USA Today offers faith-free look at meditation, stress

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Journalists who try to cover the life and teachings of Deepak Chopra always face the same question: How much ink should they dedicate to the debates about whether his fusion of Hinduism and science are secular or sacred? In other words, is this man a religious leader who is teaching specific doctrines or not?

The skeptics at Sceptic.com state the issue this way, coming from — obviously — a totally nonreligious perspective (as opposed to the views of Chopra critics within specific religious traditions):

The content of Chopra’s philosophy is often obscured by logical inconsistencies, but it is possible, nonetheless, to identify its key components. First, he views the body as a quantum mechanical system, and uses comparisons of quantum reality with Eastern thought to guide us away from our Western, Newtonian-based paradigms. Having accomplished that, he then sets out to convince us that we can alter reality through our perceptions, and admonishes us to appreciate the unity of the Universe. If we allow ourselves to fully grasp these lessons, Chopra assures us, we will then understand the force of Intelligence permeating all of existence — guiding us ever closer to fulfillment. Each component of this philosophy has serious flaws. …

So that is one side of the debate. There are also people who believe, in the end, that the heart of Chopra’s work is best understood in terms of, well, marketing and the sound of ringing cash registers.

Is it possible to write about Chopra and issues related to his phenomenal popularity without even mentioning its religious content?

I would argue “no.”

However, it appears that the editors of the USA Today business section would say that the answer is “yes,” and that market trends ultimately trump religious concerns (either pro or con). Here is the opening of a long news feature about current sales trends in stress reduction:

Deepak Chopra says he never feels stress.

He wakes up at 4 a.m. daily and meditates for two hours. Then, he writes for an hour before going to the gym. The famed 66-year-old holistic health guru takes no medicine. He’s never had surgery. And he’s never been hospitalized.

“This is embarrassing,” he says, “but I do not get stress.”

Even then, he has made millions off the unrelenting stresses from which the rest of us suffer — linking his name to everything from stress-busting techno gadgets to spiritual retreats. Few things, it seems, are more stressful, or expensive, than trying to shed stress.

This raises the obvious question: Does Chopra “meditate” for two hours in the morning or does he “pray” for two hours and, in his tradition, is it possible to draw an journalistically meaningful line between these two terms? More on that later.

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Yay! Dallas paper examines heart and soul

It’s becoming clear that The Dallas Morning News has no regard for the F-word.

Faith, that is.

I made that statement last month after the Texas newspaper allowed holy ghosts to haunt yet another major profile.

But I come today not to bury the Morning News, but to praise it: Apparently, somebody at the highest echelon of that newspaper reads GetReligion and decided to prove me wrong.

This was the headline at the top of the front page a week ago Sunday:

Healing with heart and soul

The 1,800-word story profiles Mark Pool, a heart surgeon who prays with patients. The lede:

At 83, Carl Smith found himself facing quadruple-bypass surgery and the real possibility that he might not survive.

Within hours on this spring morning, Dr. Mark Pool would temporarily bring Smith’s heart to a stop in an attempt to circumvent its blocked passages.

And to help his patient confront the uncertainty, Pool did something unusual in his profession: He prayed with him.

From there, the story (most of which is hidden behind a paywall) immediately presents the meaty nut graf:

The power of healing: Medicine and religion have both had their day, and they haven’t always been able to coexist. But as today’s medical treatment becomes more holistic, doctors are increasingly taking spirituality into account.

Studies show a majority of patients want their spirituality recognized, and most med schools now have classes related to the topic. In general, the new thinking asks doctors to note their patients’ spiritual leanings and open doors to expression, especially when life is at risk.

Now, if I’m the editor, I highlight “both had their day” and suggest that the writer come up with something less cliche.

By the “increasingly taking spirituality into account” sentence, I make a note: “How do you know this?” (In other words, I ask for attribution.)

And by the vague “studies show,” I demand to know which studies — or at least one. Give me some specific information about the study (or studies): Who did the study? When? Who did they study? What did they find? Etc. Etc. Etc.

