Same as it ever was: It’s time for a new, old GetReligion

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You know that whole Christmas in July thing, when stores and other groups have fun by, well, pretending that it’s Christmas, only in the month of July?

That is kind of what is going on here today. Kind of.

The big news is that GetReligion.org is going back to being GetReligion.org — period. This website has, over the past decade or so, gone through three basic transformations in its platform and layout and now we are headed into No. 4.

We are returning to our status as an independent website that wrestles with issues of religion-beat coverage in the mainstream press, linked to The Media Project and, in a process that will evolve over the next year, to my future classroom work with The King’s College in New York City. The key institution at that prime lower-downtown location is the college’s new John McCandlish Phillips Institute, which is led by a New York City journalist named Paul Glader, who is justifiably well-known for his years of hard-news work with The Wall Street Journal. If you are not familiar with the byline of the late and very great New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips, please click here and then here.

The key to this fourth GetReligion move is that we are, first and foremost, a journalism website — as opposed to being a site that fosters dialogues and debates (valid ones, at times) about religion and religious issues. As such, our turf is rather different than the many excellent blogs that have flourished here in the digital universe called Patheos. We think it is time to link up with projects, old and new, dedicated to journalism education.

So what does this have to do with the Christmas in July image?

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Let me explain.

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Wait? Who is calling who an ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’?

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Bravo and a big amen to Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom for a crisp bit of religion-label dissection work about a New York Times report that’s been creating buzz among GetReligionistas past and present (and future) the past 24 hours or so.

Eckstrom, who last time I checked does not carry an official right-wing identification card, noted in one of those essential RNS morning listserv notes:

Where on God’s green earth …

Religious advocates were out in full force here in DC the past two days, testifying in support of proposed EPA rules to cut down on carbon pollution. The NYT describes them as “conservative.” Looking at the list of speakers, I’m not totally sure I’d agree.

Right, right! I mean, left.

What’s he talking about? Here’s a crucial chunk of that Times report:

The E.P.A. on Wednesday ended two days of public hearings on its proposed regulation to cut carbon pollution from power plants, and mixed in with the coal lobbyists and business executives were conservative religious leaders reasserting their support for President Obama’s environmental policies — at a time when Republican Party orthodoxy continues to question the science of climate change.

More than two dozen faith leaders, including evangelicals and conservative Christians, spoke at the E.P.A. headquarters in Washington by the time the hearings ended.

“The science is clear,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, the senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners, an evangelical organization with a social justice focus. “The calls of city governments — who are trying to create sustainable environments for 25, 50 years — that’s clear.”

OK, there is a very real sense in which many would call Sojourners an “evangelical” group, in large part because — as GetReligion has been saying for a decade-plus — the word “evangelical” has almost no (preach it, Billy Graham) specific doctrinal content in this day and age.

But would anyone, anywhere, call Sojourners or Sojourners — the magazine or the activist group — “conservative”? On what planet?

Reading on for more tone-deaf labeling:

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AP finally spikes infamous Nazi Christian Youth (not) photo

It took a while, but the final shoe dropped the other day in the mysterious case of those — What did Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher call them? — Nazi Christian Youth in a church in North Richland Hills, Texas.

I am referring, of course, to that Associated Press photo what showed a group of Train Life boys standing in a circle singing the song “Taps.” It’s an old end-of-the-day Scouting tradition and it involves a symbolic, sun-setting gesture, too.

Alas, the original AP cutline missed, or hid, that fact:

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 2, 2014 AND THEREAFTER — In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 photo, Trail Life members form a circle and recite the organization’s creed during meeting in North Richland Hills, Texas. Trail Life USA, the new Christian-based alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, excludes openly gay members. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

A later cutline, used by the San Jose Mercury News, helped a bit:

In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 photo, Trail Life members move their arms as they sing “Taps” in a circle during a meeting in North Richland Hills, Texas. Trail Life USA, the new Christian-based alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, excludes openly gay members. (LM Otero/AP)

So what is the problem, readers might ask (if they have not been following this story)?

Click here to see the photo in question, complete with what appears to be a salute, shall we say, drawn from World War II-era Germany.

As I wrote in a post the other day:

Isn’t it amazing that journalists at the Associated Press decided to focus on this precise and rather dangerous — in terms of negative symbolic content — moment in the arc of those slowly descending young arms? What a coincidence!

Or perhaps this was an innocent mistake.

Apparently, folks at AP have decided that something did, in fact, go wrong in the editorial process — somewhere.

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Mysterious role of religion in Newsweek resurrection?

