Are j-profs losin’ their religion?

ManAngelThat man Jay Rosen, a veteran professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism, is at it again — digging into the religious structures beneath the cathedrals of journalism.

A long, long time ago, a Sojourners essay took a stab at describing the links between religion and journalism, saying that journalists turn over the rock to reveal the dirt and ministers shovel off the dirt to reveal the rock. This is the same territory that Rosen covered in one of those essays that I hope every GetReligion reader has read — “Journalism Is Itself a Religion.” Note that this link takes you to the The Revealer, where it is stored as one of that blog’s statements of core doctrine.

If you want an update on some of those themes, check out Rosen’s “Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion,” which dissects the role that the Watergate Myth played in the idealism of a whole generation of journalism leaders. Here’s the readout from the top of that essay: “Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers — and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism — is a big question. Whether it should is another question.”

Now, if any of that interests you, you are ready for the Rosen report from the recent AEJMC convention in San Antonia (tmatt asks: Great summer climate. Was hell booked up?) where some veteran journalism professors had a chance to testify — in the Bible Belt sense of that word — during a panel discussion called “Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe.” It seems that the old-time religion just isn’t converting a new generation. As a journalism professor myself, I feel their pain.

It’s impossible to miss the faith language in the San Antonio remarks. Here is a clip or two from Rosen’s report:

First up was Carl Sessions Stepp, a contributing writer to American Journalism Review, a former national correspondent and editor for the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s J-School. He said that most of what he believed when he began teaching in 1983 he still believed, with one big exception.

Then he would have said that nearly all journalists employed in the field were people “on a mission.” They saw their work as a noble public service, and shared a sense of duty that helped them define what the service was amid a hectic news environment. Students quickly picked up on this creed, and newsoom culture supported it.

That was then. Now, he said, the sense of mission is not the same. He didn’t say it was gone; plenty of journalists still heard the call. And young people still showed up in his classes ready to believe. But changes in the news business and “workplace culture” have turned the mission into a fairy tale much of the time. There is no universal sense of calling any more, Stepp declared. Journalism as a whole isn’t “on a mission,” but journalists as individuals still can be.

The obvious question: What is the nature of this secular “calling”? As a Christian who works in mainstream journalism, I have always struggled with that word for the simple reason that many people hear it and link it directly to the work of ordained ministers. The traditional Christian doctrine, however, is that people are called to a wide variety of professions and God does not rank them — from rock & roll guitarists to airplane pilots, from (gulp) lawyers to painters. In that sense, one can be “called” to be a journalist, working in this industry to the best of one’s ability and following the rules of the craft.

Rosen argues that many journalists are actually semi-ordained evangelists in a church of journalism. They are on a mission from the gods and the gods have names such as Woodward and Bernstein, who produced The Good Book that inspired young believers to make personal professions of faith and walk the true path.

So what does it mean if young people don’t want to do “mission” work in modern newsrooms? What is the modern j-student seeking?

Back to Rosen’s report:

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the Online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that.

And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.

So do modern j-students want to preach, as in pour out their beliefs in secular sermons in openly partisan publications? Are we facing the rise of the new, New Journalists? Is the goal to do unto the bloggers what the bloggers want to do unto you?

These are interesting times and Rosen is must reading, no matter what church you have joined.

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Familiar formula

math formulaDaily news coverage of religious controversies lends to a familiar formula. One side is pitted against another. Quippy quotes from both sides are dropped into the article for spice and the reporter is left satisfied that a standard of objectivity was met and the reader will be left informed.

This formula is familiar because I have resorted to it, as a young reporter, in the past. The challenge of covering controversial religious issues leaves a reporter with a 15-inch space limit scrambling to sum up the existence of the controversy in the lead, add a few more summary paragraphs with key facts and toss in some one-liners from both sides to fill out the story.

Said formula is followed here by Associated Press reporter Rachel Zoll.

ORLANDO, Fla. — A national meeting of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America rejected a proposal Friday that would have allowed gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy under certain conditions.

The measure would have affirmed the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians but would have allowed bishops and church districts, called synods, to seek an exception for a particular candidate — if that person was in a long-term relationship and met other restrictions.

With limited space, Zoll lays out both sides, the development of the issue and the “what’s next.” Fortunately for those who follow debates like these, more detailed and in-depth reporting on the issue is available in niche publications and magazines. Here, words like “non-celibate gays” and “long-term relationship” are measured, explained and used carefully and the precision of the reporting is much greater.

But what about those who only read the headlines and the first few paragraphs and move on? They are left with a weak description of the issue and are left to interpret the news in a way that best fits their worldview. The goal of objective reporting has its limits in reality.

In related news, the Evangelical Lutheran Church made news by declining to financially protest Israel’s security barrier around Palestinian territory.

The Chicago Tribune weighs in:

ORLANDO — Avoiding a form of protest that has threatened relations between Jews and other mainline Protestants, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination on Saturday denounced Israel’s construction of a security barrier around Palestinian territory and called for financial stewardship that did not include divestment.

