News flash! Pastors preach different sermons on sex!

The Associated Press carried a story the other day that made a very interesting — and newsworthy — claim about the ever-controversial Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Pay close attention to the top few paragraphs on this one:

The Rev. Robert Jeffress has changed the way he talks about homosexuality from the pulpit.

The pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Dallas hasn’t stopped preaching that homosexual sex is sinful, but he no longer singles it out for special condemnation. Now, Jeffress says he usually talks about homosexuality within “a bigger context of God’s plan for sex between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship called marriage.”

“It would be the height of hypocrisy to condemn homosexuality and not adultery or unbiblical divorce,” he said, explaining that the Bible allows divorce only in cases of adultery or desertion. He also includes premarital sex on that list.

Now, the crucial thing the story never documents is precisely what is meant by that claim that Jeffress used to single out homosexual behavior for “special condemnation” in comparison with other forms of sexual activity outside of traditional marriage.

Does this mean that, for example, Jeffress used to preach MORE OFTEN about gay issues than straight issues? Does this mean that he actually said that he taught that acts of gay sex are, in the eyes of centuries of Christian doctrine, somehow more sinful than, let’s say, sexual intercourse before marriage? Sure Jeffress did not make that claim (hello Westboro Baptist Church) that homosexual sins are not only worse than others, but that they cannot be forgiven, even after repentance.

It would have been good to have asked Jeffress what he actually taught, in the past, or even quoted an example or two from taped sermons available to the public.

Whatever. The goal of the story is to spotlight that fact that many younger evangelicals are changing how they view “gay and lesbian issues.” I have no doubt whatsoever that this trend in polls is real and that it is important. However, I also see very little evidence that these polls are consistent in their wordings, when it comes to asking young evangelicals what they believe and, more importantly, what specific Christian teachings they now reject.

I know many young evangelicals who back same-sex marriage to the same degree that they support abortion. In other words, they want the legal option to exist for society, but, in terms of theology, they have not personally rejected centuries of church teachings on the subject.

This AP report sets out to offer a highly nuanced take on these issues, since the goal is to show that people are being more nuanced. But the wordings used in the story? They are all over the place.

The story also accepts, as pure fact, claims by progressive Christian leaders that doctrinally progressive churches are thriving and gaining new members, while conservative churches are losing members in waves. The evidence? The voices of researchers on the other side? Silence. Zero. Zip. Nada.

What emerges is evidence that some popular church leaders are changing how they PRESENT sexual issues in public. Also, some preachers are falling silent.

… Jeffress said he was concerned that some other evangelical pastors were shirking this responsibility.

“My sense is that people are just avoiding the subject, by and large,” he said. “They are so bent on trying to add to the numbers of their churches that they don’t want to disenfranchise new members or be characterized as unfriendly.”

Atlanta pastor the Rev. Louie Giglio seems to have taken that approach. After withdrawing from giving the benediction at president Obama’s inauguration ceremony because of controversy over a past sermon in which he said same-sex relationships were sinful, Giglio downplayed the significance of the remarks.

In his withdrawal letter, Giglio did not say he had changed his views on homosexuality, but instead noted how old the sermon was and stated, “Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past 15 years.”

The key, for reporters, is to realize that there are stark differences between many of the leaders on the right, as well as differences between those on the left. What to do?

[Read more...]

After Sikh temple shooting, some predictably react

When I received a one-line e-mail that there had been a mass shooting at a Sikh temple, I had a .5 second heart attack. We have family who live across the street from such a temple in Wisconsin, and the line didn’t include information about location or whether the shooter was on the loose.

Within 5 minutes, though, I read the initial update from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel with the basic facts. Yes, Twitter can be a terrific resource for readers and reporters, but sometimes reporters just need a few minutes to get the facts from the police to straighten things out. I was particularly impressed with how the Journal-Sentinel immediately sent several reporters, no small thing for struggling papers who have to pay reporters overtime on a Sunday. You can find many, many stories, photos and infographics under “related coverage.”

