BBC veteran: You know, the press just doesn’t get religion

Well, here is a gift to a GetReligionista who is on vacation.

I mean, what kind of headline would YOU write on a Press Gazette (over in U.K.) report that opens with the following:

BBC journalist Edward Stourton has said Britain’s lack of appreciation for the importance of religion across the world damages its news coverage.

Stourton, presenter on Radio 4′s religious programme Sunday, believes British journalists have a “blind spot” when it comes to religion, meaning coverage can be “skewed”. He highlighted coverage of the Ukraine crisis, the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria as examples of stories which would be covered better with more understanding of religion.

“I do think that there is a problem with British culture … in the way that we treat religion as a sort of curious ‘ghetto’-like thing,” he told Press Gazette.

“And I don’t say that from the point of view of arguing that religion is a good thing — because very often it’s not. But it does damage our understanding and our ability to perceive stories accurately.”

A blind spot?

You don’t mean a blind spot as in “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” maybe? What do you think?

Basically, this whole interview sounds like a best of global GetReligion re-mix (although I am not claiming that it is a LITERAL echo of work here). But, honestly, you have heard this before, right?

(Stourton) suggested that British news organisations have not considered the importance of the growth of churches in Russia and what Russian nationalism means in coverage of Ukraine. And on Middle East stories, he said “we continually misread the story because we don’t think what a powerful force religion is”.

A consistent theme is that the icy elites that define big media simply do not understand how the rest of the world works. This has always been a problem, when it comes to the facts of journalism, but this chasm between journalists and reality has become a crisis in the past decade or two.

Why is that?

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We don’t need no religion education, or do we?

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I’m on the road this week, sunburned and tuckered out.

So rather than do a normal GetReligion critique, I’m going to ask a couple of journalism questions that are related to what we do here.

First question: Do you know any journalists who could benefit from advanced study of religion?

If so, I have terrific news. The Religion Newswriters Association invites journalists to apply to its Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program. According to an RNA news release, the scholarships give full-time journalists up to $5,000 to take any college religion courses at any accredited institution at any time.

What a deal!

More from the news release:

Religion headlines are dominating news coverage—politics, religion, Islam in America — now is the perfect time to dig deeper into today’s hottest stories. More than 290 people have already taken advantage of RELIGION | NEWSWRITERS’ Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program for Journalists.

Topics reporters have studied include: Religion & Politics in the 20th Century and Beyond, God & Politics, Buddhism in the Modern World, Politics of International Religious Freedom, Religion and Social Justice, Violence and Liberation, Muslim-Christian Relations in World History and many more.

“The courses led to dozens of story ideas and new resources. I came out a sharper researcher and writer, two benefits I was not expecting going in,” said Eric Marrapodi of CNN who took four Lilly scholarship courses in three years at Georgetown University.

The scholarships can be used at accredited colleges, universities, seminaries or similar institutions.

Read on for more info.

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Building religion IQ in reporters? We say, ‘Amen!’


Usually, GetReligion focuses on critiquing mainstream media coverage of religion and pointing out holy ghosts.

Occasionally, we share news on personnel changes on the Godbeat — such as Jim Davis’ must-read interview this week with laid-off Tampa Tribune religion writer Michelle Bearden.

And sometimes — as with this post — we can’t resist recommending an article or essay that hits at the core of our passion for informed, thoughtful religion reporting.

“Building Religion IQ in Reporters” is the title of the piece that Andrea Scott — a former Washington Journalism Center student of GetReligion editor tmatt — wrote for the spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine:

Much news today is somehow related to religion, as a glance at the headlines reveals: Turmoil in the Middle East. Church relief missions after a natural disaster. The actions of Pope Francis. Challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The ebb and flow of local religious programs that feed the hungry, operate schools, fight addictions, and run hospitals. Statements by the Dalai Lama. Same-sex marriage and abortion debates. Jihadist terror. Differences in community life and politics that link to spiritual perspective. Many of today’s evolving stories are intricately entwined with religious issues.

And beyond its role as a factor in news events, faith is of deep and urgent personal relevance to many citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them, while another 26 percent say it’s “somewhat important.” This can powerfully influence both private and public actions.

Despite its pervasive importance, religion is a foreign land to many, perhaps most, reporters. “I was practically born and raised in the news business, and know firsthand that newsrooms are exceedingly secular places,” says veteran journalist Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics. “But the people we cover—and our audiences—are steeped in religious faith of all kinds. So to accurately cover the political and civic life of this country, journalists need to know what’s going on in the spiritual life of their fellow Americans.” This, however, is a struggle for under-informed reporters.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

The article goes on to describe the development of a conference designed to improve reporters’ religion IQ, as the title indicates:

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Debating the new Associated Press Stylebook, round two

At this point, I still do not have a copy of the new Associated Press Stylebook, the 2014 edition with the chapter dedicated to issues in mainstream religion-news coverage. I think I will hold out for the spiral edition, which makes it so much easier to work with when writing, because you can open it up next to your keyboard and it stays open. Where do get one of those these days, since Amazon only sells the paperback?

That said, I am really enjoying some of the online debates about the contents. You can see some of the battle lines in the comments after our initial post by Bobby Ross, Jr. Click here to catch up on that.

However, you can really sense some of the tensions in this short online piece at The Atlantic, written by Emma Green. This is not a news piece, of course, but it is an article directly related to the craft of religion-beat work, so I wanted to point our readers toward it. It also reminded me of something.

Long ago, as in the early 1990s, I heard a nationally known religion writer turned scholar opine that the true purpose of improved religion-beat coverage in the mainstream media was to promote diversity and pluralism in modern America, thus “undercutting Judeo-Christian hegemony.”

