You take the good, you take the bad

factsoflifeSometimes I think the best thing a reporter can do to improve his craft is be interviewed by another reporter for publication.

I have been interviewed as a subject matter source by a few different reporters and have experienced a wide range of results. There is nothing more frustrating than being misquoted or misunderstood by a reporter. If it happens to you, you’re much more careful with your sources. You take the time to make sure you understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to say.

Many of my sources tell me horror stories about being mishandled by reporters. Just this week I was talking to a friend of mine, a former reporter who goes to The Falls Church, one of the churches that just split from The Episcopal Church. I asked her what she thought of the media coverage of the story and she said, “Well, what do you expect? Of course they get the story wrong.” Without getting into the merits of the coverage, she said her frustration is that the story is being portrayed as about homosexuality when she considers the story to be about being in a church that confesses the Gospel correctly.

Last week we looked at a couple of Neela Banerjee’s stories. One dealt with people who identify both as homosexuals and evangelical Christians. The other looked at the response of various congregations to homosexuals. I enjoyed both stories, although I offered a few points of criticism.

Source Robert Gagnon wrote about his experience being interviewed by Banerjee. He felt that she misconstrued some of what he said. Here is how she characterized his views:

But for most evangelicals, gay men and lesbians cannot truly be considered Christian, let alone evangelical.

“If by gay evangelical is meant someone who claims both to abide by the authority of Scripture and to engage in a self-affirming manner in homosexual unions, then the concept gay evangelical is a contradiction,” Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said in an e-mail message.

“Scripture clearly, pervasively, strongly, absolutely and counterculturally opposes all homosexual practice,” Dr. Gagnon said. “I trust that gay evangelicals would argue otherwise, but Christian proponents of homosexual practice have not made their case from Scripture.”

In fact, both sides look to Scripture. The debate is largely over seven passages in the Bible about same-sex couplings. Mr. Gagnon and other traditionalists say those passages unequivocally condemn same-sex couplings.

Gagnon reprinted his four paragraph response to Banerjee’s question of whether there are gay evangelicals. The most notable criticism he had was that he answered her question both in the affirmative and the negative. However, she only quoted from his “no” response.

His other criticisms were that she made it look like he didn’t know that Christian proponents of homosexual practice had attempted to substantiate their views using Scripture; that she misstated his views about whether gay men and women can be considered Christian; and that she neglected to include his emphasis on the importance of love. You can read his whole case here.

One thing I appreciated about his critique is that he also took the time to praise Banerjee for her good work in the article, as he did here:

On Ms. Banerjee’s behalf I can say that I’ve seen far worse reporting on this issue. At least Ms. Banerjee solicited my comments, was polite, and actually used most of three of my sentences. Moreover, she ended her article on the helpful note that relatives of one “gay Christian” in a homosexual relationship tell him, “We love you, but we’re concerned.” These features of her article and reporting should be applauded even as we continue to seek improved reporting on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality from the Times and other major media publications.

This business of reporting on complex religious stories is a long ball game. With each story, reporters try to include the right perspectives, accurately portray contentious and complex views and put it all in a nice package on a tight deadline. If sources or interested parties think mistakes were made, they would do well to follow Gagnon’s example of offering criticism while putting the best construction on perceived mistakes.

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Scrutiny and opportunity

smootWe cover Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney so much because so much of the mainstream coverage of him delves into religion. Many stories about Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mention his ties to his church. Other stories obsess over how voters of varying religions will react to a Romney candidacy for president.

And yet I haven’t seen any stories that ask the questions veteran religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack asks in The Salt Lake Tribune. She looks at how a Romney candidacy would affect the Mormon church. There has been so much focus on evangelicals and not enough on Mormons.

It’s a nice and lengthy story that includes many perspectives. Some folks think the church will benefit from the increased scrutiny, some don’t. She looks at how the Mormon church handles public relations during times of increased scrutiny and what previous Mormon politicos have had to deal with:

In the past dozen years or so, LDS officials have worked overtime to send the message that Mormons are Christians and they don’t worship founder Joseph Smith. They enlarged the words “Jesus Christ” on the church’s logo and increased the number of times Christ is mentioned in speeches and magazine articles.

