great state of Georgia — or merely some folks on the Journal-Constitution copy desk — have different beliefs about the founding of the Church of Rome?

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To pray or not to pray

hagia sophiaStories filed at the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey highlighted his visit to — and prayer inside — a Muslim mosque. That’s a good thing, since it’s very newsworthy when a leader of the Christian religion worships or prays in a place of worship for non-Christians.

I was going to highlight various stories from the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and Reuters this weekend, but other events got in the way.

I thought most of the stories did a great job of accurately representing the facts of the pope’s visits to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque across the street. And most of the stories even did a good job of highlighting the significance to Muslims of the prayer inside the mosque, facing Mecca. And the significance to Muslims of his failure to pray inside the Hagia Sophia was fleshed out, as evidenced by this section from the Los Angeles Times‘ Tracy Wilkinson:

The pope avoided potential controversy in a visit to the Hagia Sophia, an imposing structure built in the 6th century as a Byzantine church and converted to a mosque in the 15th century by Ottoman sultans. The rigidly secular forces that formed modern Turkey in the early 20th century turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum, one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist destinations where public displays of worship are banned.

The mere suggestion that the pope might pray there had enraged Turkish nationalists. When the late Pope Paul VI came to Istanbul in 1967, he knelt to pray in the Hagia Sophia, touching off protests by extremists who were convinced that he was trying to reassert Christian jurisdiction over the site.

Benedict visited the vast museum of domes and minarets, an incongruous combination of Muslim and Christian features, in more restrained fashion. He refrained from any overt religious gestures and instead listened to explanations from his host, Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler.

What was lacking, in my view, was a look at the significance of each visit for Christians. Members of the Catholic blogosphere were expressing disappointment or support for the pope’s decisions, but the mainstream media coverage didn’t seem to pick up on it. To that end, I was pleasantly surprised to see a nicely written piece of in-depth analysis from The New York Times’ Ian Fisher. He covered the story all week before providing a lookback on Sunday:

Has the pope gone wobbly?

The question might matter less if he weren’t the man he is — and if the images of his facing Mecca in prayer on his trip to Turkey weren’t fresh. Supporters have long depended on Benedict XVI for brave talk, even and maybe especially if it was unpleasant to hear. But his was never mere blunt confrontation. With his big brain and the heft of Roman Catholic tradition behind him, Benedict has stood for a remarkably clear idea: there is truth, and we won’t retreat from it.

blue mosqueThe piece covers varying views from Catholics and puts it all in the context of what the Turkey visit indicates about what kind of papacy Benedict will have. It’s got more attitude than a typical mainstream media piece, but it balances everything out nicely and is remarkably fair and sympathetic to Benedict’s new tone. While it’s an op-ed, another piece worth checking out ran in today’s Los Angeles Times. Raymond Ibrahim, a research librarian at the Library of Congress, finds more than a few fascinating aspects to the trip:

In the days before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit last Thursday to the Hagia Sophia complex in Istanbul, Muslims and Turks expressed fear, apprehension and rage. “The risk,” according to Turkey’s independent newspaper Vatan, “is that Benedict will send Turkey’s Muslims and much of the Islamic world into paroxysms of fury if there is any perception that the pope is trying to re-appropriate a Christian center that fell to Muslims.” Apparently making the sign of the cross or any other gesture of Christian worship in Hagia Sophia constitutes such a sacrilege.

Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia — Greek for “Holy Wisdom” — was Christendom’s greatest and most celebrated church. After parrying centuries of jihadi thrusts from Arabs, Constantinople — now Istanbul — was finally sacked by Turks in 1453, and Hagia Sophia’s crosses were desecrated, its icons defaced. Along with thousands of other churches in the Byzantine Empire, it was immediately converted into a mosque, the tall minarets of Islam surrounding it in triumph. Nearly 500 years later, in 1935, as part of reformer Kemal Ataturk’s drive to modernize Turkey, Hagia Sophia was secularized and transformed into a museum.

The piece, using rather strong language, argues against providing Muslims with special treatment. Whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth asking whether reporters implicitly did just that by focusing on the Muslim reaction to Benedict’s trip while largely ignoring the Christian reaction.

