Do skewed churches deserve skewed coverage?

Funny, isn’t it? So many people recoiled in horror at the judgmentalism of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Now that he’s dead and gone — but the church is still here to kick around — a lot of journalists seemingly can’t spew insults fast enough.

One of the thickest volleys of darts flew from the International Business Times, which listed tweets of the rich and famous — and judgmental. Some vented spite on a fire-and-brimstone level. “If there is a hell, then he is there,” TV host Andy Cohen tweeted.

And Roseanne Barr used the occasion to damn all faith: “Fred Phelps liberated millions of ppl from slavery to religion by exposing its heart of darkness.”

Yes, these are lively direct quotes. But IBT’s Maria Vultaggio wasn’t content to quote. No, she had to try a little skewing herself:

Infamous Westboro Baptist Church head Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. died in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday night, a few days after he was reported to be excommunicated from his own church. The notorious group, which many consider a cult, gained national notoriety for its hateful antics.

Granted, Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based church were not exactly popular. To say the least. These folks have waved pickets, stood on American flags and fixated on homosexuality and their imagined mission to confront it. They’ve spread anguish at the funerals of veterans and terrorism victims. And the “About” page of its own website says “hate” or “hates” or “hated” six times — and links to “sister sites” that tell how God also hates Islam, the media and for that matter the whole world.

And when you combine anti-gay attitudes, institutional religion and a small, easily targeted congregation, the temptation is apparently too much — even for media that are supposed to deliver facts unskewed.

The Huffington Post catalogued 10 counter-demonstrations by gays and other liberals: bikers, grandmas, children, human walls, a man dressed as God, women dressing as angels, men kissing in front of the Westboro picketers. HuffPost even dipped into 2011 to recall a pro-gay song by the Foo Fighters.

But we’re not sharp enough to get the point of all that propaganda. HuffPost also felt the need to tell us:

Not missing the chance to fight hatred with love, many inspiring advocates of equality have come out over the years to counter-protest the WBC. These peaceful demonstrations show the power of love, compassion and gentle humor to combat the WBC’s message of intolerance.

Some music writers revved up verbal chainsaws after hearing that Westboro planned to picket a concert in Kansas City. Here’s a good example from the Kansas City Star:

Pucker up, people. The Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest pop star Lorde’s concert at the Midland on Friday and she has a suggestion: Plant a big ol’ wet one on a protester.

You know, a little man-on-man, woman-on-woman action.

The “Royals” singer – who was influenced by an old photo of George Brett when writing her monster hit – sounded excited to hear that she had made Westboro’s playlist.

“Hahaha omg just found out westboro baptist church are going to picket my show in kansas city,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

She tweeted two more suggestions: Everyone wear rainbow clothing to the show and “everyone try to kiss church members who are same sex as you they will so love it christmas comin early in kansas city.”

Not that Westboro people act like meek martyrs. The Star writer quotes a remark from the church website:

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Doing right by the pope — and by the readers

What a pleasure it is to see a writer do it right. So it’s a pleasure to read John L. Allen Jr.’s interview with Cardinal Sean O’Malley in the Boston Globe.

Allen, an associate editor of the Globe, brings years of skill and experience in having covered the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter in interviewing the archbishop of Boston.

The story, which Allen wrote along with religion reporter Lisa Wangsness, picks the brain of Pope Francis via the man who, as it says, “is widely considered to be Pope Francis’ closest American adviser.” The journalists set a balanced tone right from the first three paragraphs:

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley says he shares in the sense of wonder at how swiftly Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention and softened, with his sometimes startling words and personal gestures, the image of the Roman Catholic Church.

But he cautions that those with high expectations that the shift in tone presages major changes in church teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and other flashpoint issues are likely to be disappointed.

“I don’t see the pope as changing doctrine,’’ O’Malley said in an interview with the Globe, though he said the pontiff’s focus on compassion and mercy over doctrinal purity has reverberated powerfully throughout the church.