Hinckley has also downplayed the more unusual elements of the faith. He has dismissed the pre-1978 ban on blacks becoming priests and the practice of polygamy, which ended officially in 1890, as “in the past.” He has written inspirational books without using any Mormon language. He welcomed the world to Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

All of these efforts may help Romney, who could hardly look more All-American. His answer to questions about underwear could be an ad he once ran that showed him bare-chested on a beach.

“If you listen to Mitt and [President Hinckley] long enough,” says [Ron] Scott [a journalist], “you might conclude that Mormons are really just Episcopalians who wear funny underwear.”

But some members are wary that in an effort to explain the LDS faith to a critical audience, officials may end up watering it down.

“Downplaying temple garments? What else do we want to demystify and de-weird for the sake of gains in popular opinion?” asks Steve Evans, a Seattle attorney who helps run the Mormon blog “I’m all in favor of clarifying misconceptions, but eventually I am worried that we lose something vital.”

That’s a long excerpt, I know. But that section flows together so well. Fletcher Stack has covered Mormons, and other religious adherents in Utah, for the Tribune since 1991. She edited and published Sunstone, an intellectual Mormon journal. Her experience and knowledge show.

Fletcher Stack deftly handles contentious issues and provides some much-needed perspective for Romney coverage. In particular, I like the way she weaves in some of the conflicted feelings people in the church have without overdramatizing it.

Note: if you would like to discuss Fletcher Stack’s article or other related coverage, please comment below. However, this comment thread should not include people who want to discuss Mormonism itself. This is not the blog to engage in theological disputes.

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Anglican keys in Northern Virginia

17375414 tpTomorrow is a giant news day in the Anglican wars, which is a global story that also has an American angle, a New York City angle, a Virginia angle and a Washington suburbs angle.

That’s some story.

I am referring, of course, to the fact that a circle of conservative, and in some cases historic, Anglican parishes have been voting all week on motions to withdraw from the Diocese of Virginia and, thus, the Episcopal Church, which is currently the Canterbury-recognized branch of Anglicanism here in the United States of America.

It is a giant, complex story and a very hard one for reporters to cover. There are all kinds of people — left, right and center — who would prefer that the entire drama play out behind closed doors.

But that isn’t going to happen. Too much is at stake. However, the odds are good that there will be a media circus tomorrow as the decisions are expected to be announced. As I noted in a previous post, the most powerful of these parishes — Truro Episcopal Church and the Falls Church — have tried to control the media madness by setting some strict coverage guidelines.

It seemed to me that one of the main consequences of the media-riot memo was going to be keeping veteran reporters and columnists — the people who know the most about the issues at stake — from being able to cover the story, even if all they wanted to do was sit silently in pews and listen to what is said and, later, talk to people who were willing to talk with them. This drew a strong comment from one of these reporters, Julia Duin of The Washington Times:

Terry is absolutely right. The memo was aimed towards religion writers who folks could recognize at the door. Yours truly did make an appearance in disguise at, well, you guess the church. She did not want some bouncer to walk up to her during a service and ask her if she was “researching” or “worshipping.” One reporter (Mike McManus) who did not get the above memo and did attend the service at TFC was told to desist by one of the clergy present when he began interviewing two women. And they were willing to talk with him.

… God only knows what this coming Sunday is going to be like.

… So, TFC and Truro readers: Have patience. What you are doing is historic; it’s the largest chunk of churches leaving in the country — out of the largest diocese — so do be charitable towards those of us who are doing our best to accurately write the first draft of history about these events.

Posted by Julia Duin at 2:36 pm on December 13, 2006

People are tense for a number of reasons. Millions of dollars are at stake and, if you take issues of Communion seriously, central issues of doctrine and sacraments are a stake.

In the end, it comes down to one legal question: Who controls the keys to these churches?