It’s hard to miss the religious zinger in this passage from a New York Times article about the return of Newsweek to ink-and-paper reality after its quiet existence in cyberspace ever since that famous final cover.

This isn’t very subtle.

Etienne Uzac, 30, and Johnathan Davis, 31, founders of IBT Media, believed they could recreate Newsweek as a vibrant and profitable web-only magazine. But now, having tripled Newsweek’s online traffic, they plan to punctuate the magazine’s comeback by turning on the printing presses again. Hard copies are expected to hit newsstands on Friday.

Break out the banner headline: Newsweek Is Back From the Dead!

Now is that just an over-the-top metaphor or are the editorial troops at the great Gray Lady trying to tell us something?

A former GetReligionista send the URL in the end of the article highlighted. More on that in a minute.

It seems to me, after reading that passage, that there are several GetReligion-related questions implied.

* What kind of religion coverage can readers expect to see in the resurrected newsweekly, both online and in print?

* Will the magazine staff include a trained, talented Godbeat specialist? Lord knows there are plenty of talented folks — young and old — available at the moment.

* Might the religious content of the renewed publication be influenced by the professional and personal backgrounds of the new owners?

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Yo, Globe: Why settle for fog when you have a better option?

So I had a meeting the other day with a former GetReligionista and, within minutes, the topic of the conversation turned to a subject many religion-beat professionals (past, present and future) have been discussing in recent weeks: Now that the folks who run The Boston Globe have John L. Allen, Jr., what precisely are they going to do with him?

In a way, this is a variation on one of the big questions looming over our age, journalistically speaking.

At the heart of the debate is an agonizing economic equation that is driving many old-school journalists crazy: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive. Some people word the second half of that equation differently: Opinion is cheap; reporting is expensive. The end result is usually the same, as far as I am concerned. And, of course, freelance opinion is the cheapest option of all. We’ve been on this foggy road (yes, that fog) for quite some time now.

Allen, of course, is a great reporter whose years of work — while at the liberal National Catholic Reporter — was taken seriously because he relentlessly provided waves of new information from high-quality voices on all sides of Catholic debates at the local, regional, national and global levels. He was working at a publication with an obvious point of view, but he kept producing real reporting, even in his columns and works of analysis.

Now Allen is at the Globe, which is a mainstream newspaper that, one can only hope, remains committed to coverage built on the classic American model of the press, with journalists striving (yes, often imperfectly) to achieve high standards of accuracy, balance and fairness. Some professionals continue to use the word “objectivity” with a straight face. However, the Globe team has also talked about starting its own online publication about Catholic news, period. What approach would that start-up use?

Allen has started work and is producing a wide range of material. I thought his mini-feature on the style of Pope Francis — which was for some reason labeled “analysis” — was especially delightful, as a quick overview of symbolic details that add up to a larger whole.

The headline: “New reality in Vatican: Surprise, it’s the pope!” Basically, the idea is that it’s getting harder to predict where Pope Francis will, literally, show up. Here is a key slice:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a member of a Vatican council that oversees the Synod of Bishops, a summit of Catholic prelates from around the world. The council meets every so often in a building a few blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica, and the practice has been that it passes conclusions to a papal aide without getting face time with the boss.

In October, however, Francis decided to walk down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad Roman street leading away from the basilica, to join one of their meetings. It was an act akin to the President of the United States heading over to Congress to sit in on a meeting of a House committee – i.e., something almost inconceivable to anyone accustomed to the usual protocol.

Francis spent six hours over two days with the council. Aside from his presence, what struck members was the informality of his approach.

“He came over like it was just another day at the office, with his lunch box,” Dolan said. “We couldn’t believe it.”

And this, too:

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10 years of GetReligion: Arne’s view from 10,000 feet

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Dr. Arne H. Fjeldstad is a veteran journalist who worked at a variety of mainstream Norwegian newspapers and then as a publisher in Egypt and North Africa. He is also a Lutheran pastor and has a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He leads The Media Project, which includes GetReligion.

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Mainstream media is up for a big challenge in the coming years. Nope, I am not talking new technology, lack of finances for print media and rapidly declining numbers of readers both for magazines and the daily newspaper. Or any other of the many rapid changes in media reality today. I am talking about the challenge of a paradigm shift in mainstream media.

Possibly the challenge is even greater in Europe (where I live when I am not on the road or in an airplane at 10,000 feet) but also US media as well as many media elsewhere in the world will need to change their attitude and policy. Start focusing for new ways to meet the growing demands for real knowledge about the world, the society and the neighborhood. Real knowledge that will include knowledge about history, culture and religion. Yes, religion.