Instead, church officials emphasized a commitment toward positive economic development in the Holy Land that ensures a secure and viable two-state solution, a shared Jerusalem and a continuation of the church’s humanitarian ministries in the Middle East.

But readers of Aljazeera’s website received the news from a slightly different tone.

A five-million-strong US church has rebuked Israel for building a separation barrier along the West Bank, becoming the second major US Protestant denomination to reject policies implemented by the Jewish state.

The resolution titled “Peace Not Wall” was adopted on Saturday on a 668-269 vote by members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at their convention in Orlando, Florida, despite pleas from Jews to refrain from the move.

What appeared in the first line of the Tribune story does not show up until the eighth paragraph of the Aljazeera story. How’s that for an extreme example of how two news organizations serving vastly different communities view the same news?

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A godless society

empy churchCan a godless society survive? That is the question that I believe USA Today‘s Noelle Knox failed to ask in her decent, if a bit shallow (USAT-style), article on the decline of religion in Western Europe.

Mary Haugh, who has gone to Mass here seven days a week for almost all of her 79 years, is saddened by these changes. “It’s a Godless society,” she says.

Ireland is not an exception. Every major religion except Islam is declining in Western Europe, according to the Center for the Study on Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. The drop is most evident in France, Sweden and the Netherlands, where church attendance is less than 10% in some areas.

Knox follows the familiar formula. Western Europe is prospering, there are no major conflicts, the birth rate has dropped precipitously, and thus, religion is on the decline. Somehow she tries to explain, without sourcing, the increasing separation of church and state, but that doesn’t make any sense. Look at areas where church and state are most separated and you will see thriving religious groups. Perhaps it’s the other way around?

The numbers Knox uses in her story can be a bit confusing, and I believe she often compares apples to oranges.

In 1900, almost everyone in Europe was Christian. Now, three out of four people identify themselves as adherents to Christianity. At the same time, the percentage of Europeans who say they are non-religious has soared from less than 1% of the population to 15%. Another 3% say they don’t believe in God at all, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Knox does manage to find someone who isn’t oh-so-depressed (or rejoicing) that the religious decline in Western Europe is bringing forth this supposed wave of tolerance unprecedented on the continent (Knox also fails to examine the ramifications of the said and supposed tolerance).

Andrew Greeley, a priest, professor at the University of Chicago and prolific author on Christianity, argues that despite the drop in church attendance, Christianity is not on the wane everywhere in Europe. “Religion declined abruptly in England and the Netherlands. It is stagnant in West Germany, and it is flourishing in Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia,” he says. “I get upset about the sweeping generalization about the decline in religion. Religion is always declining and always reviving.”

Overall, if you’re looking for a casual read, this is it, but for more serious observers of religion or European culture, this article will only frustrate you with its lack of depth and precision.

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Extended adolescence

silhouette lead 203x152In last week’s Washington City Paper, Huan Hsu profiled single, middle-aged members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons. What’s so special about single, middle-aged Mormons? Well, there aren’t very many of them.

Life for singles over 30 isn’t always easy. Life for singles over 30 who also happen to be LDS can be truly stressful. The church’s doctrine not only emphasizes marriage and family but practically demands them: It’s not uncommon for young members to go from first date to marriage in less than a year or for 22-year-old couples to be working on their second child.

While I find articles like these — on the mating habits of devoutly religious folk — humorous, I believe the author misses part of the story. He has that typical attitude writers have when examining customs, traditions and beliefs dissimilar to the mainstream. It’s partly because the reporter often will write with this “I can’t believe these people believe and act like this” attitude and because, well, dating/courting/marriage rituals are funny if looked at objectively.

The challenges and problems faced by these young Mormons — the pressure to marry, settle down and bear offspring — seem quite similar, in varying degrees, to those that I’ve seen around me in various settings, such as Catholic college communities and evangelical Protestant groups. The author should have found some way to expound on this, because pressure to marry is not particular to young Mormons.

What is different though, is that marriage and child producing is a fundamental tenet of the Mormon religion. Leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints do not see single young people very positively, according to the article, and this aspect is something I have not seen before. Protestant and Catholic leaders I have encountered do not see singleness as a problem but rather as an opportunity. Certainly marriage is looked upon quite favorably in my experience, but single people are not seen as misguided.

“You’d get hugs from the bishop who’d say, ‘These men don’t know what they’re missing.’ They don’t know how else to feel. You’re a leftover, and they don’t know why. So you end up with a different kind of pressure, from both sides, to be flawless. You have to be thin and pretty and smart, and you’re not allowed to be sad that you’re not with someone, because that makes you feel like you messed up, but you’re not allowed to be happy about not being with someone, either, because that’s wrong. It’s a hard church to be single in.”

Overall this article provides a rare, intriguing glimpse into the lives of single, young Mormons who are struggling with the idiosyncrasies of their beliefs.

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The Dallas Morning News goes infrared and ultraviolet

There is a quite bizarre little feature in today’s edition of the celebrated Dallas Morning News religion section. It’s an almost random set of statistics about life in the whole red-blue age, with an emphasis on what the News calls the infrared and ultraviolet states — the really extreme examples of the two extremes.