But in general, I praise the reporter effusively for going behind the scenes and putting real human faces — the surgeon and the heart patient —  on a compelling religion, and medicine, story.

I compliment the fact that the story treats Pool’s faith with respect and gives him an opportunity to describe his beliefs and perspective while at the same time providing different points of view from other medical experts. This is what is known in some circles as JOURNALISM.

More from the story:

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About God and that best/frequent/satisfying sex report …

Every now and then, reseachers/activists in a think tank somewhere pull out a major study from the past, compare its data with that in similar studies and then announce a few specific conclusions in a press conference.

Most of the time they are fishing for headlines and sound bites.

All kinds of groups do this, both on the cultural left and the right. Frankly, this kind of meta-analysis often calls attention to research claims that are made over and over in smaller studies, yet somehow slip past news editors.

That’s what was going on this past week at the Family Research Council with that media event linked to, well, (place appropriate adjective here) sex.

The problem was that the results of this study of various studies were a bit too complex for a simple adjective. So far, the only major news story about the results that I have seen — in U.S. News and World Report — was topped by one of the most misleading headlines I have seen in quite a long time.

I guess someone just couldn’t resist writing the sexy headline:

Devout Catholics Have Better Sex, Study Says

Group presents data showing those who go to church weekly have most frequent, enjoyable sex

You can see the problem already, right? Does “best” equal “most frequent”? Who gets to define the term “enjoyable,” other than the folks doing the enjoying? You can see the headline-writing puzzle in the first few paragraphs of the story:

Devout, married Catholics have the best sex of any demographic group, the Family Research Council said at an event Wednesday, pointing to a collection of studies from the last several decades.

The socially conservative Christian group relied heavily on statistics from the University of Chicago’s last National Health and Social Life Survey, conducted in 1992, which found the most enjoyable and most frequent sex occurring among married people, those who attended church weekly — any church, whether Catholic or not — and people who had the least sexual partners.

“Those who worship God weekly have the best sex,” said Patrick Fagan, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a former George H.W. Bush official, in a talk hosted with the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education Wednesday. “I want to see this on the cover of Playboy sometime.”

The issue of frequent sex is one thing and the studies were able to report some specifics about that. The problem with this story, and especially with the headline, is that it took one of the more modest and logical conclusions of the report and tried to turn it into a zinger.

For, you see, the “Frequency of Current Religious Attendance” factor in these statistical charts was linked to a factor that was worded in this manner — “Percentage Who Feel Loved During Sexual Intercourse with Current Partner.”

Once again, it’s easy to see the problem in the headline mentioned earlier.

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Is the ‘New Evangelization’ a laughing matter?

In America there are two career fields that have a disproportionate number of agnostics and atheists: scientists and stand-up comedians.

At least that’s my impression. While surveys confirm that four-in-ten scientists (41 percent) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, the data on comedians is anecdotal and based entirely on my having watched way, way too many stand-up comedy specials.

While black and Hispanic comics often reference topics such as church-going, white comedians tend to only bring up religion when they are mocking believers. One notable exception is Jim Gaffigan, one of the whitest (or at least palest; he jokes that people wonder if one of his parents was a polar bear) and most successful comics in the country.

As the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein recently asked,

Is Jim Gaffigan technically employed by the Catholic Church?

The thought occurred to me in a week during which I saw the awesome Catholic comic speak in person and did some reporting about the church’s major new outreach effort it calls “the new evangelization.”

The sweeping campaign seeks to bring back the many millions of Catholics who have left the church and generally to re-imagine the entire concept of evangelizing, which is more typically associated with, well, evangelical Protestants. The new Catholic version is more subtle, highlighting Catholics who are just living out Catholic teachings and are happy as a result.

Let’s consider the question about Gaffigan being on the Vatican’s payroll by looking at one of his clips on Jesus and Christianity.

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At WPost, even local abortion crime isn’t newsworthy

On May 25, I tweeted out the image at the top of this post with the note “WaPo story about 12 of 16 surgical abortion clinics in MD having a variety of failures gets this headline?”