Shootings in religious buildings are particularly heart-stopping for many people, even if you aren’t a member of a Sikh religion. Like a movie theater, you expect it to be a safe place to take your family, but unlike a movie theater, many expect it to be a trustworthy place of peace. The following paragraph from a New York Times account is pretty chilling:

People begin gathering at the temple as early as 6:30 a.m. on Sundays, but most arrive around 10:30 or 11 for services, Mr. Singh said. He believed about 30 to 35 people were inside when the shooting began, but had the gunman arrived just 15 minutes later, Mr. Singh said, 100 to 150 people would have been inside. By 1:30 p.m., there would have been more than 300.

The Associated Press has a pretty interesting dynamic infographic to explain the timeline of events. I wish I could embed it here, but if you go to the bottom of this article, you can find several pieces of information that give context to the initial story. Even with the AP’s limited space, it manages to give important contextual clues to help readers understand the scope of Sikhism in the United States.

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith founded more than 500 years ago in South Asia. It has roughly 27 million followers worldwide. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair; male followers often cover their heads with turbans — which are considered sacred — and refrain from shaving their beards. There are roughly 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S., according to estimates. The majority worldwide live in India.
The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin started in 1997 with about 25 families who gathered in community halls in Milwaukee. Construction on the current temple in Oak Creek began in 2006, according to the temple’s website.

Of course, one of the biggest questions was whether the shooter was religiously motivated. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Wade Michael Page was a “frustrated neo-Nazi” who led a racist white supremacist band. There is a strange line from a report from the Washington Post

Although there is no evidence that Page harbored specific resentment toward Sikhs, watchdog groups and Sikhs say it is likely that he confused the religion with Islam, because Sikh men wear beards and turbans.

While this might be true, it seems like it assumes a little too much. Is there anything in his writings to assume that he might have had anti-Islamic sentiments? Otherwise, assuming he would have thought Sikhs were specific Islamic might be projecting with little proof, even if it might make sense on the surface. It seems best to search for more information from the suspect before making the connection.

Sometimes if you aren’t able to send reporters to the scene, you might be tempted to write stories that traffic well but actually aren’t news. Listen, I don’t have a crystal ball, but if I can predict pretty easily that people like Pat Robertson or those in Westboro Baptist will promptly jump on the story for their own purposes, it’s not news. It might seem crazy, but it’s not news, because you can predict you predict weather patterns.

Read about the slain temple leader, how he died trying to ward off the gunman, Sikhs who have been on high alert, or how the community has been misunderstood. There really are interesting follow up stories that don’t have to include predictable ones.

The AP’s Ireland: Force, hatred, history, all that.

Rorschach inkblot test

When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water … Begob, ma’am, says Mrs. Cahill, God send you don’t make them in the one pot.

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

The clergy abuse scandal is the gift that keeps on giving as dry and dusty Catholic news stories can always be sexed up by reference to this evil. A recent story from the Associated Press on the opening ceremonies of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin is an example.

The words “Eucharistic Congress” are likely to induce palpitations in the heart of a reporter who seeks to make a name for himself. A week-long confab of fervent Catholics meeting to discuss the mysteries of the sacrament is not a setting that produces great copy. Write six or seven hundred words about what Cardinal X said about this, or Archbishop Y said about that, and a reporter would be lucky to see 250 words survive the editorial pencil.

Finding a way to work in the sex scandal changes the equation. Take a look at this article entitled “Catholic faith on line as church rallies in Dublin” and you can see the transformation of a dull story by focusing on one aspect at the expense of all others.

The problem for a subscriber to the AP’s wire service however is that they are not getting what they paid for. What they bought was a news story. What they received was an opinion piece that speaks more to the psyche of the AP reporter than to the mind of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.

In reading this free form fantasia, my mind too was loosened from the bounds of straight news and it floated off to a Dublin I knew in misty days of yore when

The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
Reagan is in the White House;
All’s right with the world!

My Dublin was not a place but an ordeal — a sixth former’s struggles with James Joyce’s Ulysses. This was a right of passage for English students who were introduced to One Day in the Life of Leopold Bloom — 16 June 1904 to be exact.  Stylistically varied, full of puns, allusions and jokes, Ulysses introduced the stream-of-consciousness style which allowed the reader not only to follow the events of Bloom’s day hour by hour, but also to follow his thoughts and hear the inner rhythm of his needs and desires, joy and despair.

