The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church

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The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog.

So says Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark.

For the purposes of GetReligion, I’ll add a second rule: Get the name of the church.

I found myself frustrated with the generic churches featured in a Wall Street Journal story on South Africa’s national day of prayer, held Sunday in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death.

QUNU, South Africa — South Africans filled houses of worship on Sunday to remember their first black leader, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked an outpouring of grief, remembrance and preparations for his hometown funeral and a memorial at a soccer stadium.

Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home at 95 years old, enjoyed near mythical status in the racially divided country, and President Jacob Zuma had designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on his life.

South African officials fanned out to different churches and synagogues in what amounted to a campaign to use the spirit of the late statesman to bridge the nation’s lingering societal divides.

“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation.”

That’s a perfectly fine summary of the day’s events. Except I want to know the name of the church. And beyond that, I’d love some insight on why the president chose the particular church where he spoke. Was there a historical or spiritual significance to the venue?

Later in the story:

“I’m worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu.

But what was the name of the church where she attended the prayer service? Am I wrong to want less vague identification of the houses of worship featured?

Contrast the story by the Journal — an exceptional newspaper that I praise way more often than I criticize — with the prayer day story published by the Washington Post:

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CNN puts religious liberty in scare quotes, but corrects it

It was one of the most famous First Amendment cases in American history. As the American Civil Liberties Union website notes:

One of the most noted moments in the ACLU’s history occurred in 1978 when the ACLU defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU persuaded a federal court to strike down three ordinances that placed significant restrictions on the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views. The decision to take the case was a demonstration of the ACLU’s commitment to the principle that constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.

Everyone knew that this was a First Amendment case testing the limits of free speech, both literal speech and free speech in the form of symbolic actions.

Some people thought that letting the Nazis march through Skokie was a valid application of the First Amendment. Others disagreed and thought that this case crossed a line and that the First Amendment didn’t apply.

But no one doubted that this was a free speech case that raised First Amendment issues.

No one tried to argue that this was actually a “free speech” case or a “First Amendment” case. There was no need for news-media “scare quotes” implying that the conflict didn’t really center on free speech and the First Amendment.

This brings me to an interesting lede in a CNN.com piece the other day. Here is the top of the story, as it first appeared on the Internat. See anything interesting?

Washington (CNN) – The high-stakes fight over implementing parts of the troubled health care reform law will move to the U.S. Supreme Court in coming months, in a dispute involving coverage for contraceptives and “religious liberty.”

The justices agreed … to review provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers of a certain size to offer insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay. At issue is whether private companies can refuse to do so on the claim it violates their religious beliefs.

Now, hours later the wording changed.

You got it. That scare-quote formula — “religious liberty” — changed to a plain, simple factual reference to religious liberty, minus the quotation marks.

Why mention this in conjunction with the famous Skokie case?

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CNN goes long to say little about clergy and Obamacare

In Ecclesiastes 12:12b, we read: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

Alas, the same might be said for this story from CNN’s Belief Blog, which spends an eye-popping 2,746 words to tell us something truly astonishing: some Protestant pastors don’t want to talk about aspects of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, also popularly known as “Obamacare,” from the pulpit.

All righty, then. Next!

Well, there is a tad more to the story: CNN reports that while some pastors — at least one — are happy to discuss the granting of access to health insurance to many individuals who could not get coverage before, such pulpit pounding is rare:

The Rev. Timothy McDonald gripped the pulpit with both hands, locked eyes with the shouting worshippers, and decided to speak the unspeakable.

The bespectacled Baptist minister was not confessing to a scandalous love affair or the theft of church funds. He brought up another taboo: the millions of poor Americans who won’t get health insurance beginning in January because their states refused to accept Obamacare.

McDonald cited a New Testament passage in which Jesus gathered the 5,000 and fed them with five loaves and two fishes. Members of his congregation bolted to their feet and yelled, “C’mon preacher” and “Yessir” as his voice rose in righteous anger.

“What I like about our God is that he doesn’t throw people away,” McDonald told First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta during a recent Sunday service. “There will be health care for every American. Don’t you worry when they try to cast you aside. Just say I’m a leftover for God and leftovers just taste better the next day!”