And even if the liberal Episcopal establishment wins, who will worship at the altars inside these powerful churches after the faithful (and their resources, spiritual and material) have been locked out? Will the national church simply sell these buildings rather than let conservative Anglicans — Americans whose faith mirrors that of the majority of Anglicans worldwide — worship in them? And what happens to the people who leave? Do they form competing conservative groups? Can they maintain order and unity as a minority in a liberal land, with long-range ties to bishops in other parts of the world? Do they slide into congregationalism?

1 02There are lots of questions and the media have to cover the debates.

Which brings us back to the media-control memo.

One of the most important elements of journalism is the ability to hear words, record them and then quote them accurately. This requires access, or reporters are driven into second-hand reporting.

I think the sermons delivered in these churches tomorrow are important. I believe that the prayers said and the scriptures read are important. They have content relevant to this global story.

How do reporters hear, record and report these words if they are not allowed polite access? I would, by the way, feel exactly the same way if we were talking about a liberal Episcopal parish in traditionalist Fort Worth that was discussing fleeing that diocese in order to align with the establishment left in New York City.

How to you “get” the religion in these stories if you are prevented from reporting the religious content of these public services? Talking to people in the parking lot will not get you this theological content, other than second-hand reports. This story is too important for that.

So, no riots. No cameras, if that is what the churches want. No rude reporters disturbing the worshippers. No badgering the faithful who do not want to talk.

But if reporters — including the ones who know the story the best — want to sit in silence and listen, I say let them listen. Then they can leave the sanctuaries and talk to people who agree to talk with them, outside if that is what people prefer. In the parking lot, even, if that is what the church leaders want. But the reporters have to be there. They have work to do.

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We still don’t know Obama

obamaWe’ve been snatching up the hints, eating up the intimations and listening to mesmerizing speeches, but we are all still waiting for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. — the latest Next Big Thing in the 2008 presidential race — to tell us what he believes. No, not his position on the issues, or that he thinks Democrats should court evangelicals, but what he believes.

The problem for journalists is that unless the candidate comes out and outlines his moral philosophy and the basis for what I’ll call guiding life principles (which often have religious roots), it’s very tricky for journalists to nail down the belief question. But it’s not as if Obama has not given us material to work with.

Remember Obama’s speech this past summer at the Call to Renewal conference? Our friends over at Beliefnet do us all a favor and posted some video highlights (if you’re interested in the entire speech, the original source is here). Then there was his appearance at Rick Warren’s AIDS conference that generated a bit of news, but little that affected Obama directly. Or did it?

Here’s Time‘s David Van Biema:

The invitation works perfectly for Obama. Through his autobiography The Audacity of Hope and his public statements, the Senator had already positioned himself as one of the rare potential Democratic Presidential candidates who can truly talk the Christian talk. Today’s speech can only reinforce that impression. Says Collin Hansen, an associate editor at the Evangelical monthly Christianity Today, “I think the Senator’s political team, or whoever’s making the decision, was smart to associate him with Warren. It suggests that there are Evangelical moderates that they can work with, or reach, or maybe even attract their votes.”

OK, it’s been established that Obama can talk the talk. He’s a very good talker. Brilliant, even. But can he walk the walk? And, more importantly, is it necessary for Obama to walk the walk? And what does it mean for Obama to walk the walk?

More on this later from tmatt, but Hillary Clinton has had her moment of cozying up to the religious side of American life. Is this speech and talking at a Rick Warren AIDS conference enough? Did any of this tell us what Obama believes? When the infatuation ends, what substance will Obama have for us? In the same way that it’s important for Mitt Romney to explain how his Mormon faith affects him politically, it’s inevitable that Obama (who likes the Bears, by the way) will attempt to do the same with his faith.

obama at conferenceFor a solid analysis of what we’ve seen so far from Obama, it’s time to turn to The Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan, who knows a thing or two about being around charismatic politicians. Let’s just say she’s not convinced, but she gives us a good idea of what she thinks Obama believes:

But again, what does he believe? From reading his book, I would say he believes in his destiny. He believes in his charisma. He has the confidence of the anointed. He has faith in the magic of the man who meets his moment.

