WWROD? Hang out with the GetReligionistas team

Ask any religion-news professional to list the top reporters on the beat in the late 20th Century and Richard Ostling will be right near the top.

That’s why, very early in the history of this blog, your GetReligionistas started suggesting that — when facing tough issues about how to cover religion in an accurate and balanced manner — journalists should ask this not-so-simple question: What Would Richard Ostling Do?

For newcomers to this terrain, Ostling was the religion-beat pro at Time magaizne, back in the days when it was a gold standard in weekly hard-news reporting at the national and especially global levels. From there, he went to the top religion slot at the Associated Press. He is retired now, but still active in religion-news circles as a writer and consultant.

Last fall, Ostling started writing a Patheos blog called “Religion Q and A” and he explained his goals like this:

Most features on Patheos are opinionated, faith-specific (Buddhist, Catholic, Pagan) … whereas mine will be non-partisan and journalistic in approach and cover wide-ranging topics.

We’ll be asking folks in cyberspace to send in questions regarding any and all faiths, any Scriptures, current church-state and religion-politics issues, moral quandaries and other such puzzlements and curiosities. If I’m able, I’ll post an answer with others then welcome others to add comments.

From the beginning, there has been quite a bit of GetReligion-esque material at Ostling’s blog — a trend that he welcomed and we welcomed.

Stop and think about it. It’s understandable that lots of people have lots of questions about topics they keep seeing in religion-news coverage. Thus, we have linked to quite a few Ostling posts here at GetReligion.

And now there will be more.

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So long, GetReligion

It was about eight years ago exactly when I surprised Terry Mattingly by shouting his name as I encountered him on the street. His visage was familiar to me because I’d grown up reading him in “the Rocky” — the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado. My parents had always encouraged my siblings and me to read the newspapers and I devoured both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News every day. Front page to last page. I was interested in journalism from a young age, starting a newspaper at my elementary school and eventually editing the Yearbook at my high school in my junior and my senior year.

But for some odd reason, I never thought of journalism as an actual way to earn a living. I studied economics and headed into a different career field. But all of my journalist friends were having so much fun, even if they didn’t make a lot of money. I asked for advice and then took the plunge, somehow faking good enough Spanish-language skills to get a job at Radio & Records (and its sister publication Radio y Musica). One job led to another and I was living the dream — covering the federal bureaucracy on the waste, fraud and mismanagement beat for a Gannett publication.

I wanted to be writing about things that really mattered, though. Mostly that meant baseball, but also economics. And religion. Like most people, I’m religious. And while I loved reading a good news story about religion, I couldn’t believe how poorly much of the media covered religion news. The laughable mistakes, the complete distortion of doctrine, the hostility. So when GetReligion launched in 2004 or so, I was an early reader. I learned so much. It helped me develop a critical eye — an important first step to becoming a good writer.

By the time I chased Terry Mattingly down the street in 2005, I had begun writing about religion in my freelance time. I found that editors were actually quite anxious to pay people to write reported pieces on news and responded well to informed writers.

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A more graceful Ross joins GetReligion crew

Some folks get annoyed when they read a news story with holes, a piece with errors, prose with pockmarks. Me? I see it as an opportunity to learn and to teach. And when there’s nothing to fix, when all angles are covered and no questions remain by the ending, I rejoice and join in the celebration of good journalism. Everyone wins!

That’s part of why GetReligion captivates me, and it’s a big reason why I’m thrilled by the opportunity to join this stellar group of religion news hounds.

I’ve been reading this site for years, since my husband Bobby Ross Jr. turned me on to its efforts to shine a bright light on the dimly lit ghosts of secular religion coverage. I’ve always thought the Almighty has a sense of humor, and the commentary here affirms that for me. I love journalism, too, and that’s what this blog is all about.

Besides loving a good laugh, though, who am I really? A good friend calls me Jobette, the feminine form of the Bible’s most prolific yet long-suffering man. I think that’s much better that being called Sarah/Sarai, though, because that wing of the house is firmly closed.

I ended my 20-year career in journalism in 2012 after a trio of as-yet-untamable autoimmune diseases made it impossible to stay vertical for even moderate periods of time, much less type, travel or transcribe notes. During my byline years, however, I worked as religion editor for The Oklahoman, promoted up from copy editor and assistant features editor. I’ve also done freelance work for The Associated Press and United Methodist News Service. My most recent gig was with The Christian Chronicle, which truly was a homecoming for me, as I interned there during my college years at Oklahoma Christian University.

I ended my 43-year career as my mother’s favorite (and only) daughter just three weeks ago after she suffered a massive heart attack and died 48 hours later. I sat with my dad in a different heart hospital three days after her memorial service and listened as he described for doctors numbness, tingling and pain I had never heard about before. (My own ticker seems to be keeping excellent time at the moment, in spite of its brokenness.)

