Pod People: Gay Marriage in Denmark

In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two recent GetReligion stories: Gay marriages in Denmark and the Lindy Chamberlain affair in Australia. Press ignorance quickly became the theme of the show.

Todd opened the show asking how I could say the Daily Telegraph had done a good job on reporting the story, yet made a rookie’s mistake by blowing its lede. The article claimed that all churches in Denmark would now be compelled to perform gay marriages, when the new laws apply only to the state Lutheran church.

I could not say what caused the mistake, but suggested ignorance might play its part. I did applaud the even-handed way in which the Telegraph reported on this issue — giving supporters and opponents equal opportunity to speak.

However, our conversation quickly turned to the implications for the rest of Europe and America about this issue. This is a live issue in Britain as the government has vowed to introduce gay marriage. The Church of England has voiced its strong opposition over this innovation — and it has dismissed government assurances that its ministers will be compelled to perform gay marriages. A promise today is not binding on the government of tomorrow, the church fears, while one never knows what the European Court of Human Rights may do next.

Ignorance was the central theme of our second topic, the Lindy Chamberlain story from Australia. Made famous in the U.S. by the Meryl Streep movie A Cry in the Dark, Lindy Chamberlain was jailed for murdering her baby after a jury rejected her claim that a dingo carried the child away. Behind the conviction — and a source of endless and unprofessional speculation in the press — was the role the Chamberlain’s Seventh-day Adventist faith played.

Did Seventh-day Adventists practice ritual sacrifice? What strange things were the Chamberlains, devotees of a strange faith, up to in the desert?

To this day the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia maintains a website page countering the more outlandish claims and stories arising from the Lindy Chamberlain case.

Tune in friends to Issues, Etc. for all the fun.

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Pod people: GetReligion news alert

This just in on the GetReligion news wire:

RELIGIONNEWSVILLE, Cyberspace (GR) — In a podcast now available online, GetReligion contributor Bobby “Bible Belt” Ross admits dropping the ball in his recent critique of media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting.

Specifically, Ross says he somehow neglected to include The Associated Press in his roundup of major media covering the meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Tmatt — a singular name that, like Oprah or Bono, needs no explanation — was not available for comment on possible repercussions. However, the GetReligion guru was said by sources to be contemplating possible disciplinary action, including making Ross count all the scare quotes in mainstream media coverage of religious liberty.

Seriously, when I posted last week on the Southern Baptist Convention coverage, I meant to include the AP. For one thing, the AP wire story is what many (most?) folks read in their local newspaper, either in print or online. For another, I criticized AP (with agreement from a few Godbeat pros) for failing to show up at the annual meeting two years ago. So it’s only fair that I recognize AP’s presence this time, right?

AP sent Nashville, Tenn.-based writer Travis Loller — whose beat includes religion, among specialties —  to New Orleans, and Loller produced solid stories both on the Rev. Fred Luter’s election as the convention’s first African-American president and on  the denomination’s passage of a resolution opposing the idea that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue.

Besides highlighting those two major developments, Loller’s stories also included other important aspects of the meeting — some that other media either failed to catch or ignored. For example, Loller’s report on Luler’s election also noted:

Faced with declining membership, the SBC has been making efforts to appeal to a more diverse group of believers.

Delegates to the SBC annual meeting adopt voted to adopt an alternative name for churches that feel the “Southern Baptist” title could be a turn-off to potential believers.

Those who supported the optional name “Great Commission Baptists” argued it would help missionaries and church planters to reach more people for Christ.

The Great Commission refers to Jesus’s command to his apostles to go forth and make disciples of all nations. Delegates voted on Tuesday but the results were not announced until Wednesday morning. They approved the motion by 2,546 to 2,232.

Meanwhile, in the story on the same-sex marriage issue, Loller’s story reported:

Another resolution passed on Wednesday is intended to protect religious liberty. It includes a call for the U.S. Justice Department to cease efforts to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and for the Obama administration to ensure that military personnel and chaplains can freely express their religious convictions about homosexuality.

It also condemns the administration’s mandate requiring religiously affiliated institutions, but not houses of worship, to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees.

Wait. Where are the “religious liberty” scare quotes? Anyway …

Nice job, AP.

