LA Times offers a gentle, shallow Catholic health-care story

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I was encouraged, and a bit surprised, that the editorial team at The Los Angeles Times elected to cover the local White Mass honoring Catholics who work in health-care jobs, in Catholic hospitals and in other settings.

I was also happy, and surprised, that the story focused on the spiritual side of this story with several professionals talking about the degree to which it is natural to consider the needs of souls while attempting to heal the bodies of those who are suffering.

I was surprised, you see, that this story didn’t focus on some of the very real political conflicts that are currently threatening faith-based health institutions. Instead, the story offered — appropriately so — kind voices of pastoral experience that blended into the reporting like this:

An annual tradition since 2009, the event has outgrown several local churches that once hosted the mass. Sunday was the first time it was held at the cathedral.

“People think healthcare and God go together automatically, but work isn’t always a God-filled place,” said Kathleen Grelich, a physical therapist who attended the mass for the first time. “It’s nice to merge that here.”

Named for the white lab coats worn by many in the medical profession, the service is held around the Feast of St. Luke, the patron saint of healers. Archbishop José Gomez urged attendees to bring “God’s love and care to every person and patient” they meet to heal the body and spirit. He called healthcare professionals “apostles of love.” …

Worshipers, some wearing white coats, stood with their hands cupped in front of them while the Archbishop performed the “blessing of the hands” to pray for their strength, skill, sensitivity and steadiness.

So what is missing?

At first, I was happy that this story contained very little, if any, political content. However, the more I thought about that hole in the story the more troubled I became.

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Communion cup and infectious disease

How did he do it?

How did the Bishop of Fargo infect (possibly) hundreds of Catholics with hepatitis A? The Associated Press ran a story with the headline “North Dakota bishop exposes 100s to hepatitis A” but does not explain clearly to my liking what happened.

Is this a case of a reporter assuming a reader knows enough about the Eucharistic practices of the Catholic Church to know the potential vehicle for transmission of the virus? Or, does the reporter not know enough to flesh out the story.

The lede states:

The bishop of the Fargo Catholic Diocese exposed potentially hundreds of churchgoers in two North Dakota cities to the hepatitis A virus in late September and early October.

Let me pause here and point out what I see. We have the “who” the bishop; the “when” Sept/Oct; the “what”, transmission of hepatitis; and the “where”, Catholic churches. The “why” is explained further down the story — the bishop picked up the virus while in Italy and unwittingly was a carrier for several weeks as he experienced no obvious symptoms of illness. What is missing is the “how” —  How is this a Catholic story. Is the fact the carrier of the disease was a Catholic bishop essential the story or coincidental. And if so, “why”? The focus is on churchgoers — not the public at large who might have been in contact with the carrier.

The article goes on to share a warning from the state health department, offers a word or two about hepatitis, notes the places where the bishop led worship in Fargo and Jamestown, North Dakota, and notes the bishop has recovered from his illness.

We are given a quote –

“The risk of people getting hepatitis A in this situation is low, but the Department of Health felt it was important for people to know about the possible exposure,” State Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell said in a statement Thursday.

But what is this situation? The nearest we get is this.

Folda attended and participated in communion distribution at the Sept. 27 school mass at Holy Spirit Church in Fargo; the Sept. 29-Oct. 2 priest convention at St. James Basilica in Jamestown; the Oct. 6 noon mass at Cathedral of St. Mary in Fargo; and the Oct. 7 mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Newman Center in Fargo.

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Hey journalists: Please look up ‘fetus’ in a dictionary

Once again, let us return to the dictionary and ponder why some journalists in our age are having trouble using a basic scientific term that has become all too common in our news.

The word of the day is “fetus.” Look it up and you’ll find the following information or something close to it:

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es

… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

Now, GetReligion readers may recall that the word “fetus” became rather controversial during the trial of the infamous Dr. Kermit Gosnell. At the heart of that trial were debates about the accuracy of allegations made by Gosnell’s coworkers that he regularly delivered late-term “fetuses” (as many news reports said) alive and then killed them.

Of course, there’s the journalism issue — clear as day. Gosnell was not killing “fetuses,” because these children had already been delivered. With the snip of his scissors, he was killing, one after another, newborn babies. What part of “to the moment of birth” is so hard for some editors and reporters to grasp?

Clearly, language used in press reports was being shaped by larger debates about law, abortion, morality, religion and science. Religion? Yes. More on that in a minute.

I thought this mainstream-media argument ended with the Gosnell trial, when The New York Times tweaked its published reports on the trial.

Apparently not, as the still Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway recently tweeted:

And what did that language look like in the Associated Press report?

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Hey atheists, ‘Thank God you’re wrong’

As a reporter, I’m always amazed by how much I learn when I actually pick up the phone and talk to somebody.