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Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes again, here in GetReligion land

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All together now, GetReligion readers.

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through …

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the stranger)
Ch-ch-Changes
Pretty soon you’re gonna get
a little older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time

GetReligion has faced some major changes in its nearly 10 years of cyber-life, but nothing like what we’ll be going through this month.

Alas, I am not talking about changes in technology or format. I’m talking about changes on our masthead, in terms of the writers whose work you follow here day after day.

For starters, Joe Carter is already out the door — after taking a social-media job with the Washington, D.C., office of, well, a really ginormous faith-based flock. He cannot discuss the details for another week or two, when the new post will formally be announced. His work with us ended Sept. 1. He has been a crucial player for us on a wide variety of issues, including social media.

But the big news is that the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway — she of the 2,016, and counting, GetReligion posts over the past eight years — has accepted a full-time reporting, editing and commentary position with a major online news website that literally has yet to be announced. Thus, she cannot share all of the details of her new gig with us until the launch in a week or so.

I don’t quite know how to describe the force-of-nature role that MZ has created for herself here at GetReligion and in social media — so I won’t even try. The word “omnipresent” leaps to mind (especially on Twitter).

Mollie will write her own farewell post at the end of the month (she’s writing in a limited role all of September). At this point, I will simply stress that her name will remain on our masthead for a simple reason: How can you read all of the interlocked posts she has produced here through the years (posts to which I am sure people will continue to link) without people being able to find an online reference on this site that says who she is?

Plus, we hope that her new employer will — once the site is up and rolling — allow her to come back to GetReligion in a much smaller role than her current daily posting role. I am saying that she is on extended leave.

So how in the world do you replace people like MZ and Joe?

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What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

What kind of religious divisions at the heart of the violence?

Well, how many of you out in GetReligion reader land have seen the following Associated Press report in your local newspaper, a national newspaper or your favorite news (as opposed to analysis) website? You would have seen a headline that looked something like this: “Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village.” A shout out to CBS, by the way, for at least covering that event online.

Anyway, all of that is to point readers toward a long, deep piece that ran the other day at the CNN Belief Blog, written by co-editor Daniel Burke, under this rather remarkable headline, in the current media climate: “Syria explained: How it became a religious war.” Here’s the top of the story:

(CNN) – How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?

In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.

Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.

Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other “infidels” and “Satan’s army.”

“That is why it has become so muddy,” said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The theological question has returned to the center.”

So who is crying out that the key to the rising conflict is religion? That would be the United Nations.

Why does that matter so much?

Religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes, according to studies. They are also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

“People hold onto religious fights longer than battles over land and water,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, an expert on foreign policy at Georgetown University and a 10-year veteran of the U.S. State Department. “It becomes existential and related to belief in a higher calling.”

Some combatants in Syria appear to believe that fighting in the name of God justifies the most barbaric measures.

Remember that video of a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier while shouting “God is great!”? Or the other video showing the beheading of three men with butcher knives, also while praising God?

Of course, as CNN accurately notes, the ruling regime has been just as brutal in many cases. However, one complication — yes, captured in the CNN report — is that Syrian troops are often the only forces that are standing between tiny, in many cases defenseless, religious minorities and the elements of the rebel forces that can accurately be called Islamist and, in some cases, linked to al Qaeda.

So who are the other players on this sectarian chess board?

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Kudos for Quartz’s coverage of business and religion

“Business is religion, and religion is business,” said Maltbie Babcock. “The man who does not make a business of his religion has a religious life of no force, and the man who does not make a religion of his business has a business life of no character.”

While few people today would completely agree with the 19th-century Presbyterian preacher, business and religion are indeed closely tied together. This connection, though, remains largely unexamined by major media outlets. It’s refreshing to find, then, a new publication that has already done an impressive job of showing how to adequately cover the intersection of religion and business.

Quartz, a “digitally native news outlet” owned by the publisher of The Atlantic, bills itself as a site for “business people in the new global economy.” Recently, they ran an article explaining why Chrysler’s .Ram domain “might just offend a billion people.”

At the most recent meeting of the GAC in Durban last week, India again made clear (pdf) its discomfort with the idea of a .ram domain name. To many outside India, this is baffling. Why does India care about a line of pick-up trucks named for a male sheep?

The objection arises from an unfortunate homonym: Ram, pronounced with a long “a,” is also the name of one of Hinduism’s chief gods. “What if someone registers a domain name such as http://www.sex.ram? It could create a lot of communal tension in the country,” a government official told the Business Standard newspaper. India has argued that under the nation’s laws, trademarks can be denied if they stand to hurt religious sentiments.

