Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism?

Let’s see: a meaty, 3,200-word religion story — part profile, part trend piece.

Quick, name the national news organizations producing such in-depth journalism on the Godbeat these days. Did Al Jazeera America make your list?

That relatively new U.S. media organization spotlighted “Downwardly mobile for Jesus” over the weekend. The superb feature drew praise from ordinary readers and journalism pros alike.

“Good reporting,” said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

The reader wrote:

This article could have been much more cursory but instead goes the distance on showing motivations, pitfalls, wins and losses along the way in this report on attempts to live a ministry in distressed urban areas.

Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi of CNN complimented the story, too:

The piece introduces readers to Matthew Loftus, a 27-year-old white man who moved into a poor, high-crime, nearly all-black neighborhood in Baltimore.

This section up high makes it clear that holy ghosts won’t haunt this report:

[Read more...]

Same-sex marriage and a conscience clash, via CNN

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, CNN’s “Belief Blog” features an excellent story by Godbeat pro Daniel Burke exploring the issue from the perspective of conservative Christians.

The headline:

Conservatives brace for ‘marriage revolution’

The story grabs readers’ attention by focusing on a civil rights vs. conscience clash in Washington state:

With its ivy-covered entrance and Teddy Bear bouquets, Arlene’s Flowers seems an unlikely spot to trigger a culture-war skirmish.

Until recently, the Richland, Washington, shop was better known for its artistic arrangements than its stance on same-sex marriage.

But in March, Barronelle Stutzman, the shop’s 68-year-old proprietress, refused to provide wedding flowers for a longtime customer who was marrying his partner. Washington state legalized same-sex marriage in December.

An ardent evangelical, Stutzman said she agonized over the decision but couldn’t support a wedding that her faith forbids.

“I was not discriminating at all,” she said. “I never told him he couldn’t get married. I gave him recommendations for other flower shops.”

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson disagreed, and filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Arlene’s Flowers. The ACLU also sued on behalf of the customer, Robert Ingersoll, who has said Stutzman’s refusal “really hurt, because it was someone I knew.”

After providing a closeup view of that single skirmish, the reporter backs up and paints a wide-angle portrait of the changing times and attitudes confronting social conservatives — from within and outside their own ranks. It’s all extremely interesting with credible (albeit fairly predictable) evangelical sources such as Albert Mohler, Russell Moore and Jonathan Merritt.

At the end, the story closes with the florist featured up top:

Online, Stutzman has been called a bigot, and worse.

She said she’s lost at least two weddings because of her refusal to provide services for the same-sex marriage.

Conservative activists say her case is the first of what will surely be many more, as gay marriage spreads across the country.

As she gets ready to face a judge, the silver-haired florist offered some advice for fellow evangelicals.

“Don’t give in. If you have to go down for Christ, what better person to go down for?”

As an evenhanded account of conservative Christian attitudes, the CNN story turns out fine. But here’s where it falls short: in providing any actual insight into the legal issues involved in the Washington state case.

In a separate story, The Associated Press reported:

[Read more...]

Protip: Religious liberty is a civil liberty

Let’s begin this post with a quick definition from Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, 4th edition:

civil liberties noun First Amendment guarantees, First Amendment Rights, freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, fundamental individual rights, guarantees from the Bill of Rights, human rights, individual rights, right to life, right to peacefully assemble, right to petition government for redress, right to privacy, right to property, right to worship

There are better definitions, but you get the gist. Freedom of speech is a civil liberty. Freedom of religion is a civil liberty.

Now let’s check out this Associated Press story headlined “Arizona House passes bill protecting religion.”

The Arizona House has passed a measure that would expand religious freedom protections…

Senate Bill 1178 would allow people to sue over potential violations of religious liberty. Civil liberties groups say the bill would be a nightmare for businesses because it could prompt a wave of lawsuits over alleged First Amendment violations.

Arizona law and the U.S. Constitution already protect religious freedom, but proponents say stricter language is needed.

