How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate

Let’s assume that many if not most professionals in an elite newsroom in Southern California — The Los Angeles Times, perhaps — will be tempted to believe that they know more about sex than most parents and educators in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi. Safe assumption?

My goal here is not to settle that question, so please do not click “comment” just yet.

If the leaders of this newspaper decided to write a news feature on sex education in Mississippi, I would assume that they would know, from the get-go, that they would need to go out of their way to quote the voices of articulate, qualified people in Mississippi on both sides of this hot-button issue. After all, journalists committed to journalism would never think of imposing their own beliefs and values on, let’s say, people in radically different cultures overseas, cultures built in part on other religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Right?

Ironically, the journalists in this case study face a challenge that is very similar to the one faced by Mississippi educators — they are trying to find a way for committed believers with clashing views to be heard in the same forum. One group is trying to mix clashing voices in classrooms, while the other is trying to do balanced, accurate, fair-minded journalism in a major newspaper.

So with that in mind, let’s scan the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under this double-decker headline:

Sex education stumbles in Mississippi

Even a law requiring schools to teach sex ed is falling short in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.

And here’s the opening of the story:

TUNICA, Miss. – Marie Barnard was delighted when, after decades of silence on the topic, Mississippi passed a law requiring school districts to teach sex education. But the lesson involving the Peppermint Pattie wasn’t what she had in mind for her sons.

The curricula adopted by the school district in Oxford called on students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.

“They’re using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she’s had sex — that she’s been used,” said Barnard, who works in public health. “That shouldn’t be the lesson we send kids about sex.”

She and other parents lobbied the district to teach about contraception, not just abstinence. After all, as she and other parents noted, 76% of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school.

OK, remember that the purpose of this post is not to argue about sex education. My goal is to discuss journalism ABOUT a debate over sex education.

What is the warning flag in that opening anecdote?

Right: The newspaper accepts as gospel truth Barnard’s second-hand quotation about what was taught in that Peppermint Pattie session. After using a second-hand quotation like that one, it was going to be very, very important for the Times (a) to confirm what was actually contained in the guidelines for that class and/or (b) what the teacher leading the class actually said. If that is not possible, it would certainly be crucial to talk to a teacher or school official who knows what teachers are instructed to say in that class exercise and, thus, can explain the intended message.

In other words, it is not good journalism to assume that the enemies of a particular point of view are the best authorities on the content or intent of those who advocate that point of view. That’s true when dealing with ideas, movements and people on the cultural left and right. It’s simply basic journalism.

Now, does this Times report include material from an articulate defender of that classroom lesson or others like it? After all, the journalistic goal is to be fair and accurate when dealing with both sides of this debate. Correct?

So how many cultural conservatives are quoted in this piece, how many experts on the logic behind that point of view?

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And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly

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Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie.

Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

Let’s start with a big chunk of the top:

Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”

Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.

Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.

Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, “Noah” was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.

Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.

Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.

Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.

See the deft way that Burke explains the Muslim opposition (the depiction of prophets)? That’s basic journalism maybe, but USA Today mentioned concern by Muslim-dominated nations with no explanation why.

Give CNN credit, too, for understanding the importance of reporting on the director’s own faith background:

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Lessons from Waco: Some folks just don’t get religion

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Even after a small stack of best-selling books, Malcolm Gladwell remains what he has long been — a master of magazine-form journalism.

After scores of recent interviews in which he has talked about his return to Christian faith, there is evidence that he plans to focus his talents on topics linked to religion news, perhaps building toward a new book. Count me among those who hope this comes to pass.

On one level, Gladwell’s lengthy New Yorker piece entitled “Sacred and Profane: How not to negotiate with believers,” is simply an extended essay digging into “A Journey to Waco,” by Clive Doyle, a survivor of that infamous day when a small army of U.S. troops and law officials crashed into the Branch Davidian complex outside of Waco, resulting in the deaths of about 80 members of this Adventist sect, including two dozen children.

In the end, however, this is much more than a review. It’s more like a meditation of why it is so difficult for profoundly secular people to understand what is happening inside the minds and hearts of radically religious people. The bottom line is clear: Some people, including lots of FBI leaders, just don’t get religion. I think religion-beat professionals will find this article fascinating.

This is also a meditation on how hard it is to be tolerant of people whose beliefs are radically different than our own (study the treatment of Mormons on the American frontier), especially when these outsiders simply refuse to compromise. Yes, David Koresh was a genuinely strange man, both to outsiders and to many of his followers who didn’t agree with all of his actions (especially the taking of multiple wives). But his followers had a history and it appears that law-enforcement officials never took their beliefs seriously.

