10 years of GetReligion: Arne’s view from 10,000 feet

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Dr. Arne H. Fjeldstad is a veteran journalist who worked at a variety of mainstream Norwegian newspapers and then as a publisher in Egypt and North Africa. He is also a Lutheran pastor and has a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He leads The Media Project, which includes GetReligion.

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Mainstream media is up for a big challenge in the coming years. Nope, I am not talking new technology, lack of finances for print media and rapidly declining numbers of readers both for magazines and the daily newspaper. Or any other of the many rapid changes in media reality today. I am talking about the challenge of a paradigm shift in mainstream media.

Possibly the challenge is even greater in Europe (where I live when I am not on the road or in an airplane at 10,000 feet) but also US media as well as many media elsewhere in the world will need to change their attitude and policy. Start focusing for new ways to meet the growing demands for real knowledge about the world, the society and the neighborhood. Real knowledge that will include knowledge about history, culture and religion. Yes, religion.

Religion will be the key to the ongoing paradigm shift. It’s all about religion and the impact of faith in any culture, in any country or region of the world. The challenge for any news media is to “get religion.” Understand its impact — good and bad. Simply because religious faith, religious culture and religious history again and again are the key to understand why news happens.

“We are at the end of the secularist era. The New Religious Era is upon us,” says the British expert on religion and media, Dr. Jenny Taylor who runs Lapido Media in the United Kingdom. Great Britain is home to a conglomerate of faiths and cultures with the Anglican church in sharp decline and a growth of postmodern and post-postmodern spirituality. They are facing a rapidly changing society and a changing culture as well. Religion is starting to play a crucial role. Tayor adds:

“Religion is trendy. (Not Christianity of course. Not church. Perish the thought.) But any shaven-headed sociologist with an ear-ring, any hijabbed and articulate ‘outreach worker,’ any multi-faith professional in fact will look oddly at you if you mention the traditional reticence of the British about faith. Good grief. Even the leader of the English Defence League is ‘taking religious instruction’ from the sheikh — Usama Hasan — who runs Quilliam Foundation.”

The new religious era is still at its beginning and will need to fight its way through the minds of people and into the newsrooms.There is a lot of “old beliefs” still present in the minds of very intelligent, highly educated and tech savvy journalists in the West. They are in for a surprise — and a challenge.

Dr. Stewart M. Hoover (click for .pdf) expresses the “old faith” of media professionals in these words:

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Jim Davis agrees to join GetReligion’s thriving Florida bureau

EDITOR’S NOTE: What can I say? When I lived in South Florida this guy was the local professional on the religion beat whose work landed in my front yard. Also, surely it means something that one of his email addresses is “religionwriter.” To cut to the chase, I’m happy to report that James Davis, one of the gentlemen of the profession in recent decades, is joining us here at GetReligion.

Stop and think about it. With Father George Conger already based in Central Florida, I think the odds are getting better that there may someday be a GetReligion cruise to the Caribbean.

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Thanks to tmatt for the invitation to write for GetReligion. I’ve long admired the blog and I’ve known tmatt as a colleague on the religion beat for (slurred number) years. I’m honored to breathe the rarefied atmosphere here.

For myself, I worked for four decades until November 2012 with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, most of it as religion editor. Most of my work focused on religion at the local level, covering the unbelievably rich mix of religions that is South Florida.

Among the stories I produced were two in-depth articles on Holocaust Revisionism, which were cited in a book by the American Jewish Committee; religious groups’ roles in recovery efforts after hurricanes Andrew and Wilma; Luis Palau’s Beachfest, which drew 300,000 people over two days; three appearances of the Dalai Lama, his first-ever to South Florida; the founding of the Jewish Museum of Florida, and in-depth features on Hindus and Muslims in South Florida.

I’ve taken occasional dips in the national pool, though: covering conferences of United Methodists, rabbis, evangelicals, religious broadcasters and two U.S. tours of Pope John Paul II. I also covered the centennial meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. And I wrote several stories on Heritage U.S.A., before and after the Rev. Jim Bakker was ousted.