Wait for it.

As in, wait until you check out the comments thread at the end of The Atlantic piece. But first, here’s a key chunk or two for starters:

When The Atlantic was revising its style guide for the web a few months ago, my cubicle unexpectedly turned into a metaphysical brawling zone. Our house policy is to capitalize “God” when it refers to the entity worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (Other times, it’s not capitalized — for example, when writing about how I’m the “god of the office candy jar.”) In my opinion, this suggests a belief on the part of the writer: Capitalizing “God” means he or she believes in the formal existence of a thing called god, so that name is capitalized like any other name. My boss disagrees. Neither, he says, does capitalizing the protagonist’s name from The Big Lebowski entail belief in the existence of the Dude. So we capitalize God.

Interested? Carry on, because that thought leads straight to the new AP book:

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‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

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Whoa! Religion chapter added to AP Stylebook

Big news for Godbeat style geeks: The Associated Press Stylebook — the journalist’s Bible — has added a religion chapter.

The Poynter Institute reports:

The 2014 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook comes out Wednesday, with about 200 changes and additions, including a new chapter devoted to religion, updates to social media terms, weather terms and the chapter on food.

Some of those additions include (sic)MERS and Buffalo wings, “B is capitalized in Buffalo,” said Sally Jacobsen, AP Stylebook editor, in a phone interview with Poynter. (AP puts the word “selfie” on the edition’s cover.)

“The key thing is the new chapter on religion,” she said. “We have 208 entries in that chapter.”

AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported those entries out for the Stylebook editors, speaking with religious scholars, communication specialists within denominations and AP reporters in different regions, including Jerusalem and Haiti. The goal is to be respectful to the groups themselves, to listen to them, Zoll told Poynter in a phone interview, but ultimately to be clear for the journalists for whom the book is made.

The Stylebook changes and grows with both language and culture, and this year, the new religion chapter includes an entry on Coptic Christians, for instance, and a more detailed entry on Easter, which acknowledges that not everyone using the Stylebook may be familiar with the holiday.

AP itself notes:

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And the Godbeat goes on: Yet another veteran is forced out

Insult + injury? It could look that way, but it was probably just a blunder by the Tampa Tribune. The newspaper set out a tradeshow table at a community event May 15, prominently showing a poster of Faith and Values writer Michelle Bearden — six days after she was laid off.

“Perhaps this means I got my job back and no one told me,” Michelle commented dryly on her Facebook page.

Her layoff, one of six from the newsroom that week, ends a much-honored specialty career of 20 years just in Tampa. By my estimate, Michelle was also the last fulltime veteran newspaper religion reporter in Florida.

Michelle will be hard to replace with her several hats. Besides the print edition, she did a weekly segment, Keeping the Faith, for WFLA-TV. She also did video presentations and interactive items for TBO.com, the newspaper’s online version.

Even before the Tribune, she wrote about religion across Tampa Bay for the St. Petersburg Times, as well as The Florida Catholic and the National Catholic Register. During the 1980s, she also covered religion and general assignment stories for the Phoenix Gazette in Arizona.

The trend of laying off religion writers reaches across the nation, as Julia Duin showed in a guest column on Feb. 18. Last September, GR’s Bobby Ross reported the layoff of Nancy Haught from the Oregonian and the exit of Cathy Lynn Grossman from USA Today via buyout.

And the beat goes on: In January, longtime Godbeat writer Cathleen Falsani was laid off from the Orange County Register. And even across the Atlantic, The Times in London has laid off Ruthie Gledhill after 27 years as its religious affairs correspondent.

Gledhill’s departure got an acid reaction by Clifford Longley, her predecessor at The Times. He accused the press of being prepared to risk “making a mess of the coverage of religion … In a subject of considerable misunderstanding, expertise is no longer, by and large, thought necessary.”

Here’s what Michelle told us about her experiences, and her career.

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NPR asks Vatican experts to discuss hopes of the Orthodox

Try to imagine a story about crucial, tense talks between Democrats and Republicans that only offered material drawn from interviews with Republicans, even when talking about the beliefs and aspirations of the Democrats.

Try to imagine a report about, oh, talks between liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans that only featured commentary from one side or the other (actually, in some mainline publications that’s pretty easy to imagine). Or how about a pre-Super Bowl story that tried to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in the big game, but only talked to experts skilled in covering one of the teams or only talked to the coaches on one team. Can you imagine veteran journalists doing that?

This brings me to a report by NPR superstar Sylvia Poggioli that ran, online, under this headline: “The 1,000-Year-Old Schism That Pope Francis Seeks To Heal.”

Hear me now: This is not a fatally flawed news story, although some of the information is rather shallow. For example, any discussion of attempts to heal the painful schism between the ancient churches of East and West simply has to begin with, or at least mention, the efforts of St. John Paul II and this issue was a high priority for Pope Benedict XVI as well. NPR didn’t need to get these two popes into the headline, but one sentence in the story itself? That’s a must.

Also, let me note that the sources quoted in the piece are very qualified, especially when it comes to all things Rome. However, let’s see if we can spot a pattern in this report:

Meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras set a milestone: They started the process of healing the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of the year 1054. Moves toward closer understanding followed, but differences remain on issues such as married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican.

OK, pause. It’s crucial to know that the smaller Eastern Rite Catholic bodies, like the large churches of Eastern Orthodoxy, already follow the ancient tradition of having married priests and celibate, usually monastic, bishops. While the celibate priesthood is the norm in the West, I have never heard anyone say that this is a big issue affecting healing between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s up with that strange unattributed claim?

Back to the story:

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