Pod people: Grading the grades on Supreme Court coverage

After two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, I tried a different approach to analyzing some of the major news coverage.

I did what I dubbed “big news report cards” on coverage of the high court striking down a Massachusetts abortion buffer zone law — and on coverage of the court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties.

In the Hobby Lobby post, I focused on how various media handled one of the big misconceptions about the case — the idea that the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts retailer refuses to pay for employees’ contraceptive coverage.

I’d welcome your feedback on whether you liked the report card approach and, if so, how you might improve it.

Meanwhile, host Todd Wilken and I discuss the grades given in this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. I recorded the podcast during a quick break at a conference this week in Florida, and I’m afraid I’m even more scatterbrained than usual in this version.

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Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?


CNN reports the Dalai Lama –the spiritual leader of Tibet — has urged his co-religionists  in Sri Lanka and Myanmar to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted majority Buddhist populations against Muslim minorities.

The assumption behind this story is that the Dalai Lama is a person of consequence whose words will carry weight with Buddhists round the world. What he says matters, CNN reports.

But does it? And if it does matter, to whom does it matter?

The attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have had the approval of Buddhists leaders and in some cases mobs have been led by saffron-robe clad Buddhists monks. The report from CNN cleanly and clearly reports on the Dalai Lama’s call for peace, but it neglects to mention (or perhaps it assumes) that Buddhism is a monolith, a unified system of belief whose leaders are universally esteemed by its practitioners.

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

The article entitled “Dalai Lama to Myanmar, Sri Lanka Buddhists: Stop violence against Muslims” begins:

(CNN) – Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has made a renewed call for Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to cease violence towards the countries’ Muslim minorities, in an address delivered on his 79th birthday. Speaking before tens of thousands of Buddhists, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere, the exiled Buddhist leader implored the faithful in the majority-Buddhist countries to refrain from such attacks.

“I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime,” he said in the Indian town of Leh. “Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

The article reports that “[r]ising Buddhist nationalism” in Sri Lanka and Mynamar “spearheaded by movements led by extremist monks” has led to communal violence in recent years. Details of the violence are given as are the Dalai Lama’s calls for peaceful coexistence between the faith communities.

And the story closes with an explanatory note that:

The Dalai Lama was speaking before the audience in Leh to confer Kalachakra, a process intended to empower tens of thousands of his Buddhist followers to reach enlightenment, his office said.

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In NYTimes piece, bias against AA is a hard habit to break

Sometimes our readers are sharper than us professional word pushers. One of them just dismantled a New York Times feature with the skill of a soldier field-stripping a rifle.

The article in question looks at the Center for Motivation and Change, an anti-addiction program that favors secular counseling, therapy and medication. Well and good, as far as that goes.

But the article also notes how CMC shuns the 12-step method of Alcoholics Anonymous. No, more than that. It tries again and again to prove the superiority of the secular method, via biased wording, cherry-picking research and mainly quoting one side.

Again and again, CMC is held up as the enlightened, proven, “evidence-based” approach to kicking substance abuse:

It is part of a growing wing of addiction treatment that rejects the A.A. model of strict abstinence as the sole form of recovery for alcohol and drug users.

Instead, it uses a suite of techniques that provide a hands-on, practical approach to solving emotional and behavioral problems, rather than having abusers forever swear off the substance — a particularly difficult step for young people to take.

And unlike programs like Al-Anon, A.A.’s offshoot for family members, the C.M.C.’s approach does not advocate interventions or disengaging from someone who is drinking or using drugs. “The traditional language often sets parents up to feel they have to make extreme choices: Either force them into rehab or detach until they hit rock bottom,” said Carrie Wilkens, a psychologist who helped found the C.M.C. 10 years ago. “Science tells us those formulas don’t work very well.”

We’ll get to that question of how well the CMC works in a moment. For now, let’s note the code words of “strict” and “traditional,” as if AA and Al-Anon are based on some Amish settlement. Those and other forms of gaming raised the ire of our friend Jean Lahondere.

Underneath the psych talk and success anecdotes, Lahondere says, the Times article is a standard parable on the alleged triumph of science over faith.

The article “treats recovery as either a completely ‘faith-based’ (Alcoholics Anonymous) or ‘evidence-based’ (C.M.C.) ordeal,” she writes. “As if A.A. is a stand-in for religious belief and the new method is firmly rooted in the empirically correct foundation of SCIENCE. It really is more effective as an insight into the writer’s world view than as a story about addiction recovery.”

The Times does muster some scientific allies of CMC:

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Surprise! Same-sex couples produce happier kids, media say

Ordinarily, quality journalism benefits from solid information, concrete evidence and a healthy dose of skepticism.

But certainly, major news organizations can be forgiven when they err on the side of a higher ideal, right?