I received a religion writing award in 2010 from the Florida Press Club. I was a finalist twice for Religion Writer of the Year with the Religion Newswriters Association and once for the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year. And I’ve been given awards by Hadassah, the United Hindu Front and the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center.

Since leaving the Sun Sentinel, I’ve been working mostly with The Florida Catholic, in the Miami and Palm Beach diocesan editions, and occasionally for the statewide edition. I’ve contributed about 35 stories and a half-dozen photo galleries of art in churches. I’m also branching into copy editing. I’ve worked on two academic studies for the University of Florida and a study guide for a series of devotional films. And I was recently accepted as a copy editor for Zondervan.

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10 years of GetReligion: Why we are still here, part I

The late Leonard Smith was, according to his Jan. 26 obituary at the Greenwich Time newspaper in Southwest Connecticut, a radically independent man who never hid his beliefs. A native of New York City, he was World War II veteran and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He liked to sail and raise hunting dogs. He was devoted to his wife and five kids, to the churches they frequented and to charities.

I have a strong suspicion that quite a few faithful GetReligion readers would have liked Mr. Smith — a whole lot.

Why is that? Consider this passage at the end of his obituary:

Leonard Smith hated pointless bureaucracy, thoughtless inefficiency and bad ideas born of good intentions. He loved his wife, admired and respected his children and liked just about every dog he ever met. He will be greatly missed by those he loved and those who loved him. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you cancel your subscription to The New York Times.

Yes, there are quite a few people in this great land of ours who not afraid to share their negative feelings about The New York Times.

As that famous 2005 Times self study — “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” — noted:

We fully accept that there are those who love to hate The Times. Though there may be no dissuading them, often there is value in engaging with more open-minded critics. And beyond that debate, productive communication is certainly possible with a much larger body of people — readers and nonreaders alike — whose opinions of The Times are not so fixed. We should focus our efforts on them, with the goal of making it far easier for them to see more than unanswered attacks on our ethics and professionalism.

“Amen” to that. No, honest.

When Douglas LeBlanc and I launched GetReligion 10 years ago our goal was to offer both positive and negative criticism of religion coverage in the mainstream press. (The first post is dated Feb. 1, 2004, but it went live on Feb. 2.) We wanted to be able to defend the press from many religious readers who, essentially, just want to see PR releases backing their side of any argument. Yes, and we wanted to be able to criticize errors of fact, glaring religion-shaped holes in stories (more on those “ghosts” later) and stories that failed to offer accurate, balanced treatment of serious voices in public debates.

To get specific, we wanted to be able to defend The New York Times from critics who never cut that great newspaper any slack, who never see the amazingly broad coverage that it provides day after day. We wanted to argue that the problem with the Times is that it is inconsistent in its pursuit of the essential journalism virtues. It offers page after page of quality coverage and then, boom, readers run into a story that may as well have been written in the press office of this or that activist group linked to the very issue being covered.

But here’s the key: We wanted to be able to argue that the problems were caused by an inconsistent approach to news, not by a specific bias in the newspaper that was being applied in a doctrinaire manner (as many critics would insist).

And then you know who said you know what.

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Hey journalists: Please look up ‘fetus’ in a dictionary

Once again, let us return to the dictionary and ponder why some journalists in our age are having trouble using a basic scientific term that has become all too common in our news.

The word of the day is “fetus.” Look it up and you’ll find the following information or something close to it:

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es

… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

Now, GetReligion readers may recall that the word “fetus” became rather controversial during the trial of the infamous Dr. Kermit Gosnell. At the heart of that trial were debates about the accuracy of allegations made by Gosnell’s coworkers that he regularly delivered late-term “fetuses” (as many news reports said) alive and then killed them.

Of course, there’s the journalism issue — clear as day. Gosnell was not killing “fetuses,” because these children had already been delivered. With the snip of his scissors, he was killing, one after another, newborn babies. What part of “to the moment of birth” is so hard for some editors and reporters to grasp?

Clearly, language used in press reports was being shaped by larger debates about law, abortion, morality, religion and science. Religion? Yes. More on that in a minute.

I thought this mainstream-media argument ended with the Gosnell trial, when The New York Times tweaked its published reports on the trial.