That’s another sign of an original reporter. Allen is aware of the tone in many secular media, anticipating liberal changes in the Roman Catholic Church. But unlike many colleagues, he chooses reporting over parroting.

He is also scrupulous in telling us what limitations he accepted for the interview. One is not to bring up a flap at a local Catholic school, where someone wasn’t used to provide food service after revealing that he’s gay. That’s analogous to Bob Costas’ agreement to confine his Wednesday interview with President Obama to matters related to the Winter Olympics.

Nor does Allen assume everyone knows O’Malley’s prominence in clerical circles. He offers this crisply written background:

O’Malley’s read on Francis carries special weight.

He is the only American cardinal Francis knew well before his election. O’Malley has traveled widely in Latin America, and once stayed at the Buenos Aires residence of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They conversed comfortably in Spanish, a language O’Malley speaks fluently.

The 69-year-old archbishop is the only American on the pontiff’s all-important “G8” council of eight cardinal advisers, who will have their third session with Francis later this month to ponder reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and other matters.

He adds later that it was O’Malley who announced in December that Francis was forming a commission to deal with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The interview offers some tantalizing tips on future developments under Francis. One is to boost women’s leadership, even at the Vatican level:

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What can we say? Boston Globe hires John L. Allen, Jr.

For several decades now, I have been telling mainstream newsroom managers that all they have to do to improve religion-news coverage is to approach the beat the same way they approach any other major news beat that they respect, such as politics, sports, politics, education, politics and, of course, entertainment gossip.

What’s the magic formula? Here is what I had to say in a 1995 lecture to the editors of Scripps Howard newspapers:

So, you’re a manager in a newsroom and you’ve decided to improve religion coverage. What can you do?

There are only three ways that editors show what they think about a subject: what kind of reporter covers it, how much coverage it receives and where the stories appear in the newspaper. Thus, the solution is obvious: hire one or more quality journalists who are committed to covering religion and give their work the kind of display that is granted to subjects editors consider important.

Religion is a stunningly complicated beat, with dozens of major and minor religious groups and institutions dotting the intellectual and emotional landscape. Buddhists don’t talk, pray or do business like Baptists. Catholics and Pentecostals have totally different concepts of what it means to be a “charismatic” leader, except, of course, for Catholics who also happen to Pentecostals. It’s impossible to navigate these waters without a working knowledge of the charts.

So with that in mind, faithful GetReligion readers will join me in celebrating this tweet:

 

In recent years, your GetReligionistas have sadly published more than a few “black flag” notices marking the closing of a religion-beat job in a major newsroom or the departure of a skilled Godbeat veteran from active duty in the news biz. Every now and then, we can cheer when a Cathy Grossman, after an exit from USA Today, is able to make a much-deserved comeback in a shop like Religion News Service.

So now we need to ask, what is the opposite of a black flag?

Obviously, a white flag represents surrender.

That’s not what people who care about solid religion-news reporting should be feeling after that tweet from Allen, who — while writing for the progressive National Catholic Reporter — has won wide respect on both sides of Catholic sanctuary aisles for his informed and accurate coverage.

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Bravo, Boston Globe: An Episcopal anti-violence winner

I love a good story. Thanks to Lisa Wangsness, Godbeat writer for the Boston Globe, I got to read one.

Wangsness paints an artful image of 19-year-old Jorge Fuentes a year after he was struck and killed by a stray bullet while walking his dog. Fuentes was, as the vicar of his church put it, “the poster child” for the success of anti-violence program B-SAFE at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the city’s South End.

It could have been stale, a follow-up to last year’s coverage by the Globe and several other outlets on the popular young adult. It might have gone the martyr direction, focusing on Fuentes’ transformation from troubled youth to standout worker. But with a nice blend of retrospective, detail and call to action, this feature stays true to its religious roots throughout while adding new insight to the as-yet-unsolved case.

