NYTimes reverts to using vague labels in Texas science war

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

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

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

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

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There he goes, there he goes again.

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Dawkins admits he is a ‘cultural Anglican.’

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

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

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

“I have a certain love for it.”

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

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Interesting Rowan Williams apology: And important, too

Let us return, for a moment, to that interesting quote the other day from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams. You may recall that he said, concerning public debates in the West about religion:

“Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.

“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots — perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”

Quite a vivid quote, that.

So, thinking about this journalistically, where is the bright-red line in the public square between “discrimination” or “hostility” and behavior that can truly be called “persecution”?

This is actually a pretty good question, in an era in which journalists are facing an increasing number of debates about how to cover hot-button topics — think Health & Human Services mandates, for starters — that are linked to debates about basic First Amendment rights, such as free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

It is also interesting to note that Williams has issued a rather unusual clarification, or public apology, in a letter to the editor at The Guardian, about the fierceness of his recent statement. Here it is:

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The worst religion story of the year

While struggling to find words to adequately describe the worst religion article of the year, I was reminded of a brilliant exchange in an otherwise atrocious movie, Billy Madison.

Principal: Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Billy Madison: Okay, a simple “wrong” would’ve done just fine.

While I’m sure I’m now dumber for having read the Daily News article, “Southern Baptists about to ‘plant’ a church in the fertile soil of Brooklyn,” I won’t say that it’s insanely idiotic or that it contains no rational thought. Instead, I’ll follow the lead of Billy Madison and simply say it’s wrong – wrong on almost every conceivable level. From the captions to the quotes, this article sets a new low in local religion reporting.

Like Alex Haley, I try to find the good and praise it. However, for this feature I had to settle for finding the least worst thing to praise: The headline is not as bad as it could have been. Yes, they put unnecessary scare quotes around “plant.” But they could have also put them around “Southern” or “fertile soil” too. So there’s that.

Then there is the photo caption placed below an image of a young family smiling and standing in front of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center:

Southern Baptist proselytizers Jon and Bonnie Carr, and their two kids, Kayla and Emily love Jesus, but they also love New York, enjoying our parks and our pizza.

Carter’s Law of Religious Labels states, “Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not.” Although it has not been written into the federal code or added to the AP stylebook (at least not yet), I think it is a rule that most journalists intuitively understand and apply. I’m not a betting man (I too am Southern Baptist and we’re not allowed to gamble) but if I were, I’d bet the Carrs have never in their life described themselves as “proselytizers.” In fact, I would double-down and bet that the three times the article uses that term (seriously, three times) is probably the first time the word has been applied to the Carr’s evangelistic efforts.

And that is only the second worst photo caption in the article.

The first is under an odd image of a man pressing his hands together:

Baptists are praying for us.

Wait, who is the “us” referring to? New Yorkers? Residents of Brooklyn? The people of “Gomorrah on the Hudson”? (Yes, the article actually uses that phrase in reference to New York City.)

By this point you may wish not to continue. I completely understand. So before we get to the actual text — the part with the actual reporting — I should warn you of what to expect. Imagine a parody article like you’d find in the The Onion, only without the wit, humor, satire, or intelligence. But also a straight-news story and not a parody. In a (sorta) real newspaper. That makes you feel dumber for having read it.

Okay, you’ve been warned. Here goes:
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Nolan Ryan’s son and the F-word

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In his 27-year major-league career, Nolan Ryan regularly fired 100-mph fastballs. He pitched seven no-hitters and struck out 5,714 batters — both records.

Now the CEO of my beloved Texas Rangers, the 66-year-old “Ryan Express” is a baseball legend — a Hall of Fame right-hander who needs no introduction to fans.

Nolan’s son Reid Ryan, 41, is a different story.

Except for his famous father, the younger Ryan remains relatively unknown. However, the Houston Astros hired him as team president in May, increasing his profile in the Lone Star State.

Enter The Dallas Morning News.

Over the weekend, the Dallas newspaper ran an in-depth, “what makes him tick” feature on Reid Ryan.

Unfortunately for non-subscribers, most of the 1,700-word profile is hidden behind a paywall. Fortunately for you, kind GetReligion readers who so much enjoy posts on sports stories, I am a subscriber and read the whole ghost-ridden thing.

Since I pay $9.99 a month mainly to peruse the Morning News’ behind-the-scenes Rangers coverage, I was enjoying the story as a baseball fan when the first holy ghost caused my GetReligion antenna to rise.

Early in the piece, the writer eloquently describes the major turning point in Reid Ryan’s life. It occurred when he was 7 years old and was hit by a car. Let’s enter that scene:

At the hospital, the doctors had no trouble diagnosing Reid’s shattered left leg.

After the surgeons carved him open to check for internal injuries, they removed his severed spleen. When the pain lingered into the next week, they opened him up again and removed a damaged kidney they had hoped to save.

Then came the body cast.

It was sometime during his confining next two months in the hospital that Reid, described by his mother as previously “vivacious” but turned eerily “subdued,” took a silent oath.

“God blessed me with a second chance,” Reid Ryan says 34 years later. “That time shaped how I look at the world. I decided that no matter how many more years I had on this earth, I was going to be extremely positive in everything I do.”