Apparently not, as the still Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway recently tweeted:

And what did that language look like in the Associated Press report?

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Readers get hot and bothered about ‘Sin Burger’ reports

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GetReligion is almost a decade old and, from the very beginning, many readers have struggled to understand a very basic fact about this blog. To state the matter bluntly, many readers think this is a religion blog.

Sorry, but this isn’t a religion blog and it isn’t a religion-news blog, either. GetReligion is what it is. This is a blog about the mainstream news media’s efforts — good and bad — to cover religion news.

Because of this misunderstanding, readers often send us stories and they want to know what we think about the news event or trend described in the story. Most of the time, this happens when a news story describes something that readers find outrageous, heretical, stupid or all of the above.

Thus, it didn’t take long for your GetReligionistas to receive emails asking us to comment about a particular hamburger being served at an edgy or outrageous joint up in Chicago.

A news story about a hamburger?

Sigh. This Forbes story was one of the better examples of the coverage, and here is how it starts off:

In Chicago, Kuma’s Corner, a heavy metal-themed beers-and-burgers restaurant, has ignited a debate over a burger that unites beef and the Eucharist.

The hamburger of the month is the Ghost, named for a Swedish metal band known as Ghost or Ghost B.C., the lead singer of which wears a Roman Catholic cardinal’s robe on stage. The burger features a 10-ounce beef patty accompanied by slow-braised goat, a “Ghost chile aioli,” white cheddar cheese, a pretzel bun, a red wine reduction, and an unconsecrated communion wafer.

Yes, you read that right. And the management claims that this hamburger is some kind of act of devotion:

The restaurant’s Facebook announcement deems the burger in “the spirit of our undying reverence for the lord and all things holy” and “a fitting tribute to the supreme blasphemous activities carried out by the band itself,” describing the red wine reduction as “(the blood of christ)” and the communion wafer as “(the body of christ).” The call to action: “Come pay your respects!” The cost: $17.

Now, as you would imagine, some readers seemed anxious for your GetReligionistas to be outraged and to strongly condemn this rather stupid PR stunt.

The problem, of course, was that most of the coverage of this alleged news event was rather pedestrian. The MEDIA COVERAGE was rather ordinary — not too hot, not too cold. Reporters described the restaurant. Reporters described people being outraged by this product. It was pretty clear that this stunt was meant to outrageous. Surf around in this Google News search file and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, here is the journalistic key to this situation.

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So long, GetReligion

It was about eight years ago exactly when I surprised Terry Mattingly by shouting his name as I encountered him on the street. His visage was familiar to me because I’d grown up reading him in “the Rocky” — the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado. My parents had always encouraged my siblings and me to read the newspapers and I devoured both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News every day. Front page to last page. I was interested in journalism from a young age, starting a newspaper at my elementary school and eventually editing the Yearbook at my high school in my junior and my senior year.

But for some odd reason, I never thought of journalism as an actual way to earn a living. I studied economics and headed into a different career field. But all of my journalist friends were having so much fun, even if they didn’t make a lot of money. I asked for advice and then took the plunge, somehow faking good enough Spanish-language skills to get a job at Radio & Records (and its sister publication Radio y Musica). One job led to another and I was living the dream — covering the federal bureaucracy on the waste, fraud and mismanagement beat for a Gannett publication.

I wanted to be writing about things that really mattered, though. Mostly that meant baseball, but also economics. And religion. Like most people, I’m religious. And while I loved reading a good news story about religion, I couldn’t believe how poorly much of the media covered religion news. The laughable mistakes, the complete distortion of doctrine, the hostility. So when GetReligion launched in 2004 or so, I was an early reader. I learned so much. It helped me develop a critical eye — an important first step to becoming a good writer.

By the time I chased Terry Mattingly down the street in 2005, I had begun writing about religion in my freelance time. I found that editors were actually quite anxious to pay people to write reported pieces on news and responded well to informed writers.