He also believes in the power of good nature, the need for compromise, and the possibility of comprehensive, multitiered, sensible solutions achieved through good-faith negotiations.

But mostly it seems to be about him, his sense of destiny, and his appreciation of his own particular gifts. Which leaves me thinking Oh dear, we have been here before. It’s not as if we haven’t already had a few of the destiny boys. It’s not as if we don’t have a few more in the wings.

It would not be hard for Obama to show us otherwise. Or an enterprising journalist could do some solid leg work by visiting Obama’s childhood years, examining his time at Harvard, scoring a good interview and telling us what he believes. Maybe someone has already done this and I’m just unaware?

It’s easy for journalists covering politics to get stuck covering the horse race. Who’s ahead? How are issues shifting candidates around? What do the latest polls say? It’s much harder — but more enjoyable for both the reporter and the reader — to cover the actual candidates. Let’s get beyond his voting record and his focus-grouped speeches and find out what he really believes.

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Carter’s book meets the press

PeaceNotApartheidWhen a compelling book hits the stores, journalists covering the same subject can’t help but write about it. Rare and special are the books that break news with any real content, so in lieu of that, journalists seek external news angles in order to write about the book. It’s better than simply shilling for the publishing industry and writing a review, right?

The release of President Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid brought on a predictable set of news stories, and it’s not surprising that they contained strong religious angles, seeing that the author is famous for stating on the campaign trail that he was born again.

Early attempts at hooking the Carter book to real news were weak. Take, for instance, this Washington Post piece by Karen DeYoung on the resignation of “a veteran Middle East scholar affiliated with the Carter Center in Atlanta.” The scholar, Kenneth Stein, doesn’t even work for the center. His full-time job is as a professor at Emory University. But somehow this is news and makes the book’s release an “escalating controversy.”

That’s not to say that the book hasn’t ruffled a few feathers. Check out this Associated Press article on Carter’s prayerful attempts to smooth over his relationship with a group of rabbis in Phoenix:

Former President Jimmy Carter prayed with rabbis who are angered by his new book’s reference to apartheid in describing the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, but he didn’t change their minds.

The Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix said they wouldn’t call for a boycott of Carter’s book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” but they also won’t suggest that anyone read it.

. . . Carter met with the rabbis’ group for almost an hour, prayed with them and invited them to help him teach Sunday school.

Am I the only one wondering what Carter and the rabbis were praying about? And whom did they pray to? And why is this news? Well, Carter was president for four years and he has had quite the post-presidential career. All the furor over the book appears to be focused on the word “Apartheid” in the title. At least that’s how The New York Times saw it in a rather pedestrian article Thursday.

If I were a writer looking for a fresh angle on this book, I would turn to the proposition contained in this Post book review by Jeffrey Goldberg, which makes the compelling claim that the book is written to shock evangelicals away from unwittingly supporting an apartheid-like state that supposedly doesn’t like Christians:

Why is Carter so hard on Israeli settlements and so easy on Arab aggression and Palestinian terror? Because a specific agenda appears to be at work here. Carter seems to mean for this book to convince American evangelicals to reconsider their support for Israel. Evangelical Christians have become bedrock supporters of Israel lately, and Carter marshals many arguments, most of them specious, to scare them out of their position. Hence the Golda Meir story, seemingly meant to show that Israel is not the God-fearing nation that religious Christians believe it to be. And then there are the accusations, unsupported by actual evidence, that Israel persecutes its Christian citizens. On his fateful first visit to Israel, Carter takes a tour of the Galilee and writes, “It was especially interesting to visit with some of the few surviving Samaritans, who complained to us that their holy sites and culture were not being respected by Israeli authorities — the same complaint heard by Jesus and his disciples almost two thousand years earlier.”