Thus, Gladwell writes:

The Waco standoff was one of the most public conversations in the history of American law enforcement, and the question Doyle poses in his memoir, with genuine puzzlement, is how a religious community could go to such lengths to explain itself to such little effect. …

The Branch Davidians belonged to the religious tradition that sees Christ’s return to earth and the establishment of a divine Kingdom as imminent. They were millennialists. Millennial movements believe that
within the pages of the Bible are specific clues about when and how the Second Coming will arrive. They also rely on what the Biblical scholar James Tabor calls “inspired interpreters,” prophets equipped with the divine insight to interpret those clues and prepare their followers to be among God’s chosen. Mormonism began, in the nineteenth century, as a millennial movement; its “inspired interpreter” was Joseph Smith. Jehovah’s Witnesses began as a millennial movement, as did the Pentecostal Church.

Of all mainstream contemporary American churches, though, the Seventh-Day Adventists have the strongest millennial tradition.

Now this article may not appeal to people who are not interested in history, and especially the history of religion in America.

As for me, I have always been fascinated by the Davidians — especially after meeting several, including members of the Roden family when they visited one of my Baylor graduate-school classes on contemporary religious movements in America. We discussed their commitment to pacifism.

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Some finger-waggling about a Catholic school story

The scowling, scolding, dogmatic nun is among the few stereotypes that persist in otherwise sensitive, all-accepting society. So it’s important for media to guard against perpetuating such images.

This is true especially when reporting public complaints against nuns, as in a recent story in The Charlotte Observer. On one level, the article merely reported a furor over an address by a Dominican sister at Charlotte Catholic School.

Parents were angry that Sister Jane Dominic Laurel was said to have spoken against gays and lesbians and — according to students and parents — “made inflammatory remarks about single and divorced parents.”

Mind you, the complaining parents weren’t there, and “a record of the comments was not available,” the article reports. But they were still angry:

The petition, which has drawn more than 2,000 supporters, listed 10 objections to her remarks, including this: “We resent the fact that a schoolwide assembly became a stage to blast the issue of homosexuality after Pope Francis said in an interview this past fall that ‘we can not insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’ We are angry that someone decided they knew better than our Holy Father and invited (this) speaker.”

Some students told their parents that a few teachers left the assembly in tears.

In addition, parents called for a letter-writing campaign, sending out emails that listed the addresses of the Diocese of Charlotte, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, even the pope in the Vatican.

Other parents complained to the Observer that the school didn’t tell them in advance what Sister Jane would talk about. Remember: Catholic school, Catholic nun, Catholic doctrine. And they were surprised?

To its credit, the paper quoted a spokesman for the Diocese of Charlotte defending the nun. He noted that she has a doctorate in sacred theology and has spoken in the diocese before.

The newspaper also quoted a priest who said she “represented well the Catholic positions on marriage, sex, same-sex attraction and proper gender roles.”

Still, the Observer story has holes.

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The obvious gap in that NYTimes report on sexual abuse

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Almost a year ago, The New York Times launched a series of web-only video-and-text features called the Retro Report. The goal of these short documentaries is, apparently, to help readers by filling in the gaps on complex, ongoing stories.

While these short features have been identified as “columns,” the content — at least to me — seems to be rather ordinary news analysis work. The key is that the goal is to give readers a summary of background facts and history. At the very least, then, we can expect these pieces to be factual and somewhat thorough.

This brings me to the recent piece that ran under this headline: “The Fight to Reveal Abuses by Catholic Priests.” That’s a very important topic, of course, an let me stress, again, what I have stated in the past: Journalists have been totally justified in focusing on the cover-ups as well as the crimes.

These scandals have been drawing waves of coverage since the 1980s, although there are reporters out there who seem to think that this hellish pot of sin, sacrilege and clericism didn’t boil over until the revelations in Boston about a decade ago.

Let me stress, as your GetReligionistas have noted on numerous occasions, that this has been a scandal that has touched both the Catholic left and the right. To be perfectly blunt, quite a few Catholics on both sides of the theological spectrum have been hiding skeletons in their closets. If you have the stomach for it, the most intense, searing take on the scandal can be found in the book “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” by the conservative scholar Leon J. Podles.

It is hard to miss the Watergate-esque grammatical construct in a crucial quote at the top of the story posted with this Retro Report video:

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, is in no way the principal face of the sexual abuse scandals that have buffeted the church and its priesthood almost without pause for three decades. But he embodies a certain mind-set among some in the highest clerical ranks. It is an attitude that has led critics, who of late include the authors of a scathing United Nations committee report, to wonder about the depth of the church’s commitment to atone for past predations and to ensure that those sins of the fathers are visited on no one else.