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Saith EEE: The business of those religion-beat cuts

The other day I received an email from a former GetReligion colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans, in which she posed an interesting question. She wanted an update on the status of my weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service, including how many papers ran the column through Scripps or through the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

It was an absolutely crazy week in my day job and, well, I didn’t have a chance to promptly answer the email. That’s digital life, I am afraid. My bad.

There was, however, another journalistic reason for the delay. The simple fact is this: Since very few small- and medium-sized newspapers put wire-service products — like my column — on their websites, it’s hard to run an online search and answer that kind of question. I wish I knew the answer to that one, myself. I hear from people all the time responding to my columns, readers from places that I had no idea the column appeared.

Anyway, I really wish I had answered EEE’s email, since it is now clear what she was working on. She was working on a column for The Lancaster (Pa.) Journal about — you got it — the current state of the Godbeat in light of recent exits. Eisenstadt-Evans is a veteran reporter, freelancer and columnist, as well as an Episcopal priest.

So what we have here is yet another update, and a fine one at that, on the topic that our own Bobby Ross, Jr., and others have been covering over and over. Click here for a recent post that has links to commentary from Poynter.org, Bobby, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, myself and others.

Read it all, please. But here is a slice or two of what she had to say.

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Advent of a GetReligion scribe: Mark Kellner climbs aboard

Greetings, I am Mark Kellner, and right now you can call me the “new kid” on the GetReligion block.

First things first: Alongside my faith, there’s something else in which I deeply believe: journalism. That may seem heretical — or even just dumb — but hear me out.

More on that in a minute. Here are the basic journalism facts about my work.

By day, I’m privileged to serve as news editor for two magazines: Adventist Review and Adventist World, general papers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. By night, I write about several topics, mostly for The Washington Times, one of which is religion. I’ve had an interest in religion news for many years, having written on the subject for a bunch of publications including Christianity Today, Charisma and even (once upon a time, during the Reagan administration), Religion News Service. Long ago (in 1996, to be precise), my book, “ “God on the Internet” was published, and the wonderful and learned Phyllis Tickle called it a sine qua non in her book, “God-Talk in America.”

My other longtime journalistic interest, albeit on hiatus now, is in personal computing technology. For nearly 22 years, I wrote a weekly column, “On Computers,” for The Washington Times as well as working for (and, in one case, editing) computer magazines for business and personal users. I’m a confirmed Apple “fanboy,” but with a non-religious reason: the stuff works better than most other alternatives out there. (Discuss amongst yourselves, please, and of course, your mileage may vary.)

One of my favorite t-shirts, from the Religion Newswriters Association, says, “Religion Writers Are Sects Experts,” and given my interest in American-born religions (among other topics), I certainly agree with that statement. There are few areas in journalism as interesting or constantly changing as the religion news scene, so following developments there is of great interest. Watching how other people write about religion news is equally interesting.

Which leads me to my interest in serving the GetReligion community: having had exposure to a wide range of religion news topics, while on both sides of the notebook, I hope to bring some of that knowledge to bear in looking at how this news is being covered.

Like others here, I believe religion news is best covered by professionals who know a thing or two about the subject. Just as a police beat reporter could, conceivably, write a serviceable account of the U.S. Open tennis championship, you’re more likely to get a better report from someone who knows more about the game and the players. In religion, those who understand some of the basics and even some of the background/subtext behind a story are more likely to convey things clearly and, one hopes, fairly. It’s journalism, in other words.

That’s what I mean when I say that one of the things in which I “truly believe” is journalism. It is through journalism — content that is professionally created and, to use an au courant word, “curated” by an editor (or via several editors) before appearing online or in print — that we can learn reliable information about what’s going on in the world, and that includes the world of faith. From that basis, we can then make informed decisions about various issues of the day. Thus, I believe good journalism can improve a society, and perhaps even change lives. When journalism is poorly done, covering religion or anything else, no one is well served.

The other thing in which I truly believe is God, whom I’ve found as a believer; that includes what might be deemed a traditional view of Christian faith. That won’t keep me from writing, and I hope fairly, about other faiths, but as the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isa. 40:8) I respect other points of view, of course, and hope you’ll respect mine.

Thanks for sharing this journey with me, and I hope you’ll find my contributions useful.


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