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Reflecting local religious flavor

crab cake Most people are familiar with two of Christianity’s holiest days — Christmas and Easter. But those are just two of many holy days, or holidays, celebrated by Christians who follow a liturgical calendar. And the calendar has seasons that lead up to the high festivals.

Even people who have sung “The 12 Days Christmas” hundreds of times don’t think of Christmas time as comprising two distinct liturgical periods. Until the 12-day festival of Christmas arrives, the four weeks prior are Advent in the Western Church, which mark a solemn time of prayer and preparation for Christmas. The season begins in mid-November for the Eastern Church and is called Christmas Lent.

I like watching for stories that talk about what it’s like to celebrate the holy days of the season as a liturgical Christian, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this one from Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

But Advent has another purpose that is at even greater odds with the office partying, extreme shopping, egg-nog-sipping customs that the month of December has come to represent. According to the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Advent “has a twofold character: It prepares for the commemoration of the Incarnation … and it looks forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time.” Pastors say that second message is even harder to push through the wall of commercialism that Christmas in America has become.

The first part of Townsend’s story quotes extensively from St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke’s written column and a previous homily on Advent. He also speaks with a theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati and pastors at Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Methodist parishes. And that’s wonderful. But it made me realize that I rarely see any Missouri-Synod Lutherans in Townsend’s pieces. In fact, the last time I remember a piece about my brand of Lutherans was when our Synodical President faced an election challenge two and a half years ago. Ths could be an oversight of my newscrawling capabilities, to be sure.

But the reason it’s interesting is not because Missouri Synod Lutherans are one of the largest Protestant church bodies in the United States; it’s that they are headquartered in St. Louis. So I hope Townsend is spending time digging into the stories that are happening in his backyard. But I am completely compromised on this topic.

Let’s look at another example of a local news site and its relationship to the local religious scene. Recently The Washington Post started a religion blog called On Faith. The “conversation on religion,” hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, is still getting started.

So far, 75 panelists take part in the conversations. By my rough count, you have a dozen Muslim experts or adherents, almost the same number of Jewish scholars, eight Anglicans, eight Roman Catholics, and several Baptists and evangelicals. This is based on my interpretation of their biographies, so I could be wrongly ascribing a religious view to panelists. A Latter-day Saint, Native American spiritualist, Wiccan practitioner, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and Baptist round out the discussion.

Why not include someone from the Seventh-day Adventist church, whose world headquarters are in Silver Spring, Maryland? It sure couldn’t hurt. Leaving them out would be like the Post neglecting to mention crab cakes in a regional food review. Any other suggestions for missing voices on that site?

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Covering two stories at the same time

img home togetherDue to a busy class schedule, I have not had the time to address much of the new coverage of the liturgical meetings between Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, celebrating the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. I think most of the symbolism and the substance in those meetings will be included in the major stories tomorrow and I should be able to catch up a bit.

Meanwhile, you can see some of the major texts and a collection of stunning official photographs at the official website of the patriarchate. You can also find materials at the Vatican home page and at

However, I want to address a question raised in the comments pages.

Tmatt, would you grant that while the Orthodox-Catholic discussion is important theologically, any objective person looking at the world scene today would have to say the Catholic-Islam dynamic (and within that, the push for reciprocity for the Orthodox community) is far more important in its ramifications? In that sense, I don’t think Time really missed the big picture.

Posted by Jens at 11:07 pm on November 29, 2006

This is an important question, especially since some GetReligion readers may be thinking that I want the mainstream press to focus on the ecumenical side of this story because of my own interest in the topic, since I am a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.

As I wrote earlier this week, it’s clear that stories linked to the pope and Islam will be hot, even if not much happens on that front. I know that and I agree that this story is important.

Nevertheless, my point was that we had reason to hope that mainstream reporters would not — as that one Time report did — lock in on the Islam issue and ignore the original purpose of the trip, which was the pope’s desire to reach out to Eastern Orthodoxy as part of a move to promote the human rights of minority groups in Turkey. This story, in turn, is linked to another major issue — whether Turkey will ever enter the European Union. In fact, I would arge that the question of whether Turkey can enforce the rule of law and defend essential human rights is the key issue in the EU debates (along with a rising Islamist tide in Turkey).