As opposed to, say, relying on my vast personal knowledge (and Googling ability) and preparing a news report without ever making contact with a real, live human.

Speaking of which …

The New York Times had a story this week (at least I’m 95 percent sure it’s not supposed to be a column or news analysis) on a creationist organization targeting atheists with a billboard in Times Square. The peculiar thing is that the story quoted absolutely no one — except, strangely enough, for Pope Francis, who as far as I know has nothing to do with the billboard campaign.

It was difficult to tell if the Times wrote the story on deadline and didn’t have time to quote any humans or if the newspaper simply didn’t see a need to expand beyond the reporter’s own wisdom.

Alas, conjecture words such as “if,” “perhaps” and “seems” dominated the source-free story, starting at the top:

If the evangelical organization Answers in Genesis was looking to take its message to a secular audience, it would be hard to do better than the heart of Times Square at noon on Monday.

Wedged amid an advertisement urging revelers to take a trip to Atlantic City, promotions for the new CBS drama “Hostages” and a promotion from Google was a 15-second video directed at New York City’s atheists.

“To all of our atheist friends: Thank God you’re wrong,” the digital billboard blared on the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

As the lunchtime crowd passed by on the streets below, few gave it more than a passing glance, perhaps distracted by the frightening, blood-soaked photograph promoting the horror movie “Carrie” above the theater next door.

Or, perhaps, religious billboard battles between believers and nonbelievers just do not have the punch they once did.

My basic reaction to the story: Ho-hum, with a heavy dose of “So what?”

The only reason I even bring up the Times story is because CNN’s Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi took the same scenario and produced a meaty religion story — in large part because he actually quoted key figures such as the head of the Young Earth creationism group behind the billboard:

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, said the idea for the advertisements came from an atheist billboard in Times Square at Christmas.

During the holidays, the American Atheists put up a billboard with images of Santa Claus and Jesus that read: “Keep the Merry, dump the myth.”

“The Bible says to contend for the faith,” Ham said. “We thought we should come up with something that would make a statement in the culture, a bold statement, and direct them to our website.

“We’re not against them personally. We’re not trying to attack them personally, but we do believe they’re wrong,” he said.

“From an atheist’s perspective, they believe when they die, they cease to exist. And we say ‘no, you’re not going to cease to exist; you’re going to spend eternity with God or without God. And if you’re an atheist, you’re going to be spending it without God.’ “

And yes, Marrapodi quoted the other side, too:

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NYTimes reverts to using vague labels in Texas science war

It’s time for a GetReligion post linked to press coverage of biology, textbooks, God and Texas. Before I jump into the fine details, I’d like to make two observations.

First of all, since my goal is to discuss a story in The New York Times, it is important to note that stories about this topic fall under former editor Bill Keller’s proclamation that the world’s most powerful newspaper no longer feels obligated to offer balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides of moral, cultural and religious issues. You may recall that, two years ago, Keller was asked if his newsroom slanted news to the left.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.” …

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.”

My second preliminary statement is this: I’ve been following press coverage of debates about religion and science for 40 years and my primary journalistic observation remains the same. I think the committee that produces the Associated Press Stylebook needs to urge mainstream journalists to be more careful when using the words “evolution” and “creationism.” Each of those terms has a half dozen or so finely tuned definitions, depending on who is using them at any given moment.

For example, a person who accepts a creation narrative with a “young earth” and a timeline with seven 24-hour days will certainly embrace the creationist label. But what about a person who believes that creation unfolded over billions of years, involved slow change over time, a common tree of descent for species and ages of micro-evolutionary change?

Similar things happen with the term evolution, which as the Blessed Pope John Paul II once observed, is best discussed in terms of different schools of evolutionary thought, some of which are compatible with Christian faith and some of which are not (addressing those who believe that man was the product of a process that did not have Him in mind).

The word “evolutionist” certainly applies to someone who believes life emerged from a natural, materialistic, random process that was without design or purpose. But what about someone who accepts that theory on the biological front, but believes that there is scientific evidence that our universe was finely tuned to produce life? What about someone who says that creation contains evidence best thought of as the signature of its creator (Carl Sagan, for example). What about people who insist they are doctrinaire Darwinists, but still see cracks in the old neo-Darwinian creeds? Are “theistic evolutionists” really believers in “evolution” in the eyes of the truly secular academic powers that be? And so forth and so on.

This brings us to the recent Times piece about the ongoing textbook battles in the Lone Star state.

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Dawkins talks 2.0, and Anglicans just can’t catch a break

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There he goes, there he goes again.