In 2002, with the scandal in crescendo and the American Catholic Church knocked back on its heels, Cardinal Egan reacted with obvious ambivalence to accounts of priestly abuses that occurred in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., which he had led before moving to New York. “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry,” he said in a letter to parishioners.

Yes, mistakes were made. And crimes were committed. And sins — if confessed — remained hidden.

So what caught my attention in this piece, looking at it from a GetReligion point of view? As you would expect, many of the key facts are here and I do not dispute them. Anyone who has followed this hellish history knows many or most of the key facts.

Well, I wondered how this piece from the Times empire would deal with the arrival of Pope Francis. At the very end, readers are told:

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So how many gay bishops are there in England?

Spinning a news story is not as easy as it seems. Too light a touch and an author fails to convince his audience of the merits of his cause. Too much can spin the ball out of the author’s control — touching upon so many issues and arguments that readers may become enamored with the “wrong” issue.

Take Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Aesthetically a beautiful film (and evil too), it fails as propaganda for any but the true believer because of its heavy hand.

(As an aside: Riefenstahl created the cinema-graphic technique of the long entrance. Hitler’s entrance to the rally builds and builds, tension and anticipation mount. The shots follow him through the bowels of the stadium and culminate in his entrance to the stage. Should you take delight in upsetting your political friends, compare the shots Riefenstahl used in Triumph of the Will to the staging of recent Democrat and Republican conventions — Bill Clinton followed Riefenstahl’s playbook almost scene by scene inside the convention halls.)

The key to good advocacy journalism, as it is in all things, is moderation. The best propaganda is subtle propaganda. Too many claims, too much hyperbole and you cheapen your story.

A line in a  piece published in the Daily Beast on gay clergy weddings for the Church of England illustrates the merits of moderation. Let me say at the outset that the story in the Daily Beast is an advocacy piece, published on an openly liberal website. As such, this is not normal GetReligion material. However, this is an opinion article cloaked in the mantle of a news story.

The tone, focus and editorial voice of the recent story “Meet the Gay Priest Getting Married” lauds the subject of the profile, a Church of England priest who has vowed to marry his gay partner despite being told such an act violated church rules.

But the plea for sympathy and support for the priest in his battle with a harsh and oppressive bureaucracy, was overshadowed by the article’s crucial claim that almost a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay. The tabloids as well as the gay specialty press picked up this statement and the issue de jour became hypocrisy on high — not the little guy fighting the good fight.

The Daily Beast reported:

The Church of England, which broke from the Vatican in 1534 so that Henry VIII could take a second wife, has often been celebrated for its accepting and open attitude. In fact, Cain estimated that a third of the clergy in London are gay. A clergyman, who did not wish to be named, claimed that at least 13 of the church’s 42 bishops were also gay, although they have not publicly acknowledged it. “Gay people have very often a heightened sensitivity to things of beauty and spirituality,” Cain suggested. “There are an awful lot of gay people in the church.”

Before I start on the gay bishop claim, let me say a word or two about the canard that England got a new church because Henry wanted a new wife. It didn’t quite work that way. Also, the Church of England does not see itself as having been founded in the 16th century. It is the same church that existed in those isles from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury (circa 6th century). But like the Orthodox some 400 years earlier, during the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I the Church of England declined to accept the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome in England.

And, the indigenous reform movement within the Church of England predated Henry’s divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. Henry’s anger at the pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment (a refusal made on political grounds not theological) was the wedge political issue the English reformers were able to use to break free from the theological dictates of Rome. The English reformers were willing to disagree amongst themselves and with Rome over the theology of Eucharistic presence but were prepared to go to the stake over the issues of justification by faith, the Bible in the vernacular, the uniqueness of the death of Jesus and for the right to disagree over second order issues — the principle of adiaphora.

Once again, the frisson this article created, however, has not been over same-sex marriage and the clergy or even Henry VIII, it is the claim that a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay.

Granted this appeared in the Daily Beast and the standards of attribution expected of traditional journalism is not the same as found in a mainstream newspaper. The expectations one would have of rigorous professionalism are not pertinent. But should it have printed this claim without further substantiation or explanation? Does not placing the claim into the mouth of an anonymous priest add to the impression that this is gossip?