As the earlier news alert hinted, host Todd Wilken and I talk about the Southern Baptist Convention coverage on this week’s “Crossroads.” We also discuss the Detroit Free Press’ recent vague treatment of “Christian missionaries.”

Warning: I try to pronounce a word with more than three syllables on the podcast, and my tongue gets all tied up. I’m sure it’s hilarious. So check it out.

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Pod people: Who’s evolving on immigration?

President Obama announced a shift on on Friday for how the government will handle immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents, a decision setting off a chain of reactions from outrage to elation to apathy.

Religious leaders were among many who reacted to the announcement, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy person Richard Land. Here was one religion reporter’s reaction:

Bob: Why are people surprised that Richard Land likes Obama’s immigration move?

Me: @bobsmietana can you flesh that out?

Bob: @spulliam land has been outspoken on immigration reform with a path for citizenship. Seen some stories that see this as something new

As The Tennessean‘s Bob Smietana points out, Land is not suddenly evolving with the President on immigration. That said, more and more evangelicals are emerging in favor of some sort of immigration reform, such as Focus on the Family’s president Jim Daly.

It was interesting to see those who didn’t cover an immigration statement made earlier in the week by evangelicals jump on religious reaction to Friday’s announcement, as though once Obama grants attention to the issue, it becomes news.

Granted, it was a busy week for religion news with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting and more contraceptive mandate news. Those who did cover immigration appeared to be political reporters seemed to take on the issue this week, those who might not pick up on implications for religious leaders, whether someone like Land would be a new supporter or not.

In an an overall decent piece from the New York Times, the headline, “Christians On Right Urge Reform On Migrants” was a little confusion. The term “Christian right,” which is kind of a dead term anyway, couldn’t be applied to everyone involved in the statement.

In print, you have much less room to flesh out the headline, but on the Internet, you have much more room to use clearer descriptions. Instead of making generalizations like “Christian right” or a phrase like “harsh rhetoric,” reporters could use quotes to illustrate the point they’re trying to make.

Remember how much we heard about former President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives and work in Africa? Since Obama’s appearance, it almost seems as though Bush fell off the map. We don’t see him in the news very often, so it was interesting to see the Dallas Morning News send a reporter to Africa to track down the impact his policies have made.

Is it the media’s fault or Bush’s fault that he isn’t covered as much as Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton? It’s hard to say, since he isn’t very available to the press. During his time in office, at least, reporters were constantly telling us about Bush’s faith. It seems like there’s little interest about Bush’s possible faith motivation for his continual interest in Africa.

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod People: Toward a more consistent scare-quote policy

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, host Todd Wilken and I looked over a couple of stories I analyzed this week dealing with religion in the public square.

Mark Silk over at Religion News Service took up my request for an explanation of why some media outlets use scare quotes around the terms “religious liberty” or “religious freedom,” a journalistic tic some opponents of the HHS mandate have been finding a troublesome indicator of whether or not they’re receiving fair coverage of their arguments:

There is a fairly vigorous debate going on at the moment about whether religious liberty is really under attack by the government and whether those who say they are defending it are really motivated by concern about religious liberty–as opposed to, perhaps, desire to defeat President Obama in November.

Among the reasons Wikipedia gives for using scare quotes is “to alert the reader that the word or phrase…should be understood to include caveats to the conventional meaning.” In this case, the caveat is that the National Religious Freedom Conference might not be exactly what it seems to be. Covering the conference for NCR on his blog, Michael Sean Winters–who really does consider religious liberty (in the Roman Catholic sense) to be under attack–conveyed just such a suspicion: “What depresses me about such events as this is that it is hard to miss the partisan agenda at work, even if the cause is a good one.”

So the scare quotes are there to alert the reader that religious liberty may not actually be in need of defense and that the “defenders” may actually be up to something else. Get the philosophy?

Silk is very focused on the idea that advocates of religious liberty aren’t really upset about an infringement against religious liberty but that what we’re seeing is “simply anti-Obama prejudice” as one of the people he’s favorably quoted pooh-poohing their concerns has said.