I am happy to report that it is possible to blend coverage of both of these major stories into one report. Three cheers for the New York Times report today that did precisely that. And the Los Angeles Times report by Tracy Wilkinson was especially graceful in its inclusion of nice details.

So here is the essence of one major theme in the Los Angeles Times story:

The day saw the pope shifting his focus from Muslim reconciliation to Christian solidarity. The Vatican on Wednesday also responded to a statement from Al Qaeda in Iraq denouncing the “crusader campaign” of the pope in Turkey as an affront to Islam. Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said such threats were precisely the reason violence must be separated from religion, which he said was the core of the pope’s message. Lombardi added that the pope was not worried about the threat.

Then there is the second major theme that needs to be reported. The story ends with a look at the first of the liturgical encounters between the pope and the patriarch.

The two religious leaders, in flowing robes and sparkling capes, followed a procession of priests who held long candles the color of honey and sent wafts of smoky incense into the air.

The city called Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for nearly a millennium, and the center of eastern Christianity. Turkey today is a country of about 70 million Muslims. Christians are dwindling in number, to perhaps 100,000, and those that remain complain of harassment and discrimination. Among the problems they suffer are severe restrictions on their ability to buy and sell property and run schools to train their clergy.

… The dilemma for Benedict is that as he offers support for Christians he risks again offending the Muslims he is seeking to engage.

I especially like that, at the end, Wilkinson does precisely what needs to be done — linking the two topics. It is hard to defend the rights of minorities — especially Christians — in a supposedly secular Muslim state that has to worry about the rising rage of an Islamist minority in its midst.

Well done.

Photo from the press pages at

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Time, Newsweek in early schism over the pope

Nicaea iconWow. Reader Janette Kok dropped us a note noting the radical difference taken in the Time‘s article on the papal trip to Turkey, in comparison to that in Newsweek, which, in fairness, was written by a ringer — Catholic scholar George Weigel.

The Newsweek piece is about the important ecumenical trip the pope planned long ago that has been changed, radically, by the tempest over his remarks about Christianity, Islam and human reason.

The Time piece by Jeff Israely focuses totally on Islam and politics, with little or no content on the original papal goal of pushing for human rights and religious liberty in Turkey (with a special emphasis on the plight of Orthodox Christians). Everything starts with the headline, which is “The Pope Tones Down His Act in Turkey — Long known for his rigid thinking, Benedict XVI shows new flexibility in trying to mend fences in the wake of his controversial speech about Islam.”

No, I didn’t make that up. Read the article for yourself.

Meanwhile, one of the early Associated Press reports contains a fine, concise paragraph of statistics — a wire-service basic — and then a historical paragraph that is, to say the least, puzzling or incomplete.

First the statistics:

Of Turkey’s 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic, and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 2,000 are Greek Orthodox and 23,000 are Jewish. The European Union has called on Turkey to expand religious freedoms.

So far, so good. Then comes this:

The pope planned to travel to Istanbul later Wednesday to meet Bartholomew I, leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Benedict split in 1054 over differences in opinion on the power of the papacy. The two spiritual heads will meet in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches.

Well now. Papal authority certainly was an issue, but I think the great ecumenical schism was a bit more complex than that and it involved more than “opinion.” Click here for background. However, I will admit that this question looms in a discussion of wire-service coverage of complex theological issues: How many newspaper readers have heard of the Nicene Creed, let alone the filioque clause?

Meanwhile, does anyone on either side of the schism think that the pope and the patriarch are actually meeting “in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches”? That’s overstating the matter a bit.

By the way, has anyone seen MSM coverage noting that the leadership of the massive Greek Orthodox Church may have a different take on Turkey entering the European Union than the tiny church that remains based in Istanbul? Greece is not a minor country in the Orthodox East.

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Landmines in abortion reporting

landmineThe Washington Post has a religion-heavy article on Nicaragua’s therapeutic abortion ban. Until a few weeks ago Nicaragua permitted abortions to be performed on women who had been raped, whose babies were abnormal or who faced medical risk, according to reporter N.C. Aizenman. Abortion opponents claimed that the loophole for therapeutic abortions was being abused.