The argument might sound disingenuous, but Indians often lose their collective sense of humor when it comes to matters of religion. Moreover, Ram is also a politically sensitive issue. In 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque claiming that it was the birthplace of Lord Ram. The act led to weeks of Hindu-Muslim violence across India, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.

In three brief paragraphs, Leo Mirani puts the religious, business, and political implications in a helpful context for those of us unfamiliar with Eastern religious concerns.

Another Quartz feature, published on the same day as the .Ram article, explains how “Buddhist monks are buying into Thailand’s new religion: consumerism.”
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Snickering at FoxNews while getting duped by ‘Zealot’ author

Many of us who came of age during the birth of New Media are reflexively defensive about the medium’s journalistic credibility. We defy the outdated notion that real journalism is printed on paper or broadcast on TV screen. Quality journalism is as likely to be found on a blog as in a newspaper or in a web video as on a cable news channel.

At least that’s the theory.

The reality is that much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is substandard. A prime example can be found in both an interview on FoxNews.com online show Spirited Debate and the New Media responses to it.

Before we get to a clip of the show, let’s look at some of the reactions. The Atlantic Wire says the “whole ordeal was embarrassing for Fox News” while Buzzfeed called it “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.” “This Fox interview with Reza Aslan is absolutely demented (& he handled it with remarkable calm)” said The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Wired’’s Steve Silberman called the interview “embarrassing” and Digg editorial director David Weiner said, “Please, please watch this if you haven’t yet. It’s amazing.”

These critics are right about the interview — it is a mess. But while these New Media journalists were snickering at FoxNews.com, they failed to notice that the person being interviewed was pulling one over on them by getting away with misrepresenting his credentials.

Here is a representative clip from the segment.

The first question by host Lauren Green on why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus isn’t as out of line as the Fox critics seem to think. It’s a fair question — a softball question — that allows the interviewee to explain away any apparent bias. But Green should have moved on after asking it and not made Aslan’s religious background the primary focus of the interview. More importantly, if she had been better prepared she could have called Aslan out for at least one blatant and seemingly undeniable untruth.

After being asked the first question by Green, Aslan responds:

Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” Later in the video he says it’s his job as a “professor of religion including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” And to make sure we get the point, he later adds, “I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.

At this point, Green should have stopped him and asked him to clarify since he appears to be misrepresenting his credentials.

For starters, he does not have a PhD in the history of religions. Aslan has four degrees: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara (his dissertation was on “Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement”).

Why would Aslan claim he has a PhD in history when his degree is in sociology? Does he not understand the difference between the two fields of study?

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Intrigue in the wide, wide world of the religion-news beat?

For several days now, I have been very curious about an item related to mainstream journalism work on the religion-news beat.

The following appeared in the online column by Dr. Debra Mason of the world-famous University of Missouri School of Journalism, who is also the executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association of America.

The state of the religion beat in mainstream newsrooms is a subject of great concern at GetReligion.org, for obvious reasons. Since day one, one of the major themes here is that — while it’s always possible to argue about issues of content, balance, etc., — the simple fact of the matter is that reporting on the religion beat is almost always 90-plus percent better on average when it is handled by professionals with experience and training covering this highly complex topic.

Don’t get me wrong. There is fabulous work done on topics linked to religion by a wide variety of reporters who take the subject seriously. All of that fantastic work at The New Yorker by the great feature writer Peter J. Boyer leaps to mind. Ditto for the work of veteran foreign correspondent Pamela Constable of The Washington Post.

Still, the wise editor strives to improve work on the religion beat by treating it like politics, science, sports, arts or any other serious news topic worthy of respect. A key part of that is seeking and hiring reporters who have demonstrated excellence on covering the beat in question — like religion.

So the state of the religion beat and the state of the tribe of religion-beat professionals is crucial. The state of the RNA is one piece of that puzzle.

That’s why Mason’s column — posted for RNA members — is so interesting.

It’s a good news/bad news letter. For example, there’s this:

Some of you may not know that earlier this year, a group of journalism students applied and were officially approved as a University of Missouri student organization called Mizzou RNA. It became the first student RNA chapter in the world and it’s thrilling to have it at this great School of Journalism.

A smart student from another university is exploring the potential of starting a second student chapter. If you are an educator member, please let me know how we might help you create a student RNA chapter at your college or university. Fueling a passion for the beat among today’s journalism students is vital if we are to continue the gains in professionalism and practice made in the past three decades.

Second, our membership committee, led by RNA member Sarah Pulliam Bailey (Religion News Service) with heavy lifting from RNA Board Member J.D. Kaleem (Huffington Post), held successful mixers in New York City and Washington, D.C. Some 90 people attended each of the mixers. The energy and outreach of these “under 40-year-olds” is inspiring.

Enthusiasm for the beat remains. The drive for new members breeds hope in me for the security and future of the beat and for RNA.

And the bad news?

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