The historical context of the program is highlighted through Fuentes’ childhood:

A largely white denomination once dubbed “the Republican Party at prayer,” and more recently best known for its internal battles over gay bishops, the Episcopal Church has quietly increased its commitment to combating urban violence in Boston and nearby cities, a commitment that shaped Fuentes’s life.

The church has focused on prevention, embracing a simple philosophy: Begin with children as young as 5, give them help with homework, playtime, field trips, and cultural activities. Invite them, as they become teenagers, to work on community service projects and help with younger people. Then, as they reach adulthood, offer them a job and a chance to lead. Put children at the center of a caring community, the thinking goes, and they will be OK.

And it’s defined further through the organic details of his tragic death:

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Kleenex alert: Tale of tragedy, irony and Christianity

It’s not every day that an obituary of a non-celebrity appears above the fold on a major daily newspaper’s front page. Rarer still is the mention, nay prominence, of a faith story unfolding within.

Bryan Marquard, veteran obit writer for the Boston Globe, no doubt did a double take when news of a young couple dying within 46 hours of each other crossed his desk. Marquard began making phone calls, and the result is a poignant piece about life, love and mortality — and an admirable incorporation of symbolic details about the couple’s Seventh-day Adventist backgrounds.

The lede sets the tone nicely:

When Neil Carruthers married Tina Nedelcu three years ago, he knew her funeral might arrive sooner than either wanted. She had already been treated for brain cancer, and had learned anew to talk and walk and coax her lovely voice to sing again in church.

For some, illness puts love on hold. Not Neil. “He said, ‘Mom, you don’t marry someone for their pedigree and you don’t marry them for their health history,’” his mother, Rosanne, recalled. “He told me, ‘Mom, whatever time we have, I want to spend with her.’”

As it turned out, Neil Carruthers had two days less to spend with his bride than either might have imagined. The husband/caregiver collapsed after leaving her bedside and died hours later; the cause of death is still pending an autopsy report. Tina Carruthers succumbed to cancer. Their families eulogized both at a joint service Sept. 28 at their congregation, the Stoneham Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In this story, readers are taken on a journey through Neil Carruthers’ early years at what Marquard labeled a Christian primary school and a Christian university (both of which I discovered online were, more precisely, Seventh-day Adventist institutions), his antics at a Seventh-day Adventist summer camp and how they found each other online at an Adventist dating website. We’re given a glimpse of their heartbreak, with Neil Carruthers reading highlighted passages of scripture from Tina Carruthers’ Bible out loud to her after she lost the ability to speak. And there’s this faith gem, too:

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The Boston Globe shows how to write about church planters

Earlier this month I called a story about a church planter in Brooklyn the worst religion story of the year. I don’t like to write harsh critiques (really, I don’t) but it’s frustrating to have an interesting story mangled by shoddy reporting. While reading that terrible Daily News piece I wondered, “What could this article have done right?”

To my surprise, the Boston Globe recently provided an answer. While their feature is about a group of church planters in Boston, rather than in Brooklyn, the similarities are close enough to show “what could have been.”

Most everything about the Globe article is praiseworthy so let’s begin with the biggest flaw, the lazily provocative title: “On a mission to save godless Massachusetts.” The headline is not only unfair to religious believers in an area once nicknamed “The Puritan State,” it’s unfair to the reporter and the subjects being written about in the article. Many readers will begin the story assuming the Evangelical Christians mentioned in the subhead claim the state is “godless,” when that is nowhere mentioned in the story.

What is claimed, and adequately defended by the reporter, Jonathan Fitzgerald, is not that the state is godless but that it has a low level of religiosity:

Once upon a time, Boston was a “city upon a hill.” Anyway, that’s what Governor John Winthrop told future Massachusetts residents sailing here in 1630. Evangelism practically started in this region in the 18th century, with Northampton’s Jonathan Edwards and his fiery sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yet today only about 11 percent of New Englanders consider themselves evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s compared with 26 percent nationwide and more than 50 percent in Bible Belt states.