McDonald’s congregation cheered, but his is a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s willing to condemn state leaders whose refusal to accept Obamacare has left nearly 5 million poor Americans without health coverage. But few of the most famous pastors in the Bible Belt will join him.

Shocking, isn’t it?

Here we have one of the most controversial questions of the day, on a subject that is grabbing daily, if not hourly, headlines, fraught with complications on all sides, and some preachers — how dare they? — won’t be caught on camera or in an e-mail expressing an opinion about a public policy drama that hasn’t fully played out as yet.

One has to get 727 words into the text before coming to a highly logical explanation why many in the “Bible Belt,” as CNN deems it, might be skittish about jumping into the topic:

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Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Toasting the Godbeat

Last night the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty honored Eric Marrapodi, manager of CNN’s Belief Blog, with its first Vine & Fig Tree Journalist Award. I had the pleasure of attending and had an absolutely fantastic time and enjoyed meeting or seeing again many folks on the Godbeat.

I hadn’t really thought about what the evening would be like going in so I was pleasantly surprised at what a celebration of religion reporting it was. It’s really unusual to have even a small portion of a day set aside to honor good work or reflect on the importance of religion reporting.

Becket Fund President William P. Mumma got things going by talking about the Becket Fund, which fights for religious liberty on behalf of believers and non-believers alike. I wasn’t recording what he said but I was touched by his discussion of how difficult it is to cover religion, pointing out that believers are particular about their doctrines and that it can be difficult to navigate the conflict between religious adherents. He said he admired those who did it well. He noted that religion and the press are linked by a desire to find truth — a rather important point that I think we neglect. I recently read an essay about how the United States’ emphasis on a free press is actually rooted — from the infamous Zenger trial on — in a particular understanding of the importance of voluntarily seeking religious truth.

Sally Quinn toasted Marrapodi with a nice speech about how every story is about religion and how CNN’s BeliefBlog has done a great job showing that.

But it was Marrapodi’s speech that was the best. He joked about how he grew up freelance Protestant (which, he said, just meant that they went to a lot of different churches). When he was younger, he was utterly convinced that the media were biased against believers. Once he got into actual journalism work, he came to realize it wasn’t bias so much as ignorance. As he matured, he realized he was also ignorant of some things, which motivated him to study religion at Georgetown. He thanked his bosses who let him leave work early to take advantage of Lilly religion grant-funded courses at Georgetown. For three years!

Marrapodi talked about CNN’s Belief Blog and how he started it, giving props to fellow founder Dan Gilgoff. He joked about the site’s “broccoli and ice cream” approach — a balance of light and substantive stories. “You’ve got to keep the lights on folks!” he said. “This is a business!” The site has been wildly successful, with some 90 million hits in its first year. And I think he said the site had some 250 million hits at this point. Marrapodi said that there is a great audience for good, honest reporting on religion — and no religion.

It was all lovely. Marrapodi is a gracious award winner (and a great guy). And the night was a fun celebration of religion reporting. Congratulations to Marrapodi and to all who cover religion news well.

What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

What kind of religious divisions at the heart of the violence?

Well, how many of you out in GetReligion reader land have seen the following Associated Press report in your local newspaper, a national newspaper or your favorite news (as opposed to analysis) website? You would have seen a headline that looked something like this: “Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village.” A shout out to CBS, by the way, for at least covering that event online.

Anyway, all of that is to point readers toward a long, deep piece that ran the other day at the CNN Belief Blog, written by co-editor Daniel Burke, under this rather remarkable headline, in the current media climate: “Syria explained: How it became a religious war.” Here’s the top of the story:

(CNN) – How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?

In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.

Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.

Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other “infidels” and “Satan’s army.”

“That is why it has become so muddy,” said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The theological question has returned to the center.”

So who is crying out that the key to the rising conflict is religion? That would be the United Nations.

Why does that matter so much?

Religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes, according to studies. They are also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

“People hold onto religious fights longer than battles over land and water,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, an expert on foreign policy at Georgetown University and a 10-year veteran of the U.S. State Department. “It becomes existential and related to belief in a higher calling.”

Some combatants in Syria appear to believe that fighting in the name of God justifies the most barbaric measures.

Remember that video of a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier while shouting “God is great!”? Or the other video showing the beheading of three men with butcher knives, also while praising God?