Stories about abortion and the laws that govern it are very difficult to write. Unfortunately, mainstream media don’t have an excellent track record with handling the issue fairly. This could be because they are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion on demand. We’ve discussed this before, needless to say.

Our story today begins with a tragic anecdote about Jazmina Bojorge, a five-months-pregnant woman who died in a hospital there recently. Proponents of legal abortion say she died because the law forbade her from having an abortion to save her life. But the hospital director says that’s wrong on two points:

Julio César Flores, director of the hospital, countered that the new legislation, which took effect Nov. 19, hadn’t even been signed into law when Bojorge arrived for treatment. Her death, which remains under investigation by Nicaraguan medical authorities, “has nothing to do with the abortion law,” he said. “These charges are being made by people who are taking advantage of what happened.”

So the director of the hospital says the law wasn’t even in effect when she was admitted and that Bojorge’s death had nothing to do with the abortion law. So what does the caption that accompanies the story say? It says:

Rosa Rodriguez shows a photo of her daughter, Jazmina Bojorge, who died when denied a therapeutic abortion.

I mean, it’s one thing to use an anecdotal lede extremely sympathetic to one side of a contentious debate. It’s another thing to use an anecdote that fails to hold water. But to caption the piece with new information that is contradicted in the story takes it to a new level. Yes, some abortion advocates have diagnosed from a distance that the fetus should have been killed to save the life of the mother, but it’s not backed up by the medical staff treating her. The caption shouldn’t take sides, should it?

The rest of the piece discusses the influence of Roman Catholic and evangelical church leaders, including Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, in pushing for the ban on therapeutic abortion. Let’s look at how it characterizes the debate:

On Oct. 6, Obando, [Archbishop Leopoldo] Brenes and various evangelical pastors led tens of thousands of citizens in a march to the National Assembly to demand a repeal of the exception for therapeutic abortions. Legislators obliged, fast-tracking consideration of the ban under procedures normally reserved for national emergencies.

Every major medical society in Nicaragua opposed the proposed ban. Their concerns were echoed by Nicaragua’s health minister and a long list of foreign embassies and international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program.

Gee, I wonder what foreign service staff writer N.C. Aizenman wants us to believe here about which side should have been listened to. I love that the foreign agents are unnamed and the addition of the scare phrase “normally reserved for national emergencies.” Just in case you didn’t get the point that the pro-lifers were bad people. The legal analysis isn’t substantiated by any source. You just have to trust the reporter.

nicaragprotestIt would be interesting to see how the reporter would handle the issue if the story were reversed. Let’s say the abortion opponents were the foreign influences and the abortion supporters were citizens.

Do you think the story would similarly situate the two sides, nudging the reader to support listening to foreign embassies and ignore the voice of the people?

The Post story fits the pattern for much abortion reportage, though. Mainstream media, as was reported in a Los Angeles Times study 16 years ago, tend to use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates, quote abortion rights advocates more favorably and often than abortion opponents, and ignore stories favorable to abortion opponents. One last paragraph to highlight:

Advocates for greater access to abortion argued that even that law was too restrictive, prompting an estimated 32,500 women to get illegal and potentially unsafe abortions in Nicaragua every year and accounting for 16 percent of the more than 100 maternal deaths here annually, according to a 2002 ministry study. By contrast, the Health Ministry recorded only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year.

A law banning abortion prompts people to have illegal abortions in the same manner a law banning rape prompts people to rape illegally. You may personally think either action is fine, and you may personally think either action should be legal and protected. But that’s not the point. Neither rape nor abortion is something an individual must do. Making either action illegal does not force the illegal action.

It’s also interesting that Aizenman says there were only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year. A BBC report last week — very heavy on the religious angles — says there were 30,000 therapeutic abortions last year. I wonder if something was lost in translation.

Aizenman should follow the lead of other reporters who’ve successfully tackled the difficult subject: Keep personal opinions out, pick anecdotes carefully, quote liberally and describe situations in the sparest way possible. Otherwise these abortion stories will continue to be landmines.

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