Hey, major U.S. papers, take that for a perspective on this book. How are evangelicals responding? I’m not suggesting that the reporter should start with Pat Robertson or other self-proclaimed experts in international relations, but what about Rick Warren or others like him? We know that the rabbis don’t like the book and that Carter is willing to pray with them, but what effect is the book having on the views of your average evangelical? Do they even care what the born-again president thinks these days?

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Update on our 5Q+1 process

A Question Mark on Stained Glass Posters2Coming soon

One of the goals of GetReligion is to have a two-way conversation with journalists. We do that in the posts and comments pages, of course, but we also want to try something new.

In the near future we will begin an series of occasional posts that we will call “5Q+1.” The goal is talk to journalists whose work involves religious issues and events, whether they are assigned to the Godbeat or not. We hope to ask a few basic questions and store the answers in this pull-down archive on the masthead.

What kind of questions? Here’s what we’re thinking:

(1) Where do you like to get your news about religion?

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just don’t get?

(3) What is the story that you’ll be watching carefully in the next year or two?

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

(5) What’s the funniest, most ironic twist that you’ve seen in a religion news story lately?

And the +1 or “fill in the blanks” question is: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

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Homosexuality in Colorado megachurches, take two

take twoThis week The Denver Post‘s Eric Gorski broke a story about a Colorado megachurch pastor resigning amid allegations of homosexual conduct. The congregation in question is, like Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, down the road from where I grew up.

Gorski was permitted to watch the videotaped resignation message that the Rev. Paul Barnes gave to Grace Chapel in Douglas County, just south of Denver. Gorski handled the story well, supplying the facts in a plain and straightforward manner:

[Associate pastor Dave] Palmer said the church got an anonymous call last week from a person concerned for the welfare of Barnes and the church. The caller had overheard a conversation in which someone mentioned “blowing the whistle” on evangelical preachers engaged in homosexuality, including Barnes, Palmer said.

Palmer met with Barnes, who confessed. At an emergency meeting Thursday, a board of elders accepted Barnes’ resignation after he admitted “sexual infidelity,” violating the church’s code of conduct. Church leaders also must affirm annually that they are “living the moral and ethical teachings of Scripture in my public and private life.”

A sidebar summarized the sermon Barnes gave in the aftermath of the Haggard scandal. A follow-up the next day highlights the big issues with an impressive economy of words:

Separated by a confession of sin, the Rev. Paul Barnes and leaders of his former church will reunite this week and plot the road ahead. Meanwhile, others ponder the broader implications of a second consecutive evangelical pastor toppled by a gay-sex scandal.

As soon as my Eric Gorski News Alert crossed my computer screen on Monday morning, I wondered if we’d see a raft of stories about the trend of gay evangelicals. In journalism there’s a joke that it usually takes three loose anecdotes before you can write a trend story. But it being the Year of the Gay in American newsrooms and all, and these two pastors being so geographically close, we saw a few stories already. Thankfully the reporters didn’t bite off more than they could chew.

Neela Banerjee’s gay evangelical piece for The New York Times was nicely written. She introduced various people who consider themselves both evangelical Christian and homosexual, using the Barnes and Haggard stories as a hook:

Gay evangelicals seem to have few paths carved out for them: they can leave religion behind; they can turn to theologically liberal congregations that often differ from the tradition they grew up in; or they can enter programs to try to change their behavior, even their orientation, through prayer and support.

freudlewisBanerjee’s article focuses on individuals who want to embrace both homosexuality and evangelical Christianity. But I want to highlight a point from the excerpted paragraph for other reporters covering these stories. While programs that aim to change homosexual behavior are regularly criticized, do most reporters realize that changing personal behavior is a central component of most Christians’ lives? Yes, I know that our popular culture seems to believe that all sex — including homosexual sex — is good sex, but many Christians disagree. They deal with sexual behavioral modification on a regular basis. When looked at as part of the Christian ideal of sanctification, attempts to modify behavior — even for something as fundamental as sexuality — are par for the course. I think reporters could do a better job of explaining this.

Reporters would also do well to touch on the Christian notion of chastity. In discussing Banerjee’s piece, Rod Dreher linked to a provocative article written by David Morrison, a gay activist who converted to Christianity. He found a church that welcomed him with open arms and spoke quite strongly against his sexuality. Stories like Morrison’s also deserve to be told.