Infrared America includes, in alphabetical order: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Ultraviolet America is California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, and the District of Columbia.

It’s kind of fun, but I still have no idea what the point of the exercise is.

First of all, the non-Borg (I assume, even with its new Reformed component) here at GetReligion never really thought much of the red state-blue state thing, since that really tells us more about the electoral college than it does about the American people. I do, however, think the key is the difference between red zip codes and blue zip codes. That’s where you can find the really interesting differences in beliefs and lifestyles, even in locations as stereotyped as, well, Dallas. There are blue zip codes almost everywhere and, right in New York City, there are some red zones. But I digress.

I also thought it was strange that the News didn’t really get into the “pew gap” issue in American political life, since that is the issue that turned up the flame under the red-blue pot in the first place. I would have, as always, appreciated some breakouts about people in Dallas and Texas, since that is where, I assume, most News readers live and worship.

But we do find out that ultraviolets have more education than the infrared and we learn, no surprise:

More “I do’s” among the red than the blue

Marriage is far more prevalent in infrared states. Nineteen of the 23 have a higher percentage of married adult residents than the U.S. average (Led by Idaho and Utah, at 62 percent each). Eight of the states with the lowest percentages are ultraviolet. (The lowest, by far, is the District of Columbia, at 36 percent.)

It’s a strange little feature. Are we supposed to chuckle or merely shake our heads in wonder?

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Fighting extremism

Voice of America’s Judith Latham has found a bit of news that seems rather significant but has received little attention from other more mainstream news outlets.

Muslim scholars in the United States and Canada released a judicial ruling — or fatwa — last week saying that Islam condemns terrorism, religious extremism, and violence against civilians. A response to last month’s bombings in London and Egypt, the fatwa also reflects the gravity of the struggle within Islam between moderates and extremists.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, a columnist for the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, said she sees the war on terrorism since 9/11 as a small part of a much larger religious and intellectual struggle within Islam. She described that struggle as being waged between people like herself, who believe in a “more moderate, progressive way” of following a religion they hold dearly, and others who claim their interpretation of Islam is the “only true one.” And furthermore, she said, they don’t believe in pluralism and “hate anyone who is against the ideology they follow.”

Yes, VOA is a government news organization, but that does not mean the bit of news Latham has uncovered is any less significant. The interview with Eltahawy gives us a glimpse of the ideological struggle within Islam. From what I know, some argue that Islam never went through a reformation and others say Islam lacks a central authority figure akin to the Pope. Whatever it is, Islam is going to struggle with the issue of radical terrorism for some years to come.

Update: The Associated Press is carrying a story that says critics within the Muslim community in the United States are saying the “fatwa” condemning terrorism is too broad.

The fatwa condemning religious extremism recently issued by American Muslim groups was so broad it was meaningless, and should have denounced specific terrorist groups including al Qaeda, critics within the U.S. Muslim community say.

Critics also say the declaration seemed geared more toward improving the faith’s image rather than starting an honest discussion about Islamic teaching.

“The bulk of the Islamic tradition as it exists does stand against these lunatic, savage attacks on civilians,” said Omid Safi, a Colgate University religion professor and chairman of the Progressive Muslim Union, an American reform group.

Imagine that, a divide among Muslims over the issue of extremism.

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Dionne’s salute to a “good cop”

lapd retiredHave any of you taken up my challenge to read the David Shaw series on abortion coverage? (Rather quiet on the comments front, in light of this barrage.)

E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post is thinking along the same lines — that the best tribute to the work of the late David Shaw is to read the man’s reporting. After all, it was about detail, detail, detail and awesome research. Here is the abortion coverage section of Dionne’s tribute, under the headline “The Media’s Good Cop.” Shaw was

. . . celebrated by many and derided by some for a lengthy 1990 report showing — conclusively, I think — that “the news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.”

Shaw showed that abortion rights advocates “are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.” His conclusion “that abortion is essentially a class issue in the United States” and that reporters reflected an upper-middle-class bias applies across a broad range of other questions. I’d argue that this bias points the media to the right on economic issues. What matters here is that Shaw had the essential trait of the best press critics: He could almost always see through his own biases.

Shaw took a lot of grief for his abortion series, but don’t think he was somehow “anti-feminist.” In 1991 he wrote a series on how the gender of editors affected coverage of stories on sex. Women, he found, tended to favor greater candor in reports on rape, AIDS and the private lives of politicians — and he pointed to a shortage of female editors.

Note that dead-on Dionne reference to the MSM’s elite roots pointing it left on culture and right on economics. Amen, preach it. At least that is what this premodern populist thinks.

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The lawyer for the archbishop said what?

Please follow these instructions. Sit down. Click here. Read the story. Then click here just to confirm that this is not, in fact, a story from The Onion. This is, in fact, a report from the Los Angeles Times. Now read the story again and note that this is the rare opportunity to do what reporter William Lobdell has done — quote outraged Catholic traditionalists and progressives in the same story.

Once you have done all that that, click here. Now, get up off the floor.

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