You might read Silk’s last paragraph again. I’m not entirely sure what to say other than that it’s surprising that advocates of religious liberty think they are dealing with a media that is somewhat hostile to them, eh? I mean, I suppose it makes it easier to justify weak coverage of a huge human rights issue if you assume the worst and most partisan motivations of those with whom you disagree (and only them, not the other side of the issue, mind you), but I’m not entirely sure it’s a great journalistic strategy.

In the comment section, Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom supports Silk and explains further:

Mark makes a good point here. And I’m troubled by Mollie’s not-so-subtle implications. Mollie’s implying that we’re using scare quotes as a way of signaling our disagreement with the religious liberty cause. Not so.

We put “religious liberty” in not-scary quotes simply to signal to the reader that this is not a neutral term. As Mark pointed out, there’s vast disagreement about whether religious liberty or religious freedom is, in fact, under attack. Mollie may think so, and the Catholic bishops may think so, but that’s not enough. There are countless others on the other side who see this as a fight over contraception, or government mandates, or health care, or whatever else you want to call it.

If the headline had been “Activists gather to plot defense of religious liberty,” that would be equally loaded, because it would signal to the other side that we, too, share the idea that this is a fight over religious liberty. It’s not that we agree or disagree; it simply says that we’re not picking sides on this one.

So, Mollie, no, there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.

And that explains why media outlets use so many quotes when covering hot-button social issues with deep divisions over the terms of the debate, right?

Or as a commenter to a previous thread on scare quotes put it in response to a different reporter defending some use of scare quotes:

Jeffrey, it occurs to me that if you are being consistent in your defense of using quotation marks in this way and in your defense of the “abortion rights” language now in widespread use, you should be advocating that the word “rights” be put in quotation marks. After all, key to the abortion debate is the question of whether such rights exist at all. It’s a controverted use of the word “rights.”

Same thing with the marriage debate. Proponents of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously believe there is such a thing as same-sex marriage, while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility, an oxymoron, i.e. that the definition of marriage not only should not be changed in this way but objectively cannot be changed in this way, that attempts to marry two people of the same sex amount to pretending but not effecting such a thing. So there again, the quotation style that was (I gather) used by the Washington Times, of putting the word “marriage” in quotation marks when referring to the controverted usage, would be a good, neutral way for a reporter to signify to readers that there is controversy over the usage. Right?

You can read through this previous thread for the discussion of how a consistent scare quote policy would affect coverage of abortion. But as for the marriage issue, obviously there is huge debate over whether marriage can include same-sex couples (proponents of traditional marriage laws say that the term “same-sex marriage” is akin to saying “square circle” or some such thing). While the mainstream media is becoming more honest about its advocacy role in promoting changing marriage law, voters in the states that have had an opportunity to clarify the meaning and definition of marriage have supported a definition that limits it to heterosexual unions. Huge debate. Yet we don’t seem to see many examples of quotes around the terms, do we? Do we see any examples of that?

So is this really RNS’ standard? If scare quotes are to be used any time a term is a matter of serious public debate (and I’m not convinced at this point there is serious debate over whether the lawsuits and arguments of those opposed to the HHS mandate concern religious liberty), then what that means is that we should be seeing these quotes all over the place for terms that are under debate.

Do we not see the quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” because the media sense that they would be prejudicial? (For my part, I’d argue that they’d be right that it’s prejudicial, but, then again, I’m not defending the use of scare quotes for religious liberty issues.) Is there a good argument for scare-quoting religious freedom but not same-sex marriage and abortion rights?

Are we seeing inconsistencies in media coverage of certain causes? Does this bolster my argument that the use of scare quotes has a large downside and not much, if any, benefit? What do you think?

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Pod people: Framing the Georgetown wars

OK, readers, it’s time for a quiz about Catholic higher education. I don’t think that any readers will remember this column I once wrote for the Scripps Howard News Service (that would be a bit scary if anyone did), but I will provide enough of the content to help readers answer this question: Can you guess within five years when the following was written?

Elizabeth Fiore didn’t expect Georgetown University’s freshman orientation program to include a condom demonstration.

When the mandatory safe-sex session was over, the student leaders apologized because policies on the Catholic campus prevented them from handing out condoms to needy newcomers. But — wink, wink — they could leave a few on a nearby table.