Ulysses was a very hard book for me to read, so saturated was it with the life of Dublin and the mental perambulations of its characters. At times I found it incoherent. I took comfort that others did not enjoy this style — Hemingway (the other one, not M.Z.) referred to it as ‘steam of consciousness’ writing. Yet Ulysses marked the end of the dominance of realism– telling life as it is — in the novel. Which takes me back to this AP story, which does not tell life as it is, but gives free flow to the mental perambulations of its author.

Let’s start with the lede.

An international conference celebrating Roman Catholicism opened Sunday in Ireland against a backdrop of anger over child abuse cover-ups and evidence of declining faith in core church beliefs.

That’s the way to frame the story, misstate the agenda of the conference and go on the attack. It continues:

About 12,000 Catholics, many from overseas, gathered for an open-air Mass in a half-full Dublin stadium at the start of the Eucharistic Congress, a weeklong event organized by the Vatican every four years in a different part of the world. The global gathering, begun in the 19th century and last held in Quebec in 2008, highlights the Catholic Church‘s belief in transubstantiation, the idea that bread and wine transforms during Mass into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Wait, I thought this was about “celebrating Roman Catholicism” — some sort of quasi-tribal rally of the faithful. Instead we have a half-full week long congress on transubstantiation? Bait and switch reader, bait and switch. I’ve seen other reports that list 20,000 present — funny how stories about the Pope’s trip to Germany, England and Mexico all seem to start out with low ball estimates that have to be revised dramatically upwards.  But I digress …

An opinion poll of Irish Catholics found that two-thirds of Irish Catholics don’t believe this, nor do they attend Mass weekly. The survey, published in The Irish Times with an error margin of 3 points, also found that just 38 percent believe Ireland today would be in worse shape without its dominant church. And just three-fifths even knew the Eucharistic Congress was coming to Ireland.

Such views reflect rapid secularization and alienation with the church in Ireland, where church and state once were tightly intertwined. The last time Ireland hosted the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, more than 1 million — a quarter of Ireland’s population — packed Dublin’s Phoenix Park for Mass with nary a dissenting voice.

How do we know that these views “reflect rapid secularization and alienation”? It may be reasonable to assume this based upon the increasing secularization of society and the scandals of recent years, but what evidence is there in the article that takes us from A to B?

And how does the rate of belief in the real presence as found in the survey relate to past levels of belief — or to rates of belief in other countries? Surveys conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) would indicate that Ireland is doing better than the U.S. on this point. There is no context provided to judge the numbers — only the assertion that this is a bad thing.

And … Is it fair to compare the 1932 Phoenix Park mass to the 2012 Dublin opening ceremony? The 26 June 1932 open air mass in Phoenix Park drew almost 1 million people. But discussions of transubstantiation at the 1932 Eucharist Congress did not bring in the crowds — it was Pope Pius XI and the Irish government.

The pope addressed the crowd from his library in the Vatican and was the first time a pope directly spoke to the Irish people. A better comparison might be Pope John Paul II’s 1979 mass in Phoenix Park, which also drew almost a million people. Juxtaposing 12,000 (or was it 20,000) people with a million people appears to be an attempt to advance the rather tired “Ireland is losing its faith mantra”.

The 1932 Eucharistic Congress was a political, cultural and religious event. It was a celebration of Irish Nationalism and Roman Catholicism and showcased the success of the Irish Free State. Éamon de Valera heavily promoted the congress as a symbol of republican Ireland being a Catholic state for a Catholic people. It also cemented the relationship between Fianna Fáil and the church which culminated in the 1937 Constitution which recognized the “special place of the Catholic Church” in Irish life. We get a hint of this in the article, but the author ignores this and compares attendance between the two congresses in an attempt to denigrate the 2012 gathering.

The quip about “nary a dissenting voice” is unsubstantiated as Protestants and Unionists (what few that remained south of the border) objected to the rally in 1932 as a sectarian political show.

Fast forward to 2012. The AP reports:

And as Catholic pilgrims entered the opening Mass, they passed protesters from Survivors of Child Abuse, an Irish pressure group that has spent more than a decade demanding that church leaders in Ireland and Rome admit their full culpability for the protection of pedophile priests. Other protest groups highlighted the church’s opposition to homosexuality and its role in running most Irish elementary schools and many hospitals today.