In this week’s example, that higher ideal would be acceptance of same-sex parents.

At this point in history, producing a baby apparently — and regrettably, it seems — still requires a father and a mother. But on the bright side, a “major study” has come up with this encouraging news:

Children of same-sex couples are happier and healthier than peers, research shows

That was the headline in the Washington Post. 

The breathless top of the Post story:

Children of same-sex couples fare better when it comes to physical health and social well-being than children in the general population, according to researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“It’s often suggested that children with same-sex parents have poorer outcomes because they’re missing a parent of a particular sex. But research my colleagues and I published in the journal BMC Public Health shows this isn’t the case,” lead researcher Simon Crouch wrote on the Conversation.

Crouch and his team surveyed 315 same-sex parents with a total of 500 children across Australia. About 80 percent of the kids had female parents and about 18 percent had male parents, the study states.

Children from same-sex families scored about 6 percent higher on general health and family cohesion, even when controlling for socio-demographic factors such as parents’ education and household income, Crouch wrote. However, on most health measures, including emotional behavior and physical functioning, there was no difference compared with children from the general population.

Crouch suggested the greater social cohesion among same-sex families comes from an equal distribution of work. He said same-sex couples are likely to share responsibilities more equally than heterosexual ones.

“It is liberating for parents to take on roles that suit their skills rather than defaulting to gender stereotypes, where mum is the primary care giver and dad the primary breadwinner,” he said.

The Boston Globe chose a similar headline, but one without any clunky attribution to a study or research (kudos, Globe!):

Children of Same-Sex Couples are Healthier Than Their Peers

And from the New York Post:

Study shows children of same-sex couples are happier

But before we all get too excited about this research, the Post did include a quick, obligatory note of caution:

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Latest box scores from France: USA 67 — Islam 19

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Voters were no longer the subjects of politics, democratic citizens deciding the fate of their country. They were objects to be counted, studied, and counted again. The proliferation of polls had allowed almost any newspaper or televisions station in the nation to measure the feelings of any population. Measurement, not democratic debate, was becoming the stuff of American politics.

– E.J. Dionne “The Illusion of Technique” in Media Polls in American Politics (1992)

The wire service AFP reports that a poll published at the end of June finds the French have a pretty high opinion of the United States, but they don’t like immigrants or Islam. The headline in the French daily Midi Libre states: “Sondage : la “famille” plébiscitée, “immigrés” et “islam” massivement rejetés” (Poll: Acclaim for the “Family”, “Immigrants” and “Islam” massively rejected.”

Those cheese eating surrender monkeys really like us, they really like us (to mix Simpsons and Sally Fields metaphors). But how is this news?

A survey carried out in late June by the CSA polling agency for Atlantico (a French news site akin to the Daily Beast or Huffington Post) measured likes and dislikes on a scale of very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative, very negative. Phrases like family, liberty, equality and tradition received high marks while the US was viewed with higher regard than the EU.

Les Etats-Unis évoquent quelque chose de positif pour 67 % des sondés, soit 14 points de plus que l’Union européenne (53 % positif)

Those phrases that registered the highest negative responses were Islam, immigrants, globalization and trade unions. While 67 percent of those surveyed had a positive view of America, only 19 percent had a positive view of Islam. AFP reports that Islam was the sole religion included in the good/bad survey.

Les mots recueillant le plus de désapprobation sont “islam” à 81 % (dont 38 % “assez négatif” et 43 % “très négatif”), “immigrés” à 69 % (41+28) suivis de “mondialisation” à 63 % (44+19) et “syndicats” à 61 % (40+21). Aucune autre religion n’est soumise aux sondés, ni la notion de religion en général.

Which leads to the question, what value does this have as news? What is the value of reporting on polls? And, how do you report on polls?

In the essay cited at the top of this story, the Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne stated it is now common for reporters to question candidates about their poll numbers rather than their policies. Issues do not matter. The race is all important.

Knowledge of popular sentiment is essential for product marketing as well as politics. But without an explanation of the why, the numbers generated in a poll have slight value.

What do the French mean when they say Islam? Is it the religion or the faith’s practitioners that are unpopular? Are immigrants interchangeable with Islam in the French mind? Has this view changed over time? Would a poll that included the Catholic Church generate high negatives if asked at the height of the press frenzy surrounding the clergy abuse scandal? Is the conflict in Syria and the fear of French jihadis returning home spiking the numbers?

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Pope’s abuse apology: Media did a fair job, surprisingly

Mainstream media didn’t pile onto Pope Francis. I know that sounds cynical — something like “Johnny’s trumpet recital didn’t suck!” — but in the story of Francis’ personal apology to victims of priestly abuse, reporters actually reported. They left pontifications to the pontiff.