Those numbers are for evangelical Christianity, but the rate of religiosity doesn’t seem to be much higher regardless of what (if any) faith New Englanders practice. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that the five least religious states in the country, based on the percentage of self-identified “very religious” Americans living there, are all in New England. Vermont is the least religious, followed immediately by New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. At number 11, Connecticut might as well be New England’s shining beacon of faith.

Throughout the article, Fitzgerald not only does a good job of providing context for why “church planters are eyeing the region” but he also explains why a trend that has been going on for decades (urban church planting) is worthy of a renewed attention:

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Scapegoating Bishop James Tengatenga

Dartmouth College President Philip J. Hanlon’s decision to nix the appointment of Bishop James Tengatenga as dean for moral and spiritual life has sparked spirited commentary from left and right  — and some solid reporting. An article in the Boston Globe entitled “Words on gays cost bishop post at Dartmouth” is a well sourced, balanced story that succinctly summarizes the issues at play.

In other words, we are cheering for a solid story on a difficult subject that is often mangled.

The lede begins:

Dartmouth College has rescinded the appointment of a prominent African bishop as dean of a campus institution that focuses on furthering the moral and spiritual work of the school because of controversy over his views on homosexuality.

The extraordinary move by Dartmouth’s new president, Philip J. Hanlon, to retract the college’s offer won praise from those who raised concerns about how the appointment would affect gay students on a campus that has sometimes struggled with intolerance.

But it left Bishop James Tengatenga of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi without a job and far out on a limb on gay issues in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality.

The article points out the irony of Dartmouth’s refusal to countenance any deviation from conventional wisdom in the name of “tolerance” — but it does this not by being preachy, but by allowing both sides to speak. Supporters and opponents of the appointment can recognize their views in this story, and it is left up to the reader to discern where the truth (and justice) lies.

I was particularly impressed by the Globe‘s sources from within the Anglican world. The commentators, while drawn exclusively from the liberal wing of the church, were first class. And the newspaper broke free from an America-only perspective, offering voices from America/Britain as well as Africa.

True, voices representing the views of the vast majority of African Anglicans were missing from this story, as was an explanation of these views — why does homosexuality evoke such strong moral and social disapprobation in Africa? Why do politicians use homosexuality as a club to beat their opponents? But does this represent a failure to “Get Religion?”

Were I the author of the piece I would have placed more emphasis on the religious/political culture from which Bishop Tengatenga arose, but the “I would have done it differently” argument is not about criticism but is a matter of taste. The rules of the craft — balance, context, detail, integrity — were all met by this well written piece.

A note of disclosure is in order though. I was peripherally involved in this mare’s nest.

This summer someone in the hierarchy of the Church of the Province of Central Africa — the Anglican body that includes Bishop Tengatenga’s Diocese of Southern Malawi — leaked news the bishop had resigned and was coming to America. A Malawian newspaper then printed the rumor (printing rumors as news is not uncommon, unfortunately, in the African press.)

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Untangling the Tsarnaevs’ Muslim ties, carefully

On Friday we asked readers to send in thoughts on good and bad coverage of religion angles for the Tsarnaev brothers. And we’ve seen quite a bit of good coverage — too much to go into but I hope you’re seeing it in your local and national outlets. We’ve also heard from religion reporters and others who pointed out problems.

One early problem was the attempt to define the brothers as either “devout” or “not devout.” For an example of the former, we have the New York Post:

The Chechen immigrant brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were devout Muslims who appeared to become more radicalized in recent months — posting Islamic “jihad” videos on social-media sites and following the preachings of a firebrand cleric.

I’d argue against using the word even when dealing with someone you think can be described that way without question. I’d avoid it like the plague when dealing with folks you don’t know terribly much about. It’s important when using that word to have a shared understanding of what it means to be devout in a given religion. In what way were they devout, exactly? Tell us more about their fasting, their alms-giving, their prayer lives, their Hajj journeys. Or is that not what the Post meant? What did they mean?