Today we have gay rights activists protesting (where the friendly folks from Westboro Baptist Church there?) as well as abuse victims advocates. How many protestors is not stated. Different issues separate 1932 and 2012, but protests there were.

Yet one of the major angles in this story that the AP managed to miss was the inclusion of Protestants in the Congress. The Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Dublin, (the other archbishop) was among the speakers at the opening service. Two Archbishops of Dublin were present, Protestant and Catholic, Dr. Michael Jackson and Dr. Diarmuid Martin. Nor was Dr. Jackson’s presence window dressing as Presbyterian, Methodist and other Protestant leaders took part in the ceremony. For goodness sakes even a contingent from the Church of Ireland’s Boys Brigade took part in the march.

Remember a time when Irish news was dominated by the “troubles” — that Protestant/Catholic thing that went on for a few decades? In its fixation with the abuse scandal the AP has managed to miss one of the significant changes in Irish life made manifest by this congress — the virtual end of Protestant/Catholic discord.

The article continues with its focus on the abuse scandal, highlighting those moments from the opening day where congress organizers addressed the abuse issue. Readers were also treated to this assertion.

… Four state-ordered investigations over the past decade have documented how tens of thousands of children from the 1940s to 1990s suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse from priests, nuns and church staff in three Irish dioceses and in a network of workhouse-style residential schools. More investigations of other dioceses beckon.

Tens of thousands of children suffered abuse? Where does that number come from?

In 1999 the Irish government began a ten year investigation into incidents of abuse in Church-run reform schools and educational institutions: the places where the bulk of the abuse took place. In its 2010 report, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse found that between the period 1914 to 1999, 253 claims of sexual abuse were made by males and 128 by females.

Were these all the possible claims? No. But “tens of thousands”? Does the AP have information on at least 19,619 other cases it says took place?

Let me stop at this point and address the question why this matters. One or one thousand children abused are too many abused children. It is a shame, a horror, a crime that tarnishes the church and society.

However, when the abuse is inflated to hyperbole, when imaginary victims are created to make an argument that the church is corrupt, the abuse suffered by real people is cheapened. Their suffering is diminished and is expropriated by those advancing a political agenda. In a situation of suffering it is reprehensible to exaggerate for effect.

And it is bad journalism. The reporting in this story shows no understanding of the issues, no sense of the story, no sense of the people. It tells us nothing of consequence about the Eucharistic Congress, but a great deal about what the author thinks of the Catholic Church. It is an anti-Catholic editorial masquerading as news.

When you are going to make tea, make tea. When you are going to make water, make water. Don’t try to make them in the same pot. When you are going to write an editorial, write an editorial. When you are going to write news, write news — don’t try to do both in the same story. Stream of consciousness reporting didn’t work here. The AP would have done a better job of sticking to realism.

Westboro nutjobs protest Billy Graham

As we’ve lamented a few times (or a million) here at GetReligion, nobody puts on a staged-for-media hatefest like the spiritual termites of the Westboro Baptist Church.

This week, the Westboro nutjobs brought their tired, “God Hates Fags” spectacle to the Rev. Billy Graham’s North Carolina backyard. The local paper — the Asheville Citizen-Times — provided front-page coverage.

I’ve said it before, but I’d be perfectly happy if I never had to read another word about Fred Phelps, Westboro’s certifiably wacky pastor, or his family. In most cases, I believe the best media approach to Westboro is to ignore it. In the case of the Asheville story, I don’t know enough about the circumstances to say whether the paper should have covered the “protest” or not.

But if for whatever reason — be it the splash Westboro made in the community or the law enforcement resources assigned to the protest — the Citizen-Times determined that coverage was necessary, then it could have been improved in a few ways.

The top of the story:

ASHEVILLE — A controversial Topeka, Kan., church known for its anti-gay protests at events across the country took aim Tuesday at Billy Graham, saying the renowned evangelist was more interested in wealth and power than preaching the Gospel.