Religion will be the key to the ongoing paradigm shift. It’s all about religion and the impact of faith in any culture, in any country or region of the world. The challenge for any news media is to “get religion.” Understand its impact — good and bad. Simply because religious faith, religious culture and religious history again and again are the key to understand why news happens.

“We are at the end of the secularist era. The New Religious Era is upon us,” says the British expert on religion and media, Dr. Jenny Taylor who runs Lapido Media in the United Kingdom. Great Britain is home to a conglomerate of faiths and cultures with the Anglican church in sharp decline and a growth of postmodern and post-postmodern spirituality. They are facing a rapidly changing society and a changing culture as well. Religion is starting to play a crucial role. Tayor adds:

“Religion is trendy. (Not Christianity of course. Not church. Perish the thought.) But any shaven-headed sociologist with an ear-ring, any hijabbed and articulate ‘outreach worker,’ any multi-faith professional in fact will look oddly at you if you mention the traditional reticence of the British about faith. Good grief. Even the leader of the English Defence League is ‘taking religious instruction’ from the sheikh — Usama Hasan — who runs Quilliam Foundation.”

The new religious era is still at its beginning and will need to fight its way through the minds of people and into the newsrooms.There is a lot of “old beliefs” still present in the minds of very intelligent, highly educated and tech savvy journalists in the West. They are in for a surprise — and a challenge.

Dr. Stewart M. Hoover (click for .pdf) expresses the “old faith” of media professionals in these words:

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Pod people: Russell Wilson, ghosts, 10 years of GetReligion

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Let’s do this one backwards.

In a perfect world, the easy way to do mainstream news criticism is to find a really bad example of a problem and then, a few days later, find an example of an equally important news outlet that managed to do the story right.

In this case, we are talking about one of those GetReligion ghosts, a religion angle woven into a major news story — yet missed by reporters and editors working on the story. For the past 10 years, spotting ghosts has been one of the primary duties of your GetReligionistas.

Hours before the Super Bowl, I posted an item praising the ESPN.com team for a feature story about the life, work and faith of Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson. Thanks, by the way, to the 20,000-plus readers who passed that post along in social media.

First of all, the creators of this story did the obvious, which is discuss the connections between Wilson’s Christian faith — which he talks about all of the time — and his life on and off the gridiron, focusing on his behind-the-scenes work as a real volunteer in a children’s hospital. That was the easy ghost to spot, one that 99 percent of the people writing profiles of Wilson (and the influence of his late father) manage to see.

However, in addition to that almost non-ghost ghost, the ESPN team went deeper and touched on a more subtle question: How are folks in the highly secular Pacific Northwest, in Seattle the Mecca of the so-called “nones,” handling the fact that this new Seahawk hero is a young, charismatic, African-American evangelical?

Now, I didn’t think ESPN nailed down that angle of the story, but I was impressed that this elite newsroom raised the question and made the attempt.

So three cheers. High fives all around.

As it turns out, that post on the ghosts in the Wilson story was where “Crossroads” podcast host Todd Wilken wanted to start out this week in our conversation. Click here to tune that in.

That’s where we started, but that isn’t where we ended up.

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The Guardian: Ridiculing the saints, the Virgin and prayer

Why do we fight? Why do we write? What motivates our editor tmatt and the team at GetReligion to do what we do?

For me, as I expect it is for my colleagues, it is the love of the game. To showcase the best examples of the craft of journalism — while chiding those that fall short.

I began to follow GetReligion shortly after it went online in 2004. I was a professional acquaintance of one of its co-founders, Doug LeBlanc and a long time admirer of his work and that of the editor, Terry Mattingly. Their call to improve the craft (not police it as some critics have charged) resonated with me. When I joined three years ago I was honored by their invitation and the opportunity to participate in their work by looking at the English, European and overseas press.

I was tasked with looking at stories such as this one from last week’s Guardian entitled: “Spanish government questioned over claims of divine help in economic crisis”, with an eye towards applying the standards of classical Anglo-American journalism to the story, as well as offering American readers a window into the British and European press world.

Critics often charge The New York Times and other American newspapers with spinning the news to advance the interests of a particular party or interest group. Advocacy journalism, as it is called, violates the tenets of classical liberal journalism which rejects overt politicking. The reporter’s role is to establish the facts and let them dictate how the story is written.

European advocacy style reporting draws upon a different intellectual tradition. “All history is contemporary history,” idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce said — history exists but only in the present tense.

In this school the past has reality only in the mind of the author.

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