We see similar confusion about devotion at the other end of the spectrum, too. We frequently see reporters equate it with regular corporate worship — no matter if the religion itself holds corporate worship in the same way that, say, the Roman Catholic Church does. An Islamic community center isn’t just a Methodist Church for Muslims. Piety in Islam is not the same as piety in another religion, necessarily.

Still, a good first step in learning more about the suspects’ religious lives does involve finding out if they were part of a worship community. I was glad to see that the folks over at CNN made some calls early on. They reported:

Muslim leaders in Boston tell me they don’t know the suspects. They seem to not have ties to any of the big mosques in the area.

And:

Muslim leaders condemn bombing suspects and no Muslims in Boston seem to know them. http://on.cnn.com/13mRL1j

This Boston Globe story, “Islam might have had secondary role in Boston attacks,” followed a similar theme.

It turns out, though, that the brothers did pray at the local Cambridge mosque. Later stories mentioned that, adding that they exhibited no violent tendencies. Subsequent updates indicated that the older brother had publicly reprimanded a speaker who praised Martin Luther King, Jr. and had been asked to leave. Updates to that story included a different account — that the brother had simply been asked to calm down. This Boston Globe story says that there was more than one outburst. It’s all an evolving story, it seems.

When the news came out that the brothers had worshiped at the local Cambridge mosque, some reporters began calling it the “Islamic Center of Boston,” either in their stories or in tweets. It’s actually the Islamic Society of Boston. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in its story on the shouting incident:

At the Cambridge mosque near where the bombing suspects lived, two worshipers who showed up for Saturday’s prayer service recalled seeing both men.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was thrown out of the mosque — the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center — about three months ago, after he stood up and shouted at the imam during a Friday prayer service, they said. The imam had held up slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of a man to emulate, recalled one worshiper who would give his name only as Muhammad.

Enraged, Tamerlan stood up and began shouting, Muhammad said.

“You cannot mention this guy because he’s not a Muslim!” Muhammad recalled Tamerlan shouting, shocking others in attendance.

“He’s crazy to me,” Muhammad said. “He had an anger inside.… I can’t explain what was in his mind.”

Tamerlan was then kicked out of the prayer service for his outburst, Muhammad recalled. “You can’t do that,” Muhammad said of shouting at the imam.

Still, Tamerlan returned to Friday prayer services and had no further outbursts, Muhammad said.

The other mosque attendee, who identified himself only as Haithen, described Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as nice, friendly and “really laid back.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was different though. “His persona was not really so nice,” this worshiper said.

But it wasn’t the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center! After quite the Twitter campaign led by one of the ISBCC’s imams, the Times corrected the story. Still, there is some tie between the two groups. In a great round-up of the current news, Huffington Post explained:

Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the city’s largest mosque, said in an interview that he had recently heard of the incident. “That’s a sign right there that his views aren’t mainstream,” Webb said.

The Cambridge mosque leaders’ theology is not extremist, he said. Webb’s mosque has the same owners but a separate administration from the Islamic Society of Boston. Webb said he never met the brothers and had not found their names on his mosque’s membership list.

One of the things that might be helpful is learning a bit more about these “same owners” as well as their differing administrations. I mean, I understand that there are certain things that other congregations in my church body share and certain things that are different, but I’d love to know how that plays out among Muslim adherents. The ISBCC is run by the Muslim American Society, a group started by U.S. supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m somewhat surprised by how little journalism we see on the Muslim American Society, but here are some old pieces from the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, both of which are absolutely riveting.

Anyway, early reporting on this story could not have changed more dramatically. I hope we see more genuine interest in what role religion and religious communities played in these brothers’ lives — at home, in the local community and in the larger world.

Net image via Shutterstock.