About a dozen sign-carrying protesters from Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the Billy Graham Training Center in Swannanoa, then traveled to nearby Montreat to continue their protest.

Also on hand were about 20 counterprotesters from Asheville, who called Westboro members a hate group not welcome in North Carolina.

A dozen officers from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, N.C. Highway Patrol and Black Mountain and Montreat police departments stood by to maintain order.

“Billy Graham is one of the most influential men in the world, but he has not used his bully pulpit to preach the Gospel,” said Westboro member Paulette Phelps, daughter-in-law of the church’s pastor, Fred Phelps.

Keep reading, and the story pits Westboro’s extreme anti-gay statements against the views of counterprotesters who suggest that a loving God has no problem with homosexuality. Graham seems almost an afterthought.

Not until the 17th paragraph of the story — two paragraphs from the bottom — does the paper provide Graham’s response:

In its only comment on the protests, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association noted in an emailed statement, “The central message of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association today is the same message Mr. Graham has faithfully preached for more than 70 years — it’s a message of God’s love for all people and the hope that only comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. While they have the right to express themselves, we don’t share their opinions or condone their methods.”

Shouldn’t that statement have appeared much higher in the story?

Meanwhile, while Graham’s teachings/views/beliefs on homosexuality seem to be at the center of the story, the paper never provides any context on his past comments on that issue.

Maybe everyone in Asheville already knows exactly where Graham stands, but someone new to the issue might be left wondering. If the Graham camp wouldn’t talk, surely a Graham expert could have been found to explain to readers what he has said and where he stands, if anywhere, on the issue.

In just the last month and a half, Graham made news by weighing in on a same-sex marriage referendum in North Carolina. USA Today reported:

“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” Billy Graham’s statement said. “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment” Tuesday.

That background would have been helpful in the Asheville story.

Another omission that GetReligion has stressed repeatedly in its critiques of Westboro stories: The paper does not make clear that Westboro is an independent, fundamentalist outfit that has no ties to other Baptist groups — such as the Southern Baptist Convention, to which Graham belongs. Again, that background would have been helpful.

Now, please slither away, Westboro.

Billy Graham image via Shutterstock

NPR shocked Westboro stories go viral

A celebrity death sort of goes like this: Celebrity dies, people tweet a lot of RIPs. Westboro Baptist Church announces its plans to protest the funeral, people tweet a lot of OMGs.

Westboro, if you recall, is the group that holds signs like “God hates fags,” yes, generally startling stuff if you haven’t seen it before. But they also do this all the time, so it’s pretty expected.

The small group has been doing these kinds of things for quite a while, so it ceases to amaze me. But every time they do it, I guess, you find people who haven’t heard of the group. People are still shocked it exists and I’m still shocked that they’re shocked.

NPR continues to cover (I count three stories so far) a very important story about a 9-year-old boy who held up a little sign that reads ‘GOD HATES NO ONE.’” Here’s the intro from the interview.

Every now and again, we like to tell you more about an image or video that’s captured public attention. Today, we want to talk about a photo. It’s an image of a protest and a counter-protest.

For years, members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas have shown up at public events, including military funerals, to spread their message that God is punishing America for the sin of homosexuality. They carry signs with slogans, such as God Hates America and God Hates Homosexuals – although, on that sign, they very often use a derogatory term that we are not going to repeat.

Well, after seeing these signs and these protests, Josef Miles, a Topeka nine-year-old, decided to make his own sign with the message God Hates No One. He stood next to Westboro demonstrator, and his mom posted a photo on Facebook. Well, to date, NPR’s blog post about this has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times, and that doesn’t even count all the other ways social media users are passing it around.

When someone explains “It went viral,” it seems kind of quaint. This very dramatic slinky-on-a-treadmill video has a million views and I don’t see any news stories or interviews about its viral-ness.

I realize an interviewer isn’t going to ask super specific question of a 9-year-old boy, but there’s something huge missing from her interview. Was there no thought to ask about his faith or his mother’s faith? Was there any faith motivation behind his desire to send a counter message? It’s so glaring it’s painful.