At the moment, the Rt. anti-Rev. Richard Dawkins is — logically enough — in full-tilt, set-on-stun PR mode for his new book, “An Appetite for Wonder: the Making of a Scientist.” The goal is to make headlines and move volumes and, as the old saying goes, a headline is a headline.

You may remember that big-headline story the other day, the one in which one of the world’s most famous atheist evangelists said he thought that recent scandals linked to the sexual abuse of children had been overblown and that he found it hard to condemn the “the mild pedophilia” — his term — that he experienced as a child while in school in England.

In my earlier post, I asked if this statement was automatically a “religion story” and, if so, why didn’t journalists ask other atheists what they thought of his stance on this issue.

That was then. Now Dawkins has spoken out again, this time on his views about the role of the Church of England in British culture and, strangely enough, in his own life as an atheist. The bottom line: With friends like Dawkins, the Anglican prelates really don’t need enemies.

Here’s the headline in The Telegraph, riffing on quotes drawn from The Spectator:

Richard Dawkins admits he is a ‘cultural Anglican.’

And a few of the key paragraphs, with the elements of British newspaper style left intact:

Prof Dawkins admitted he would consider going into a church, and would miss ‘aesthetic elements’ such as church bells if they were gone. And he said he was “grateful” to Anglicanism which he claims has a “benign tolerance” — enabling people to enjoy its traditions without necessarily believing in them.

He told the Spectator: “I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do … I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green.

“I have a certain love for it.”

Now, this time around there is no question that we are dealing with a religion-beat story. Right?

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And now, a newsworthy word from the Rt. anti-Rev. Dawkins

First things first.

Wait just a minute: Richard Dawkins said what?!?

By way of a news story from Religion News Service, readers learn:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) – Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s best-known and outspoken atheists, has provoked outrage among child protection agencies and experts after suggesting that recent child abuse scandals have been overblown.

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

OK, after the shock of reading that, several questions popped into my rapidly aging brain.

Please understand that my first question in no way should be seen as a slight on the Religion News Service piece itself, which is basic, solid daily news reporting. No immediate journalistic complaints.

However, after reading the piece, am I the only one who wondered precisely what the religion angle was in this story?

Let’s think about that for a moment.

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A Scottish tabloid libels the Churches of Christ

Tabloids will always be with us. Few will admit to taking Jesus-shaped potato chips, astrology, Elvis and UFO sightings and Kardashian stories printed by The National Enquirer, the Star, The Globe, the National Examiner and the Weekly World News seriously — but American Media Inc. does quite well for itself by feeding the guilty pleasures of the American public.

The New York Daily News, the New York Post and similar newspapers are tabloids of a different sort. They are written in a simple and sensational style — compared to the “quality” newspapers or broadsheets like The New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal — and give more prominence to celebrities, sports and crime than their staid sisters.

A divide exists also in Britain between quality tabloids like the Daily Express and Daily Mail (some will no doubt choke over the appellation “quality”) and the down market “red tops.” Sharing a common red nameplate, the British red tops like The Sun, the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Record and the Daily Sport are more akin to the Daily News/Post than The National Enquirer in that while they too have horoscopes and celebrity gossip, they also report the news of the day — with naked girls on page 3.

But they also have a well-deserved reputation for bile and have earned the sobriquet the “gutter press.” Take this story in the Glasgow-based Daily Record entitled “Parents’ outrage as extremist US religious cult hand out creationist books and preach to kids at Scottish school.”

From start to finish, this article is junk. Not only is it junk, it sets out to be malicious. Below the over-the-top title appears a disturbing photo with this caption: “Face-painted Jared Blakeman is one of the ‘missionaries’ that has been in classrooms at the school.”

The article opens:

HORRIFIED parents fear an extremist religious sect has been trying to brainwash their kids after it was allowed to infiltrate a Scots primary school.

A head teacher invited the US Church of Christ, which rubbishes evolution and counts homosexuality as a sin, to minister to pupils. The “missionaries” at the school include face-painted Jared Blakeman, pictured in a T-shirt with the slogan AIM — short for “Adventures in Mission”.

Many parents at 400-pupil Kirktonholme Primary in East Kilbride only realised their children were being exposed to the evangelical group’s agenda when kids brought home alarming books they had been handed at assembly. The creationist books, defended by head teacher Sandra MacKenzie, denounce the theory of evolution and warn pupils that, without God, they risk being murdered in a harmful, disgusting world.

Parents have called for emergency talks with education chiefs, where they will demand the sect’s removal from the school.

The story continues in this line for another few hundred words in a style reminiscent of Der Stürmer. Substitute “Jews” for “Church of Christ,” and with this article alleging secretive sects seeking to destroy the pure Scottish race through their pernicious doctrines, you have a story straight out of 1930′s Germany.

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