On the topic of how congregations that oppose homosexuality respond to homosexuals, Banerjee had a follow-up that probably needed a bit more room to breathe so that a bunch of quotes weren’t just piled on top of each other. The piece asks whether the Haggard and Barnes situations will lead to greater compassion among evangelicals for homosexuals. One line in particular, quoting preacher and sociologist Tony Campolo, caught my attention:

Dr. Campolo said that many evangelicals, influenced by Christian radio, had come to believe that homosexuality was largely a choice and that homosexuals “choose to be evil.”

Others, he said, subscribe to theories, now discredited by psychologists, that men become gay because they had a domineering mother or were victims of sexual abuse as children.

That last line is just unfair. If you put two academics in a room, you end up with three opinions. Even if magically there is some sort of unanimous groupthink in psychology, pitting evangelicals against seemingly above-the-fray academics — again — is just weaselly. If Banerjee wants to substantiate the “now discredited by psychologists” line, great. Even so, I doubt these unnamed evangelicals disparaged here would agree that they are irrational and hold indefensible views. I think we could probably do a better job characterizing opposing arguments.

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Mitt Romney’s scarlet letter?

scarlet letterDo you hear what I hear? Conservative evangelicals are migrating their presidential hopes from Massachusetts to Kansas because of a letter Mitt Romney wrote in 1994. Or are they?

In its Dec. 9 story on Romney’s flip-flopping on gay rights, The New York Times managed to slip in the biggest overstatement so far in 2008 presidential political reporting:

The doubts being raised could improve the prospects of two fellow Republicans who have been seeking conservative support in bids for the presidential election: Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.

There’s a massive “could” in that sentence that I hope has some decent sourcing behind it. But sadly it looks like it’s the reporter’s own personal speculation. Have any real Romney supporters left him for Huckabee or Brownback?

By hooking the news story to a 1994 letter from Romney to Log Cabin Republicans, the piece sums up what various blogs and talk radio hosts have been discussing now for weeks: Romney’s position on gay rights now and in the past. It’s clear that Romney’s current beliefs are not what he believed 10-plus years ago. That’s not the big news, though. It’s the reaction to the news:

Nonetheless, the breadth of the letter’s language and the specificity of many of the pledges stunned conservative leaders. Many of them had turned to Mr. Romney as a conservative alternative to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, whose position on issues like abortion had been considered suspect.

“This is quite disturbing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who had praised Mr. Romney as a champion of traditional values at the group’s conference in late September. “This type of information is going to create a lot of problems for Governor Romney. He is going to have a hard time overcoming this.”

Paul Weyrich, a founder of the modern conservative movement, said: “Unless he comes out with an abject repudiation of this, I think it makes him out to be a hypocrite. And if he totally repudiates this, you have to ask, on what grounds?”

One question to ask folks like Perkins and Weyrich: How excited were you about Romney before this letter came out? And if Romney’s position on gay rights had been more consistent, would you be more likely to support him? If this letter is supposed to reveal Romney’s convictions, at least when he wrote it, one has to ask him and determine the source for those convictions. In other words, does his Mormon faith have anything to do with his current and past positions on gay rights?

Now everyone is talking about Brownback as the new standard bearer for the religious right. For an idea of how he measures up and where he came from, check out this excellent profile by The New Republic‘s Noam Scheiber.

One question about Romney yet to be answered: Why did he decide to shift from advocating for gay rights to his current stance? He must have believed that, as a Northeastern Republican, he needed the backing of the religious right to be successful, but why? And what happens to him if that support is removed or fractured to a greater degree than by his Mormon faith?

All this shifting and posturing raises the question of whether advocating gay rights is replacing advocating abortion rights as the new standard by which Republicans are measured by the likes of James Dobson, Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins. If Romney’s nomination as the Republican candidate sinks over this issue, the Republican Party will be a very interesting group over the next six years.

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