Of course, as CNN accurately notes, the ruling regime has been just as brutal in many cases. However, one complication — yes, captured in the CNN report — is that Syrian troops are often the only forces that are standing between tiny, in many cases defenseless, religious minorities and the elements of the rebel forces that can accurately be called Islamist and, in some cases, linked to al Qaeda.

So who are the other players on this sectarian chess board?

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Jake Tapper on opinion journalism masquerading as news

I’m a longtime fan of Jake Tapper of CNN, and formerly of ABC News. I like that he asks tough but reasonable questions of politicians, regardless of which party they’re in. I like that he reports and presents the news without his opinion. I like that he’s not defensive when someone critiques his work.

Defensiveness is something we all suffer from, but we journalists seem to have it worse than most. But Tapper, being a high profile reporter, gets a lot of criticism. Sometimes he responds to it by agreeing with the critique and modifying his wording or approach. Sometimes he explains why he disagrees with the critique. He engages with readers and he cares about getting good stories. I only wish we had more journalists of his type.

You can see examples of how GetReligion has written about his work and his response to criticism here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, herehere, here, here, and here. What’s really striking about the frequency with which we write about his journalism is that he’s not a reporter of religion but of politics. Almost all of the reporters we praise that frequently are religion reporters. Most of our criticism is probably levied at political reporters. He clearly has an interest in the role religion plays in politics, and that interest has paid off with solid stories and a devoted following among various news consumers.

He gave a brief interview to Robin Rose Parker at the Washington Post Magazine. I thought it worth noting. A few of his thoughts:

Most interviews that I do are not super aggressive. They can’t be, and they shouldn’t be; that would get pretty tiresome. So when there’s an interview that’s tough or a question that’s tough, it’s something that raises eyebrows. It’s not easy to do that in the White House briefing room, at a press conference. That’s never easy. It’s not fun. Because as humans we are built to try to avoid conflict. Society constantly looks down its nose at conflict, even if the media doesn’t. And it’s not a comfortable feeling. It’s absolutely nerve-racking. It’s much easier to be chummy with people in power. It’s much easier to ask softball questions, to not upset the apple cart. And that’s why most people, including me, don’t spend all of their time asking tough questions. But there are times when they are called for, and I think definitely they’re needed in politics, in political journalism.

He talks about how he appreciates those politicians that rise to the challenge of answering tough questions as well as those that understand it’s his job to ask those questions. I particularly liked his concluding thoughts:

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Hurrah: Learning more about Antoinette Tuff’s religion

The other day I was reading an obituary of Tom Christian, descendent of the Bounty mutineer. It was in the New York Times and written by my very favorite obituary writer, Margalit Fox.

So, right up top the obit included this line:

Mr. Christian, who for his services to Pitcairn was named a Member of the British Empire in 1983, was long considered an elder statesman on the island. He served for years on the Island Council, the local governing body, and was a lay elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which most islanders belong.

Thank you! It’s a common refrain here, but oh how frustrating it is to not learn the basics of someone’s religious affiliation. It seems like such a modest expectation, but one that is frequently unmet.

Which gets us to this follow-up about my new favorite person: Antoinette Tuff.

You may remember that she’s the bookkeeper who talked a deranged man out of shooting up any students or faculty at an Atlanta area school. Listening to her 9-1-1 call is wonderfully inspirational. She’s so realistic about the threat but she just manages her fear and speaks to the gunman with love. We talked about some early coverage here.

A long-time GetReligion reader sent in this CNN story that explored some of her religious views, headlined “CNN Exclusive: A hug, then ‘We made it!’ as school bookkeeper, dispatcher reunite.” The story is about Tuff and 9-1-1 dispatcher Kendra McCray:

In their voices, both women sounded calm throughout the call — even as gunshots were ringing out around Tuff, and later when the suspect reached into a bag to reload his AK-47-type assault rifle.

But inside, they now admit, they were terrified.

McCray recalled Thursday how her hands were shaking, though she knew that she couldn’t reveal her fears in her voice. And Tuff said she was trying to incorporate the lessons she’d learned in church to stay strong for herself, the 800-plus elementary school students in the classrooms behind her — and for the gunman whom she came to feel for.

“I was actually praying on the inside,” she recalled. “I was terrified, but I just started praying.”

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