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World Vision’s gay firestorm and A.D. 2064

PAUL ASKS:

(Regarding the World Vision relief agency deciding U.S. employees can live in same-sex marriages): What does the Religion Guy think?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question was prompted by that dramatic policy change by a prominent Christian organization, but a mere two days later World Vision restored its limit of employees’ relationships to male-female marriage. A news reporter’s job isn’t to tell agencies what to do but to analyze what’s going on, and The Guy thinks these neck-snapping events say much about U.S. Protestantism during, oh, the next 50 years.

Why only Protestants? There’s little chance this sexual teaching will be open to reconsideration among the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, independent churches in the developing world, Mormonism, Orthodox Judaism or Islam. With the World Vision furor the irresistible force of cultural evolution met the immoveable object of Bible traditionalism. “Parachurch” agencies like World Vision with backing from all sorts of churches are especially vulnerable. This U.S. Protestant culture war is perhaps as divisive and intense as any since slavery, fortunately minus bullets this time.

No matter what secular laws say, it’s now obvious that there’s no middle ground on whether Christianity should approve same-sex unions and marriages. Mennonite seminarian Benjamin Corey sees “the death of Evangelical Christianity in America as it once was,” namely a big-tent amalgam of moderates and conservatives. The dispute harms everybody. Those who in conscience uphold church tradition are portrayed as hard-hearted bigots who blindly refuse to accept changing reality. Churches that advocate change on grounds of compassion and justice can appear confused if not unprincipled by shedding a belief they so long preached (and they’ve lost members).

Consider the verbal arrows shot through cyberspace, including patheos.com. Episcopal priest David Henson denounced “the vile theology spewed” by evangelicals, said to “have a hate problem.” Author Rachel Held Evans declared, “I have never in my life been more angry at the Church or more embarrassed to be a Christian.” Feminist Libby Anne said conservatives appear “akin to racists.” And youth ministry guru Jonathan McKee said “Christians come out looking like idiots.”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma state legislator Rebecca Hamilton said World Vision flirted with “public apostasy” so she now wonders “can we trust them?” Radio host Michael Brown denounced “a betrayal of the Lord.” The social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention (with 45,000 local congregations) said “the gospel of Jesus Christ” is at stake and called the change “devilish.” Before the reversal, the Assemblies of God (12,500 local congregations) asked its flock to gradually shift charity donations elsewhere.

It’s crucial to understand that since 1950, World Vision, a massive international service provider, has become a pride of the evangelical movement, yet also with large non-evangelical support.

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When you wish upon a trend … it’s no longer news

Sometimes, anecdotes are a wellspring for indepth reporting. Other times, it just leads to wishful thinking.

Here is what the Washington Post ran on March 27 as an attempt at background for the meeting of Pope Francis and President Obama:

FLORENCE, Italy – The power of the Catholic Church in Italy has compelled thousands of gay men and lesbians to live in the shadows, and the opposition of bishops helped make this the only major nation in Western Europe without broad legal rights for same-sex couples. But gay Catholics here now speak of a new ray of light from what they call “l’effetto Francesco.”

The Francis Effect.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, at a time when the new pontiff is upending church conventions and opening new doors. In their first face-to-face encounter, the two leaders — who have sought to bring change to their respective offices — focused on issues ranging from growing inequality to the challenges of global conflicts.

But for the pope, perhaps no one issue illustrates his divergence from tradition more than early signs of rapprochement between the church and gay Catholics.

Oh, dear. Where to start?

With the dateline, I guess. The president met the pope, of course, at the Vatican. Which is, of course, in Rome. Which would, of course, make the meeting hard to cover from Florence, 174 miles away.

Second, the code word. Have you ever noticed that when a reporter doesn’t like a person or organization, he/she uses words like “power” and “powerful”? And when he/she does like them, the adjectives run more toward “respected” and “influential”?

Third, if gay rights, same-sex marriage or anything like it came up at the Francis-Obama meeting, no media — including the Washington Post — have reported it. The meeting was the flimsiest of newspegs on which to hang a story about the Church and gays.

But the story premise itself is flimsy, as the article acknowledges more than once. A few excerpts:

Francis’s shift so far has been one of style over substance; nothing in the church’s teachings on homosexuality has changed, and conservative clerics remain deeply skeptical of any radical move toward broad acceptance.

And:

Among the gaggle of conservative cardinals and bishops of the Italian church, little has outwardly changed since Francis’s arrival.

And then:

Gay activists in Italy say it is far too soon to tell whether Francis will truly usher in a new era here. And for each priest who is partaking in an opening, there are probably 20 others who are not.

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