What was shocking was not the candid talk, but the assumption that students had already rejected Catholic teachings, said Fiore, at a conference backing efforts to give church authorities more clout on America’s 235 Catholic college campuses.

OK, here is another chunk of that column that will offer some hints about the calendar:

… Fiore said she was glad the cafeteria served matzo bread during Passover and gave Muslims special take-home containers so they could eat at appropriate times during Ramadan. But she found it strange that the cafeteria served three meat dishes on Good Friday in Holy Week, forcing students who wanted to observe the Catholic fast to resort to peanut butter and jelly. The priests got fish.

The Jesuit campus has become a May pole for Catholic controversies — from the on-again, off-again decision to remove classroom crucifixes, to a campus lecture by Hustler’s Larry Flynt, to a student’s shame when Women’s Center workers ridiculed her request for information on how to enter a religious order.

Care to guess? OK, I’ll give you a hint. I’ve been writing the “On Religion” column for 24 years.

No, this one isn’t THAT old, but it does date back to 1999 — which is still a pretty good amount of time on the religion beat.

The reason I bring this up, of course, is that Georgetown University — the Maypole around which news coverage of Catholic higher education tends to dance — is once again in the news. You have read about some of this news here at GetReligion, for the simple reason that the mainstream press has been faithful in covering yet another round in the Georgetown culture wars. You’ll be stunned to know that politics is at the heart of all this.

So, does the name “Sandra Fluke” ring any bells? I thought so.

Also, how about this name — Kathleen Sebelius?

When typical news consumers hear those names, these days, it is highly likely that the first words that pop into their heads are “birth control,” if not “war on women.” For a different set of readers, the first term that leaps to mind might be “religious liberty.”

However, the point of this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast is that the first words that should pop into the minds of religion-beat journalists, when yet another media storm cranks up at Georgetown, are these Latin words — “Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).”

And what, pray tell, is “Ex Corde Ecclesiae”? Here is a chunk of my Scripps Howard column for this week which, like the podcast, tries to frame the latest Georgetown skirmish in a broader contest.

For you see, many years of Georgetown controversy:

… could reach Rome, if a prominent Georgetown graduate has his way. Academy Award winner William Peter Blatty, best known for writing “The Exorcist,” is leading a petition drive requesting that the Archdiocese of Washington and perhaps the Vatican investigate 20-plus years of complaints about the university’s compliance with guidelines in the 1990 “apostolic constitution” on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled “Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).”

“We may choose to file a canon action again, one much larger in scale and seeking alternative forms of relief that will include, among others, that Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended for a time,” noted Blatty, in his online appeal (GUpetition.org) to supporters. “What we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic, but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked.” …

Among its many requirements, Ex Corde Ecclesiae states: “In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching.” However, the pope also said the “freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected.”

Now, like all Jesuit institutions, Georgetown answers — to a unique degree — both to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and to officials in Rome. The point is that, while the U.S. press moves on to elections and what-not, it is possible that a legal process may begin behind the scenes, a process rooted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, that could result in an investigation by Vatican officials of America’s oldest Catholic university.

That would be a big story. Don’t look for any coverage of that until after the election, unless, of course, this story somehow gets linked to birth control.

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: Colorado Presbys and abuse in Ireland

In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two recent GetReligion stories: the withdrawal of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs from the PC(USA) and the latest developments in the Irish abuse scandals.

As Nathaniel Campbell noted in his comment on the Colorado Springs article, the press frequently conflates the disputes within the mainline denominations into a single issue — homosexuality.

Campbell writes:

there are deeper but acknowledged issues here over hermeneutics and the evangelical insistence on privileging (often exclusionarily) a literal reading of Scripture.

In my estimation, at least, that is the major “ghost” behind a lot of mainstream/evangelical friction. While on the surface level it manifests as doctrinal disputes, I think it is at root a problem over how to read and understand Scripture.

Wilkin and I discuss the issue of press blindness, noting the divisions within the mainline churches do not stop at homosexuality as the breakaway groups are divided over another Scripture-driven issue: women clergy.