The headline was:

Md. abortion clinic lapses unrelated to patient death

The online headline might as well have been “nothing to see here, please move along, we’re covering this just so we can say we did” but was slightly better:

Md: ‘No deficiencies’ found in care of woman who died after abortion

If you did read the story, though, you learned that, like I said, 12 of 16 surgical abortion clinics in MD (aka 75%) had deficiencies. Four had been shut down. And apparently death after an abortion is something that just happens sometimes. If that’s true, I’d sure like a heck of a lot more incendiary headline than what the WashPost offered above. In a way, being told an abortion-related death is no big deal is more interesting than being told it is. Unless you’re a newspaper these days.

You might remember that the Washington Post‘s two earlier efforts at coverage of that death were, no joke, 1) multiple stories about how pro-lifers had raised awareness about the case, to their shame and 2) that her death was a “complication of childbirth.” Don’t believe me? Check out the posts “Mainstream media defense of abortion never rests” and “Water sipping and pro-life activism; a tale of media coverage.”

So the reporter just really downplays what could be written up in the more normal journalistic style. And this stuff happens so much and so frequently with coverage of a certain set of topics. Which topics? As tmatt wrote about that Bill Keller speech a few months back, social issues linked to religion:

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.”

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America’s hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That’s all.

The Post has begun speaking publicly about difficulties its staff has with this same type of coverage but I don’t think anyone would accuse them of trying to correct those problems.

Which brings us to an AP story I read in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined “4 Md. abortion clinics shut down, 3 docs suspended.” It begins:

WASHINGTON — Four affiliated abortion clinics in Maryland have been shut down and three doctors have had their licenses suspended after a patient died at one clinic and regulators found lax procedures at all four, according to documents filed online by two regulatory agencies.

The clinics in Baltimore, Cheverly, Frederick and Silver Spring were initially shut down in March. They were later allowed to reopen, but they were shut down again in early May after state regulators received a complaint about a patient who was given a drug used to induce abortions without a doctor present, according to documents posted online by the state Office of Health Care Quality, which regulates the clinics and ordered them to close.

The patient died following an abortion at the Baltimore clinic, regulators said in the documents. After undergoing the procedure on Feb. 13, the awake but “still very drowsy” woman was left in the care of an unlicensed medical assistant, during which time she experienced cardiopulmonary arrest.

Neither the doctor who had performed the abortion, Iris Dominy, nor the assistant used an automated external defibrillator on the patient, although Dominy attempted CPR, the regulators said. The woman died later at a hospital. A week later, regulators found that the defibrillator machine didn’t work, and the clinic employees hadn’t been trained on how to use it.

Dominy is one of the three doctors whose licenses were suspended, according to separate documents posted on the Web by the Maryland Board of Physicians.

Whoa whoa whoa!

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Normalizing nihilism: Euthanasia and the Daily Mirror

A story in Thursday’s Daily Mirror about the first English patient suffering from dementia to have traveled to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich to kill himself by physician assisted suicide has prompted several “me too” stories in the British press.

On Friday the TelegraphIndependentBBCDaily Mail and Times  followed the Daily Mirror’s lead and reported that an 83 year old man with early dementia had killed himself at Dignitas seven weeks ago.

The Sunday Times first reported this story in March, however the Daily Mirror splashed the story on their front page last week after it secured an exclusive interview with Michael Irwin, the head of the pro-euthanasia group Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS).

Irwin told the Mirror he had referred the man to a psychiatrist to provide him with a medical certificate stating he was of sound mind, and hence competent to kill himself. The 83 year old man was his first dementia patient he passed on to Dignitas, but he admits to having sent 24 others to their voluntary deaths in Switzerland.

From the point of view of journalism I find this story problematic — morally this is abhorrent. The article’s lede states:

A British man has become the first dementia sufferer to die at a controversial suicide clinic. The 83-year-old man ended his life at Dignitas in Switzerland because he could not face the agony of the progressive, incurable disease. He also wanted to spare those closest to him from any burden and strain his illness might put on them.

