About those Nigerian Christian girls, chanting in Arabic

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As I have said many times, I have no idea how foreign correspondents do the work that they do, especially when working in regions that are being torn apart by civil war and complex events linked to terrorism. While readers tend to see events in terms of good guys and terrorists, the reporters on the ground know that reality is much more complex than that.

The events unfolding in the overwhelmingly Muslim northeast corner of Nigeria are a perfect example of this, once you dig deeper than the Twitter #bringbackourgirls hashtag and the vague words of various government spokespersons.

Consider, for example, the role of Islam on both sides of this story. Over and over, your GetReligionistas note the accuracy of the post-9/11 media mantra “there is no one Islam.” That is absolutely true, yet many journalists have hesitated to cover the complex and often violent divisions inside this major world religion.

Think this through for a minute. At the very least, you have four different “Muslim” camps in this kidnapping story.

* Obviously, you have Boko Haram and its hellish, truly radical take on sharia law and Islam.

* Then you have, at the other extreme, the small number of Muslim families who were willing to enroll their daughters in the non-Islamic Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, in a heavily Christian corner of the primarily Muslim northern half of Nigeria. A dozen or more of the kidnapped girls were Muslims, while the vast majority have been identified as Christians or animists.

* However, it’s important to remember that many radical Islamists in Nigeria and abroad — those who seek a strong form of sharia law — clearly oppose Boko Haram’s fiercely violent methods and have rejected, in particular, the kidnapping of these girls. So that’s a third camp.

* Finally, there are those who could be called the mainstream Muslims of northern Nigeria, those who work with the regional government, the local police and the military. I do not know quite how to describe their faith perspective, but it clearly represents an approach different than the various Islamist groups. Yes, this could overlap with the viewpoint of the Muslim parents in my second camp.

Why bring this up? This past week, I read two news reports that seemed to offer radically different, even clashing, takes on a crucial recent development, the release of the video claiming to show some of the kidnapped girls, wearing hijabs and chanting Islamic prayers in Arabic. One story ran in The New York Times and the other at a religious outlet, Baptist Press. First, here is a crucial section of the Times piece, the lede anecdote:

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Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?

At this point, it’s pretty clear that coverage of the demise of the Rev. Fred Phelps is going to test the limits of what mainstream journalists are willing and able to print in hard-news stories in mainstream newspapers.

As our own Jim Davis noted yesterday, the editors at The New York Daily News approved a clever, but rather column-esque, lede on their basic news story on the reports (originating from estranged son Nathan Phelps) that the anti-gay patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church was on his death bed, after being kicked out of his own congregation for reasons that have not yet been documented. For those catching up on that story, the lede stated: “No one’s going to protest against this guy’s death.”

I think that what they really meant to say was that “no one’s going” to mourn “this guy’s death,” as opposed to saying that no one is going to protest at the Phelps funeral, whenever that event takes place.

Actually, if the key elements of some of these stories hold up, I would say that there is a pretty good chance that members of the Westboro Baptist Church are going to protest at his funeral. Also, I would be stunned if no one on the cultural left, or from the cultural middle, or the normal cultural right, showed up at his funeral with signs of various kinds, either obnoxious or graceful or all points in between. No one expects Phelps to go quietly into that good night (see this USA Today report as a sign of things to come).

Interestingly enough, there is evidence that the original Daily News lede contained even blunter language of a rather editorial nature. One former GetReligionista, on her mobile, saw an original version of the daily story that referred to Phelps as the founder of the “hate-fueled Westboro Baptist Church.” This language quickly vanished, but remained alive on other pages — see this screen-capture image.

Also, echoes of this reference showed up in the International Business Times, which noted:

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Got news? Looking at key facts in the Chris Davis timeline

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It’s the last day of the regular baseball season and for fans of the Baltimore Orioles there was a very bittersweet taste to the year. What does that have to do with religion-news coverage? While many will argue that baseball is a religion (click here for a classic), trust me that I will get to the real religion hook in this post soon enough.

While our O’s narrowly missed the playoffs, the team did have another winning season and made life uncomfortable for the Boston Red Sox. Do the math, people. It’s hard to have a winning season in the American League BEast. Cleveland Indian fans should feel thankful they are where they are.

Of course, one of the other big stories here in Charm City was Chris Davis and his Babe Ruth-ian season in terms of extra-base hits and home runs.

Although Davis has been a moon-shot slamming muscle man since high school, the rate at which he hit the long ball over the past 18 months or so raised predictable questions about performance-enhancing drugs. However, insiders noted that the big man actually lost weight entering this year and increased his foot speed, trends that rarely are linked to steroids.

So, if drugs weren’t the story, then what was the X-factor that helped calm down this anger-management case, allowing him to get his act together?

Simply stated, there is the baseball side and the personal-religious side. You would think that the two stories could be blended into one, but that does not appear to be a task The Baltimore Sun team is willing to attempt, other than the occasional tiny dose of vague God talk.

Here’s my question: What if it could be argued, looking at the timeline of the Davis lift-off into superstardom, that his marriage and his return to practicing the Christian faith of his youth were actually — in terms of on-the-record facts — crucial to this sports-news story? Should a newspaper go there, asking journalistic questions about those aspects of his life and including them as PART of the story?

With that question in mind, let’s look at the new Sun story about Davis’ year. Here is the overture:

Hank Aaron never hit as many as 53 home runs in a season. Neither did Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Frank Robinson nor Mike Schmidt.

So with 53 homers going into the final game, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is not only the most prolific single-season slugger in club history. He’s part of a select group that includes just 17 power hitters in baseball history.

As the Orioles wrap up their season Sunday, short of the playoffs, it’s worth reflecting on what a rare show Davis gave Baltimore fans in 2013. He found that hard to do himself, talking about his season the day after the Orioles were eliminated from postseason contention. “It’s hard to reflect and look back on personal accomplishments right now, because I still have a sour taste in my mouth,” Davis said.

So what happened? Can Davis keep it going?

Davis knows he will enter next season facing a level of outside expectation he’s never experienced. If he returns to his 2012 level — 33 home runs would’ve placed him top 10 in the majors this year — fans will crinkle their noses. But he doesn’t seem concerned.

“I’ve expected it for myself for a long time,” he said. “I had struggles in Texas, and I think that’s where I got away from it. I tried to be a player that everybody else wanted me to be instead of the player I knew I was capable of being. Obviously, when you hit 50-plus home runs in a season, you’re going to draw some attention to yourself, but I just hope that everybody counts on me to be there every day and compete. The numbers are going to be there at the end of the season.”

So that’s one valid way to write the end-of-the-year story. It’s the baseball exclusive approach. What would the personal approach look like?

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