Let’s see: The money quote that describes the most significant event in Reid Ryan’s life involves G-O-D.

Did anyone at the Morning News catch that reference or consider delving more deeply into the role of Ryan’s faith? Apparently not, because the story immediately heads in a totally different direction using a, shall we say, ironic description given the ghost just mentioned:

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A tune on gay evangelicals that evangelicals won’t recognize

While working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew “Ring of Fire.” Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, “It goes something like that, right?” “No,” said Cash shaking his head. “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

I’m often reminded of that (perhaps apocryphal) story whenever I read mainstream media reports of conversations going on within evangelicalism. While the reporter may get bits and pieces right, the overall effect is that I finish the story thinking, “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

Take, for example, a feature yesterday by the AP, “Gay, evangelical and seeking acceptance in church.”

Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians, and the pressure isn’t coming from the gay rights movement or watershed court rulings: Once silent for fear of being shunned, more gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups – a development that even younger alumni say they couldn’t have imagined in their own school years

From the article, we can discern that four claims are being made (three from the opening lede, and one later in the feature):

1. Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups.

2. Gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out now, more so than in the past, about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

3. Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals.

4. Gay evangelicals have already prompted a backlash

The claim about students and alumni from Christian colleges forming gay and lesbian support groups is clearly supported by evidence, though the term “support group” is unhelpfully vague. This is a relatively underreported trend and could have been the focus of an entire article itself. Hopefully, the AP will provide additional coverage on that topic.

The second claim relies on a vague comparison to an undefined past. Still, it too is a relatively innocuous claim. The issue of homosexuality has become more openly discussed over the past ten years, so it would probably be fair to say that you could fill in the blank of “more gay and lesbian ______________ are speaking out” and have it be true for almost any group – including evangelicals.

The third and fourth points, which constitute the main theme of the article, raise the question of exactly how evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals and what sort of backlash is occurring:

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A Broadway revival that includes ‘Blessed Assurance’

The other day, I wrote a post about the fact that many journalists struggle to understand, to be perfectly honest about it, the role that Christian faith plays in the African-American church. There is a tendency to see the black church as a political institution, and that’s that.

I also mentioned that there is another common assumption, which is that the music of the black church is primarily an expression of culture, as opposed to faith. You know, those black spirituals are so lovely and so powerful, but they don’t really mean anything in particular.

I thought of that second point again when reviewing a recent New York Times piece that several GetReligion readers brought to my attention. It seems that something strange has been happening down on Broadway in recent weeks.

You see, there’s a Broadway revival — never has that word been more accurate — running of one of the greatest American plays ever about faith and family and the ties that bind.

I am referring to Horton Foote’s classic “The Trip to Bountiful,” which focuses on an elderly woman’s quiet, but desperate, flight from Houston in an attempt to visit her family homestead one last time, near a town called Bountiful. In this production, the great African-American actress Cicely Tyson is playing the lead. In this case, her race is a key element of the news hook. The Times article notes, early on:

She is on the run from her abusive daughter-in-law and henpecked son in Houston, desperate to see the family farm in Bountiful once more before she dies. Overcome with emotion, she begins singing an old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its all-black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.

“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”

After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”

Thrilling but unexpected.

This phenomenon happens the most in the Sunday afternoon shows, you say? That would be, well, right after, uh, church? That might have something to do with large numbers of people in the audience stepping over this line in Broadway tradition and joining in.

Now, the Times team did find an expert who knows something about this hymn (even if that expert incorrectly says that this particular Fanny Crosby text has something to do with “fundamentalist” faith). The story also features quality quotes from people in the audience.

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How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?

Yesterday, CNN ran a feature highlighting the faith of members of a Bible group the meets on the PGA Tour. The article itself is well-done and provides an superb model for how to address religion in sports.

Job one: let the athletes speak for themselves and quote them accurately. Out of 175 lines in the article, 91 are direct quotes from the members of the Bible group talking about their faith.

But the commendatory approach taken by CNN also provides examples of the confusion that can arise when sources use religious language in a way that might be familiar to those in a particular faith tradition (e.g., Christianese), but may come across as inaccessible gibberish to outsiders. When people use religious jargon the denotation of certain words can vary from common usage and shortcuts can be taken based on the assumption that the listener can fill in the blanks. Journalists are not supposed to make those kinds of assumptions.

An example of the latter is the assumption by golfer Kevin Streelman that others will be familiar with the narrative pattern of personal redemption stories:

Players from across the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.

Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players such as Kevin Streelman taking that particular scripture and getting it printed onto a golf club.

For Streelman, who won his first big PGA Tour tournament at the Tampa Bay Challenge in March, his reawakening has come following a period of struggle in his personal life.

“I would lie if I said that I was previously that way,” he told CNN’s Living Golf.

Wait, previously what way? And how did we jump ahead to the reawakening before mentioning either an awakening or a falling away? If this article had appeared in Christianity Today, readers would intuitively understand what he was referring to. But in a mainstream secular outlet like CNN, no such assumptions can or should be made.

In a later quote, Streelmen slips in the first of several other examples of Christianese:

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