Back to the big picture, though, what do we do with these kinds of stories? Is there anything more to it besides traffic bait? Westboro stories seem to do pretty well on the Internet, so it kind of feeds itself in a circular pattern. Unless Westboro is doing something unusual, like changing laws or something out of the ordinary, it ceases to be news by its very nature.

Westboro intends to shock, people get shocked, people share the stories, and it’s one crazy cycle. But if we know it’s going to happen, why do we still cover it, especially in multiple ways?

Image of viral signs via Shutterstock.

Lady (Gaga) sings the blues

Time to get out your GetReligion dancing shoes:

Ohohohoh, I’m in love with Judas

Ohohohoh, I’m in love with Judas

Judas! Judaas Judas! Judaas
Judas! Judaas Judas! GAGA

When he comes to me I am ready
I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs
Forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain
Even after three times he betrays me

I’ll bring him down, bring him down, down
A king with no crown, king with no crown

[Chorus]
I’m just a Holy Fool, oh baby he’s so cruel
But I’m still in love with Judas, baby
I’m just a Holy Fool, oh baby he’s so cruel
But I’m still in love with Judas, baby

So goes the first stanza of the pop song “Judas” performed by Lady Gaga, the stage name of New York-born singer/song writer Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Lady Gaga’s work has won her fans round the world, but news reports from her tour of South East Asia indicates she has garnered a few enemies as well.

MTV News (I think this is a first for GetReligion — linking to an MTV News story) reports:

Lady Gaga has had a rough couple of weeks. What should have been a celebratory kick-off to her “Born This Way Ball” has been marred in controversy, as the pop superstar has encountered protests from religious groups at nearly every turn.

The tour’s first show in Seoul, South Korea, was marred by protests from Christian groups saying Mother Monster was “obscene” and could “taint” young people with her performance. The protestors even managed to get the Korea Media Rating Board to elevate the age rating for the concert from 12 to 18, prohibiting minors from seeing the show.

The second leg of the tour, MTV reports, was equally difficult.

She encountered similar troubles in the Philippines, where her May 21 and 22 concerts in Manila were met with similar derision from Christian groups claiming her lyrics are blasphemous and that the sentiment behind songs like “Born this Way” promotes “promiscuity” and homosexuality. A few days before the first concert, anti-riot police were forced to stop hundreds of protestors from descending on the venue. Gaga responded to the hubbub today on Twitter, saying, “And don’t worry, if I get thrown in jail in Manila, Beyonce will just bail me out. Sold out night 2 in the Philippines. I love it here!”

A June show in Jakarta may be cancelled in the face of threats from militant Muslims.

 ”The Jakarta situation is 2-fold: Indonesian authorities demand I censor the show & religious extremist separately, are threatening violence,” Gaga tweeted earlier today.

A 17 May 2012 AP story gives further details of the protest in the Philippines. The version printed by the Washington Post began:

 Scores of Christian youths in the Philippines chanted “Stop the Lady Gaga concerts” at a rally Friday calling for the pop diva’s shows here to be canceled despite assurances from authorities that they won’t allow nudity and lewd acts.

Christian youths — and they are exactly what? Paragraph three tells us more about these three score and 10 youths.

About 70 members of a group called Biblemode Youth Philippines rallied in front of the Pasay City Hall in metropolitan Manila. They said they were offended by Lady Gaga’s music and videos, in particular her song “Judas,” which they say mocks Jesus Christ.

And what is Biblemode Youth Philippines? The article does not say. But it later states:

Former Manila Mayor Jose Atienza said the singer and organizers can be punished for offending race or religion. Under the penal code in the conservative, majority Roman Catholic country, the penalty can range from six months to six years in prison, although no one has been convicted recently.

The narrative arc of the MTV story is sympathetic to Lady Gaga — as one would expect. The AP story adopts a neutral tone, but gives more space in the story to those offended by Lady Gaga’s musical act. Again, this is what one would expect as the story from the AP is focused on the protests.

However, I would have hoped the AP story would have gone a bit deeper in its reporting as this appeared to the be the source for MTV‘s report — and was the principle vehicle for this story in the American press. The AP story identifies the protestors in Manila as Christians and then as members of Biblemode Youth Philippines. But it stops there — save for noting the Philippines are a “conservative, majority Roman Catholic country.”