Francis, of course, has apologized before for the abuses that his predecessors allowed to persist. In April, he vowed to impose sanctions for the “evil” done by churchmen. But many media have seen the broader, more severe tone of his latest remarks — in which he compared abuse to a “cult” or “satanic mass.”

One example is a 1,000+-word piece in The Guardian:

“It is something more than despicable actions,” Francis said of clerical sex abuse. “It is like a sacrilegious cult, because these boys and girls had been entrusted to the priestly charism in order to be brought to God. And those people sacrificed them to the idol of their own concupiscence.”

He added: “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”

It is not the first time that Francis has condemned abuse, but his words delivered at the Santa Martha guesthouse on Vatican grounds were particularly pointed towards those clerics who may have enabled the abuse to be “camouflaged with a complicity”.

“I beg your forgiveness … for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk,” said Francis, according to a translation made available by the Vatican.

The Wall Street Journal saw Francis’ remarks as a kind of escalation. Its coverage says that although he has apologized for abuses in the past, this is the first time he has included the bishops:

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Babies and holy ghosts in Texas surrogate pregnancies story

Give the Austin American-Statesman credit for a couple of things.

First, the Texas newspaper has the start of a potentially fantastic, enlightening trend piece:

AUSTIN — A nurse spread gel on Nicole Benham’s pregnant belly and slowly moved a sonogram wand over it, describing the images on nearby monitors. This scene, in which parents get an early glimpse of baby, is played out many times a day in medical offices across America, but this plot has a twist.

Benham is carrying twins, but they are not her babies. They belong to Sheila and Kevin McWilliams, a New Jersey couple who lost their firstborn and can’t have another child together. They provided the eggs and sperm, and they will bear all costs, which average $75,000 to $100,000 and include fees to the surrogate, the matchmaking surrogacy company and lawyers for both parties, experts said.

Despite such costs, U.S. surrogate births have jumped 250 percent in eight years, and experts expect them to continue rising because of advances in reproductive technology, increasing numbers of same-sex marriages and growing acceptance of surrogacy.

In the vast majority of surrogate births today, the intended parents provide the egg and sperm, minimizing the risk of custody battles. Data suggest that there are fewer multiple births, and, perhaps surprisingly, more surrogates bearing babies for others more than once.

Second, the American-Statesman doesn’t totally ignore religion:

Even so, surrogacy remains controversial. State laws vary widely, with such liberal locales as New York and the District of Columbia banning it outright. The Catholic Church also forbids it, along with in vitro fertilization, the process in which the egg and sperm are combined in a lab before being transferred to the carrier.

“It removes procreation from that intimate act of love and puts it in the realm of science and medicine,” said Marie Cehovin, director of the Office of Pro-life Activities and Chaste Living for the Catholic Diocese of Austin. “The whole idea of creating life in a petri dish is horrendous to us.”

The church also opposes the destruction of embryos and terminating the fetus, which could happen, for example, if a different gender is preferred, she said.

But overall, this story fails to deliver.

Granted, it would be impossible for a newspaper story — particularly in the 1,100 words afforded to this one — to cover every religious and ethical issue associated with surrogate pregnancies. On a basic, Journalism 101 level, however, this piece leaves too many unanswered questions. That’s even before the rather large holy ghosts that — even if those general points were addressed — would cause concern here at GetReligion.

The basic stuff first: Way up high, readers are told:

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The Boston Globe veers into the doctrines of ‘Kellerism’

Just the other day, I heard a long-time GetReligion reader use a very interesting new journalism term — “Kellerism.”

Wait for it, faithful readers. Let’s walk through this with newcomers to the site. What, pray tell, are the key beliefs in the journalistic philosophy that is “Kellerism”?

Yes, this is another reference to the pronouncements of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, with an emphasis on this 2011 remarks (video) at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Here, once again, is a chunk of an “On Religion” column I wrote about that event, when the newly retired Keller was asked if — that old question — the Times is a “liberal newspaper.”

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” …

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So here is first core “Kellerism” doctrine: There is no need for balance and fairness and related old-fashioned journalism values when one is dealing with news linked to morality, culture, religion, yada, yada. Newspapers should resist the urge to slip into advocacy journalism when covering politics, but not when covering — uh — moral, cultural and religious issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters. You know, non-political issues. Things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans.

The second “Kellerism” doctrine is related to that and can be glimpsed near the end of Keller’s response (.pdf here) to the famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” self-study of the Times, during troubled ethical times in 2005. The key is that Keller insisted that he was committed to diversity in the newsroom on matters of gender, race, etc. However, he was silent or gently critical when addressing the study’s calls for improved cultural and intellectual diversity. The Times was diverse enough, it appears, on those counts.

Yes, criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of traditional religious believers was raised as a concern by the committee that wrote the report.

So why bring up this new term in a post topped with a photo of The Boston Globe building?

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