Beyond the fact that the headline confuses religious liberty with religion and that this is basically the entirety of the article and that the article provides us no context for itself, how about that line that begins “Civil liberties groups say …”

In an era where journalists are ignorant of religious liberty debates, downplay them, scare quote them, or otherwise, consider this a simple public service announcement that religious liberty is a civil liberty.

If a group is fighting against that particular civil liberty, even if it calls itself a civil liberty group, work to phrase this one better.

WPost: Yes, we fear and loathe religious traditionalists

On Feb. 15, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton made a startling statement:

It is possible that I’ll be The Washington Post’s last independent ombudsman and that this chair will empty at the conclusion of my two-year term Feb. 28. If so, that will end nearly 43 years of this publication having enough courage and confidence to employ a full-time reader representative and critic.

His column today may give some insight into why. Or, as reporter Byron York wrote:

WaPo ombudsman publishes emails revealing paper’s mindset on social issues. No wonder they want to get rid of him. http://ow.ly/hYSgJ

Friends, it’s bad. And I’m not really talking about the column, although the column is bad, too.

The column covers an exchange between a reporter and a reader. The latter understands what journalism should be and the reporter reveals some breathtaking bigotry about the people he or she is supposed to be covering. Simply quoting that bigotry from an unnamed Washington Post journalist is devastating. Just devastating. If you wonder, sometimes, whether any reporters drip with contempt for religious conservatives, this will not disabuse you of that notion. Pexton sets it up:

I get a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls from readers who assert that The Post has a “pro-gay agenda” and publishes too many “puffy” stories about gay marriage, and that it even allows too many same-sex couples to appear in the Date Lab feature in Sunday’s WP Magazine.

“The conservative, pro-family side gets short shrift,” as one reader recently put it, and The Post “caters slavishly to Dupont Circle.”

Indeed, that reader got into a vigorous three-way e-mail dialogue with a Post reporter and me over the issue, an exchange that goes to the heart of the question of whether The Post, and journalists in general, are hopelessly liberal and genetically tone-deaf to social conservatives.

He quotes from the dialogue:

The reader wrote that Post stories too often minimize the conservative argument: “The overlooked ‘other side’ on the gay issue is quite legitimate, and includes the Pope, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, evangelist Billy Graham, scholars such as Robert George of Princeton, and the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness. … Is there no room in The Post for those who support the male-female, procreative model of marriage?”

Replied the reporter: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”

The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.

“Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as ‘haters.’ ”

The reporter: “As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?

“Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness,” the reporter continued. “The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”

That discussion is most revealing about journalists.

Why, we all know how much the Washington Post cares about civil rights, right? I couldn’t even begin to quantify how much ink has been spilled advocating for an entire class of humans deemed not deserving of even the most fundamental right to life. Why, sometimes I think the Washington Post almost cares too much about the scourge of abortion, don’t you? Oh wait, that’s right, they actually don’t care about that civil right at all. What’s more, they don’t even agree that the unborn human’s right to life *is* a civil rights issue — at least for the unborn children involved.

And guess what, unnamed reporter and your army of close-minded scribes: Whether or not there *is* a civil right to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples or other groupings is precisely — precisely — the debate at hand. In other words, some people make the claim that changing marriage law is a matter of civil rights. They claim, along with the the ruling in the California Prop. 8 decision, that bias against gays is rooted in religion (a claim with amazing and, to this point, completely unexplored implications). Others say that same-sex marriage is an ontological impossibility — that gender complementarity is an essential part of the definition of marriage, and therefore there is no civil right for marriage to be redefined as something for which gender is not essential.

Failure to understand the basic (and, frankly, not even that difficult to understand) arguments of those who oppose redefining marriage is inexcusable bigotry, particularly after years of witnessing what happens in the coverage of this debate. Reporters close their eyes, slam their fingers in their ears and shout “racist!” anytime a traditional marriage defender opens his or her mouth.