It would be natural to assume that these Christian youths are Catholic youths. Catholic youth movements are politically active in the Philippines — protesting the government’s recent contraception bill. But Biblemode Youth Philippines is not on the Catholic Church’s Federation of National Youth Organizations’ membership list.

A quick check of the group’s Facebook page shows that it is not a parish organization that would be below the level of groups in the national Catholic youth federation, but shows the members of Biblemode Youth Philippines are Baptists.

Where members of the “majority” Roman Catholic church among the protestors? Or was this a Protestant affair — or even a Baptist protest against Lady Gaga?

When saying “Christians are protesting”, is it responsible journalism to say what sort of Christians are protesting? I believe so.

There is the issue of precision. But there is also the underlying religious question. What is the significance of a minority Christian group leading the Manila protests against Lady Gaga? Is there silence from the Catholic Church on this issue? If so, why?

Which groups were leading the protests against Lady Gaga in Korea? Is there any link between the protestors in Korea and the Philippines? Does Lady Gaga offend against decency or good taste in an equal degree in the Philippines and Korea?

Are the protestors Westboro Baptist wannabees? Is there a link to the anti-American movement in the Philippines?

What exactly is going on here?

I ask you, GetReligion readers, am I making a mountain out of a molehill, or should we expect precision on this point?

Religion reporters: The 0.7 percent

Last year, we were nearly giddy over a report that showed religion news had doubled … to 2 percent of overall media coverage. Hey, we’ll take it. In 2011, sadly, we did not see the same level of religion coverage in the press.

A new analysis from Pew suggested that the coverage of religion went from 2 percent to .7 percent between 2010 and 2011. I enjoyed former religion beat reporter Eric Gorski’s take: Religion reporters: You are the 0.7 percent.

It’s no surprise that politics, the economy and foreign policy tops the list, but unlike last year, religion was topped by celebrity/entertainment, the environment, crime and other news coverage.

Six of the top 10 religion stories in 2011 focused at least partly on Islam. Naturally, religion and the elections was the most covered religion story. What surprised me was that the second most covered religion story was Rep. Peter King’s congressional hearing on radical Islam in the U.S., accounting for 9.4% of religion coverage. What was it about that story that reporters kept covering it?

The journalistic tendency is to cover conflict, so when religion did make news, it tended to be cover questions about extremism or intolerance. Overall, Islam was subject of 31.3 percent of the religion “newshole,” a higher amount compared to the percentage spent on Protestantism (20.1%), Catholicism (11.3%) and Mormonism (9.6%).

Religion and the 2012 election was 13.1 percent of all religion coverage, but it was down from four years earlier when campaign news made up 23.8 percent of 2007 religion coverage. In a reversal from last year, newspapers were somewhat more likely to cover religion, compared to cable TV, online outlets, radio and network news programs who were least likely to cover religion.

Specific stories trickled over from 2010 to 2011, such as Terry Jones, 9/11 commemorations, Westboro and the Catholic priest abuse scandal. Coverage of sexual abuse by Catholic priests received less coverage in 2011, receiving 3.9 percent of the religion coverage compared to 18.8 percent in 2010.

Pew has studied religion in the media for five years now, concluding that religion generally receives little attention compared to the percentage of the country that practices religion.

In a country that is highly religious, the subject is not a major focus of the news. In the 60 months studied, the percentage of stories on religion in any given month rarely fluctuated above or below 1-2% of the space online, in print, on television and on the radio. Another conclusion is that religion tends to make news when it engenders controversy. Deeper questions of faith and its meaning are not, typically, news. Rather, much of the coverage is event-driven. The two biggest religion stories over the past five years were the intense controversy over plans to build an Islamic center, including a mosque, near the World Trade Center site, and Florida pastor Terry Jones’ announcement that his church would burn a Koran. The third-biggest story during that time was a visit by the pope to the U.S.

So are priorities at media outlets changing? Perhaps there are many topics that have a strong religion element in them that wouldn’t fall in religion coverage per se. For instance, a story on Tim Tebow is not inherently religious, but several reporters covered a religion angle. Or perhaps we are seeing a real decline in religion-focused coverage. Just in the last month, the Chicago Tribune‘s religion blog, Beliefnet’s Belief Beat and the Journal News‘s (New York) religion blog took a bow for reporters to move on to other duties. Perhaps reporter priorities are shifting away from blogs, but we hope that doesn’t mean a shift away from the religion beat overall.