After reporting the facts of the death the Mirror presents its angle.

And last night one campaigner told how the pensioner was “so grateful at the end.” Retired GP Michael Irwin, 81, had arranged for him to see a psychiatrist to produce a report saying he was mentally competent.

Irwin is then offered his moment in the spotlight and he presents his ethical arguments in favor of physician assisted suicide. Prominent supporters of euthanasia give their say (Melvyn Bragg, Terry Pratchett, Lord Falconer) — though it is unclear whether these are comments in response to this incident or general statements about physician assisted suicide.

A contrary view is also offered:

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Protip: Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth

Did you hear about the anteater that conceived a baby even though she had no male mate around? I mean, she had a mate, but he was removed from her area longer than the six months required to gestate a baby anteater. Theories for how this miracle happened include the very non-miraculous idea that the mommy anteater and daddy anteater mated through a fence and the somewhat more mysterious idea that the pregnancy was paused or that implantation was somehow delayed.

So of course this is a made-for-media story. As you can see in the image to this post (or anywhere it went out online), some went with the “immaculate conception” approach. Which is, you know, weird, since the immaculate conception has nothing to do with conceiving a baby without the presence of the male.

The Atlantic Wire figured out its error and mildly tried to correct it by appending a note that they were only repeating other people’s errors and by putting quotes around ‘Immaculately Conceived’ as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

First, let’s discuss the religious teachings in play since this is a routine problem. From Wikipedia:

The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the Catholic Church maintaining that from the moment when she was conceived in the womb, the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free of original sin and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism.[1][2] It is one of the four dogmas in Roman Catholic Mariology. Mary is often called the Immaculata (the Immaculate One), particularly in artistic and cultural contexts.[3]

The Immaculate Conception should not be confused with the perpetual virginity of Mary or the virgin birth of Jesus; it refers to the conception of Mary by her mother, Saint Anne. Although the belief was widely held since at least Late Antiquity, the doctrine was not formally proclaimed until December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. It is not formal doctrine except in the Roman Catholic Church.[4] The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is observed on December 8 in many Catholic countries as a holy day of obligation or patronal feast, and in some as a national public holiday.

Not perfect, but you get the idea. The Immaculate Conception refers to what Roman Catholics teach about Mary being conceived without original sin. The Virgin Birth refers to what most Christians teach about the circumstances of Jesus’ conception. Great. Can we stop having this error, then?

Here’s the note the Atlantic Wire appended to the piece:

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Pod people: Define ‘fetus’ and give three examples

The first question I faced, in this week’s “Crossroads” interview, sounded relatively simple: Why did journalists struggle to use the word “fetus” accurately when covering the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell?

Like or not, I have had to pay a lot of attention to this issue in recent weeks. For those who have been off the planet during that time, click here for a recent look at The New York Times and its evolution on this topic.

But in this podcast, we went back to the beginning and tried to follow the logic of these arguments all the way through to the end.

You see, back in the days just before and just after Roe vs. Wade, journalists found themselves caught between two forms of language. On one side, on the moral left, there were people who wanted to use the term “fetus” whenever possible, in order to avoid talking about the selective termination of “babies,” “unborn children,” etc. Since surveys show that most journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, are pro-abortion rights, this can affect coverage.

Meanwhile, real people in the real world tend — when dealing with pregnancies — to use baby language. I mean, surely it is rare for someone to come home from the doctor waving an early ultrasound image and say, “Hey! Look at the first picture of our fetus (or perhaps grandfetus)!”

So what happens when you have a story in which two different groups of people — in direct and paraphrased quotations — using these two radically different forms of language? There is tension, to say the least.

I have seen stories in which it was clear that reporters, or editors, went out of their way to avoid direct quotes that included “baby” and “unborn child” language. The result? Paraphrased quotes that literally put fetus language into the mouths of people who didn’t use it.

And what is happening now?

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