[Read more...]

Writing a puff piece: a how-to manual

Truth be told, in our bias for fair, accurate journalism, we at GetReligion probably focus too much on the negative.

We point out mistakes in mainstream reporting. We cry out for balance. We complain about the MSM bubble.

For once, I want to accentuate the positive. Therefore, please allow me to highlight a Seattle Times story this week as a perfect example of how to write a puff piece.

Before I begin, however, I must stress that reporters typically do not write their own headlines. In this case, the headline and deck might give the reader the mistaken impression that this will be an actual news story, not a puff piece (shame on the headline writer!):

In black churches, a gay-marriage divide

A source of debate across the country and the subject of ballot measures in four states this year, same-sex marriage remains a thorny issue within the African-American community, where objections are deeply rooted in religion and biblical teachings.

At this point, I must admit that I was worried. I feared that the story might subject me to actual intelligent voices on both sides seriously engaging the thorny issue and even providing insight (of a theological nature!) on the deeply rooted objections.

Whew! Imagine my relief when I realized that this would indeed be a puff piece.

Some key elements that make this puff piece work:

• The lede: Immediately, the Times takes readers to a gay-friendly church that stands as a stark contrast to the discriminatory black churches that — somehow in an enlightened age — still manage to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality:

Sounds of gospel music resonated through the sparse sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon as voices rose up in praise and a few hands sailed through the air.

Liberation United Church of Christ in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood is a small congregation with a style of Christian worship not unlike many charismatic black churches.

But its congregants, many of them African American, come here as much for the spiritual euphoria as for this: that as gays and lesbians, they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the churches of their parents and grandparents.

That’s particularly relevant in a year when questions about whether gays should be allowed to marry will appear on the November ballot in four states, including Washington.

The sourcing: The Times quotes eight sources by name, by my quick count. Fortunately, six of them support same-sex marriage and contribute mightily to the puff piece. But even the two sources who oppose same-sex marriage serve a purpose, providing caricatures with real names to highlight the lunacy of the other side:

Within the community, there are unspoken concerns, particularly among older people, that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow diminishes the discrimination blacks have endured.

Some have even said that given the challenges in the black community — from education to health care — marriage for gays cannot be a priority, despite a significant number of African Americans in same-sex relationships.

But ultimately for many, the Bible is the final arbiter.

“People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong,” said André Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, who has participated in recent rallies in favor of traditional marriage.

“Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them.”

Notice the way the story makes a lot of broad generalizations about the other side without attributing the information to a named source? That’s a brilliant tool for a puff piece. But then the story quotes a single pastor as the sole representative of the “many conservative leaders — including some black pastors” opposed to same-sex marriage. Again, brilliant.

• The marginalization: Make it crystal clear which point of view is on the right side of history and public opinion. (Hint: Don’t dare let on that a state referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage has never passed in the United States or that polls show support for the Washington state measure under 50 percent.) The proper way to write it:

While national polls now show majority support for gay marriage in the general population and among other racial and ethnic groups, support among black people remains under 50 percent — despite a bump after endorsements by President Obama and the NAACP.

Recently, black pastors in parts of the South and Midwest have encouraged voters to sit out the election or to consider not supporting Obama because of his position.

In Atlanta, Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s, said she would never suggest that people not vote. But she said she and some pastors are so disturbed by Obama’s endorsement they’ve formed an organization, GodSaid.org, to urge black Americans to vote their “biblical values” rather than a party line.

At this point, we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the story. The writer has allowed token appearances by the other side. But the entire rest of the story — the final one-third — needs to provide positive, compelling anecdotes and quotes to support the need for same-sex marriage. Bingo, the Times is up to the challenge! This is such a terrific puff piece — leads with the side that’s right, ends with the side that’s right and sprinkles the side that’s wrong in the middle, but just a little bit!

All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for a better puff piece.

Seattle skyline image via Shutterstock


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X