We also look at the coverage in the Irish Times over the fallout from the 1 May 2012 documentary “The Shame of the Catholic Church”, where the BBC claimed that as a young priest in the early 1970’s Cardinal Sean Brady failed to take sufficient action in the case of pedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

I argued that the advocacy journalism approach taken by the Irish Times in its reporting on the Catholic Church was self-defeating. By adopting a relentlessly hostile approach to coverage of the Catholic Church,the Irish Times was preaching to the choir. Those ill-disposed to the church would find confirmation of their views, while those supportive of the church would see their reporting as biased.

The comments to the story demonstrated this. As one commentator noted:

The Irish establishment, including their media, has long been anti Catholic, because the church stood in the way of Ireland becoming “modern” (read divorce, birth control and abortion). The “abuse” saga is a godsend to them to destroy the influence of the church, which was standing in the way of a modern forward looking culture. Perhaps this is why the story is made to sound as if the church is again being it’s old stubborn old fashioned self.

In its simplest sense, the problem with advocacy journalism is that it is based on the supposition that there is no one truth. Truth is subjective, or relative — I have my truth, you have yours. Why then should the journalist strive for balance or fairness, when at heart there is no single point of reference in which to frame a story?

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Pod people: evangelical votes, philanthropy & Google

We’re a big fan of polls and reporters who understand how to use polls to show a particular trend. In a recent story, though, one reporter found a strange way to twist data for a set narrative that didn’t seem to hold up.

In our most recent podcast, we discussed a rather confusing piece from The Economist that simultaneously suggested the evangelical landscape is changing due to younger and Latino evangelicals, but it also suggested that more evangelicals are self-identifying with the Republican Party.

As Chris put it in the comments, “They’re growing more diverse AND they’re more Republican? I’m confused.” The article makes the point that evangelicals have struggled to vote for Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, but at the same time, many of the younger ones voted for President Obama in 2008.

Those who didn’t vote for Romney in the primary probably voted instead for Rick Santorum. Romney’s struggle in the Republican primary probably won’t carry the same parallels in the general election.

We’re also noticing a possible disappearance of the philanthropy beat where a reporter focuses specifically in that area. Sari wrote the following comment:

The Austin American Statesman has Andrea Ball, who covers charities and mental illness in the paper, as well as the paper’s charity chat. Arts organizations, which are also philanthropies (e.g., the opera, museums), are usually covered by the guy who handles social events. I can’t remember either of them ever taking. A religion angle.

While philanthropy doesn’t necessarily have religion angles, we see some possible overlap. One thing is becoming clearer: newspapers seem less eager to assign reporters to such specific beats.

Finally, we also talked about a course Google is offering that appears to have possible Buddhist underpinnings. Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t exactly spell out whether there were religious ideas and only mentioned the course founder’s Buddhism like you might mention the color of his eyes.

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: How “stunned” are those sisters?

As we discussed the other day, many media reports about the Vatican document cracking down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious went with the angle that the report “stunned” or otherwise surprised the sisters. I suggested that reports should do a better job of explaining that surprise.

The first comment to that piece referenced an interview with a woman who has written on the matter and her view was that the surprise was not due to the content so much as that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually had the backbone to issue it — particularly given how much “dialogue” had been going on in recent years between Rome and the more liberal female orders.

Another reader pointed out some reasons why the sisters should not have been surprised. Commonweal responded to the post and some readers felt that the author’s snark overshadowed the substance. I just think he was confused about what I was calling for — more substantiation in the stories.

Finally, we found another great discussion — we mentioned the one on PBS earlier — that featured John Allen, senior correspondent, National Catholic Reporter; Sister Simone Campbell, executive director, NETWORK; and Donna Bethell, chairman of the board of directors, Christendom College:

The Vatican reprimanded America’s largest organization of Catholic nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Holy See charged the LCWR with promoting programs with “radical feminist themes” that are incompatible with doctrine on issues ranging from homosexuality to women’s ordination.

We discussed some of this, about the emphasis on the stunned sisters, in this week’s Crossroads podcast. Host Todd Wilken and I also chatted, ever-so-briefly, about coverage of Charles Colson’s death. We didn’t get enough time to discuss that in-depth, unfortunately.

Enjoy the podcast.

And while you are at it, do let us know if you’ve seen other good coverage about either of this week’s topics.

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