We will most likely continue to see religion and the campaign covered heavily this year, but it’s worth considering whether the rest of religion coverage could suffer because of the attention given to politics.

Images Source: Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Copyright 2012, Pew Research Center. http://pewforum.org/.

A layered portrait of hate

In a post last year, I shared my disdain for a Topeka, Kan.-based hate group:

If I never had to read another story about the Westboro Baptist Church and its “staged-for-media hatefests” … I just might make my own sign. “Thank God for small blessings,” it would read. Or something like that.

I stand by that statement.

Yet the best journalists can turn even your least favorite subject into a riveting masterpiece that grips you from beginning to end.

As Exhibit A, I draw your attention to Kansas City Star writer Dugan Arnett’s recent 4,000-word (4,000-WORD!!!) profile of Westboro “heir to hate” Megan Phelps-Roper.

From near the top of the fascinating piece:

She loves her iPhone and the band Mumford & Sons and the Showtime series “Dexter,” which is about a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Metro Police Department who also happens to be a serial killer — a complex character both good and evil. She went to high school at Topeka West and got straight A’s. She went to college at Washburn University and got straight A’s. She thought about going to law school, sat down to write her admissions essay and decided she wasn’t all that keen on becoming a lawyer. So she joined the family business.

She is peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy.

Oh, and one other thing about Megan: She wants to make it perfectly clear that you and the rest of this filthy, perverted nation will be spending a long, fiery eternity burning in hell.

If you’ve ever wondered how the Phelpses spend their time when they’re not waving “God Hates Fags” signs, the Star takes you behind the scenes:

One of the most reviled families in America is gathered in the backyard, enjoying an afternoon picnic. There are kids scurrying past in every direction and adults sitting on patio chairs, holding cold drinks and talking about work and the weather and upcoming vacations. A half dozen or so little girls cluster around Megan, clamoring for braids.

Megan loves braiding hair. On occasions when she is not picketing the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers or mocking the victims of natural disasters, she can often be found stationed behind one of her sisters or cousins, hair in hand, twisting away.

The remarkable thing about this story is the nuanced, layered picture of the main character (Megan) that it provides. At points, the full story of this young woman’s life almost makes you feel sorry for her.

There’s this:

Megan has little problem handling the vitriol that pours in on a daily basis. Not long ago, she brushed off a Facebook message in which someone told her he planned to travel to Topeka and rape her. But when asked whether she has considered the possibility that the countless people who consider her deranged, insane, nuts and “bat-s— crazy” might be on to something, she smiles and says, “You can’t listen to the whole world tell you you’re crazy, without wondering, ‘Am I crazy?’?”

And this:

She has no real friends. Few acquaintances. The majority of her outside interactions comes with the people — journalists, mostly — who stop by to profile the family. Two years ago, after a group of student filmmakers from Holland spent a week in Topeka documenting the church, Megan cried when they finally had to go. She still keeps a voice recording of one of them, a handsome, 20-something guy named Pepijn, saved in her phone.

Into the account of Megan’s life, the reporter weaves expert analysis from sources such as a Southern Poverty Law Center official who calls Westboro “the country’s most obnoxious hate group” and a Massachusetts-based counselor who has written extensively about cults and religious fundamentalist groups.

The piece also provides exceptional insight on the family’s inner workings from a cousin and former best friend of Megan’s who escaped Westboro.

Now, generally, when your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas write about Westboro, we implore the mainstream press to make it clear that this group is totally independent and has no ties to other Baptist churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This piece comes close, describing the group as the “family-run Westboro Baptist Church.” Still, a clearer statement that this church is totally on its own would have been helpful.

At another point in the story, readers learn of Megan’s baptism at age 13 in a backyard pool. I would love to have seen Megan explain her beliefs and reasons for the baptism at that point.

But all in all, there’s a tremendous amount to like about this story. Even for those, like me, who hate seeing reports about this hate group.

By all means, read the whole thing.


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