How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate

Let’s assume that many if not most professionals in an elite newsroom in Southern California — The Los Angeles Times, perhaps — will be tempted to believe that they know more about sex than most parents and educators in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi. Safe assumption?

My goal here is not to settle that question, so please do not click “comment” just yet.

If the leaders of this newspaper decided to write a news feature on sex education in Mississippi, I would assume that they would know, from the get-go, that they would need to go out of their way to quote the voices of articulate, qualified people in Mississippi on both sides of this hot-button issue. After all, journalists committed to journalism would never think of imposing their own beliefs and values on, let’s say, people in radically different cultures overseas, cultures built in part on other religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Right?

Ironically, the journalists in this case study face a challenge that is very similar to the one faced by Mississippi educators — they are trying to find a way for committed believers with clashing views to be heard in the same forum. One group is trying to mix clashing voices in classrooms, while the other is trying to do balanced, accurate, fair-minded journalism in a major newspaper.

So with that in mind, let’s scan the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under this double-decker headline:

Sex education stumbles in Mississippi

Even a law requiring schools to teach sex ed is falling short in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.

And here’s the opening of the story:

TUNICA, Miss. – Marie Barnard was delighted when, after decades of silence on the topic, Mississippi passed a law requiring school districts to teach sex education. But the lesson involving the Peppermint Pattie wasn’t what she had in mind for her sons.

The curricula adopted by the school district in Oxford called on students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.

“They’re using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she’s had sex — that she’s been used,” said Barnard, who works in public health. “That shouldn’t be the lesson we send kids about sex.”

She and other parents lobbied the district to teach about contraception, not just abstinence. After all, as she and other parents noted, 76% of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school.

OK, remember that the purpose of this post is not to argue about sex education. My goal is to discuss journalism ABOUT a debate over sex education.

What is the warning flag in that opening anecdote?

Right: The newspaper accepts as gospel truth Barnard’s second-hand quotation about what was taught in that Peppermint Pattie session. After using a second-hand quotation like that one, it was going to be very, very important for the Times (a) to confirm what was actually contained in the guidelines for that class and/or (b) what the teacher leading the class actually said. If that is not possible, it would certainly be crucial to talk to a teacher or school official who knows what teachers are instructed to say in that class exercise and, thus, can explain the intended message.

In other words, it is not good journalism to assume that the enemies of a particular point of view are the best authorities on the content or intent of those who advocate that point of view. That’s true when dealing with ideas, movements and people on the cultural left and right. It’s simply basic journalism.

Now, does this Times report include material from an articulate defender of that classroom lesson or others like it? After all, the journalistic goal is to be fair and accurate when dealing with both sides of this debate. Correct?

So how many cultural conservatives are quoted in this piece, how many experts on the logic behind that point of view?

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Time: McConaughey’s ‘confounding’ speech at Oscars

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Did you hear that awkward sound at the Oscars last night, the one right after Matthew McConaughey offered his thoughts on the meaning of life, family and, perhaps, Pilgrim’s Progress? Here’s the quote that is getting so much cyber-ink today:

“First off I want to thank God, because he’s the one I look up to, he’s graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human kind. He has shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates. In the words of the late (British actor) Charlie Laughton, who said, ‘When you got God, you got a friend and that friend is you.’”

The only really mysterious part of that is the “and that friend is you” part at the end of that section of the speech where McConaughey pointed out toward, but slightly above, the rather shocked audience. Was the actor — previously known more for his ripped torso than his theological views — saying that individuals in Hollywood, if they embrace God, can finally come to peace with their complicated relationships with, well, themselves?

The confounded editorial team at the Time entertainment section tried to sum up the mini-sermon this way. Here’s the headline:

Explaining Matthew McConaughey’s Confounding Acceptance Speech

We parse it all for you — “Amen and Alright Alright Alright”

And then:

After winning for his role as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Matthew McConaughey launched into a semi-bizarre tale about his inner life. Here is what we learned:

1. He needs someone to look up to, something to look forward to and someone to chase.

2. He wants to thank God, who he looks up to. God is all about gratitude.

3. He wants to thank his family, who he looks forward to. His deceased father, he believes, is celebrating with a big pot of gumbo and a can of Miller Lite. His mother, still with us, taught him how to respect himself.

4. The person he chases is himself, 10 years into the future. He knows he will never catch up, but he wants to find out who that guy will turn out to be.

5. To all of that, he says “Amen,” ”Alright, Alright, Alright” and “Keep on Livin’.”

Now, if you watch the whole speech — which I urge you to do — it seems that the Time entertainment team was hearing most of his words, but failed to grasp the meaning of this particular meditation. For example, what’s up with the “God is all about gratitude” part, unless Time is saying that the “all about” reference is slang noting that God is pro-gratitude.

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Religious freedom vs. gay discrimination in Arizona

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Here we go again.

In Arizona, a religious freedom bill has riled gay rights supporters, as The Associated Press puts it. Or, as a Los Angeles Times headline describes it, gay rights activists are in an uproar over the “religious freedom” (scare quotes courtesy of the Times) measure headed to Gov. Jan Brewer.

In Phoenix, readers of The Arizona Republic woke up to this banner front-page headline this morning:

Religion bill OK’d, on way to Brewer

The subhead:

Measure pits freedom against discrimination

The Republic’s big type certainly plays the story down the middle, avoiding the seeming bias of some national media reports.

But what about the local newspaper’s story itself?

Let’s start at the top:

The Arizona Legislature has passed a controversial religion bill that is again thrusting Arizona into the national spotlight in a debate over discrimination.

House Bill 2153, written by the conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit.

The bill, which was introduced last month and has been described by opponents as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, has drawn national media coverage. Discussion of the bill went viral on social media during the House floor debate Thursday.

Opponents have dubbed it the “right to discriminate” bill and say it could prompt an economic backlash against the state, similar to what they say occurred when the state passed the controversial immigration law Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.

So, the bill is controversial. It’s conservative. It’s concerning to gay rights advocates.

Is it just me, or does the Republic story — unlike the headline and subhead — seem tilted up high?

In the fifth paragraph, the Phoenix newspaper finally gets around to explaining the position of the supporters:

Proponents argue that the bill is simply a tweak to existing state religious-freedom laws to ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to do something that goes against their beliefs.

After that rough start, however, the Republic actually does an excellent job of highlighting the debate — pro and con — on the bill:

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Breaking news (again): Bible Belt divorce rates high

News travels fast. Sometimes.

In 1999, The Associated Press reported on Bible Belt states battling the highest divorce rates in the nation.

As religion editor of The Oklahoman in 2002, I wrote a series of stories on Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating’s effort to reduce my home state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate.

Nearly a decade later, CNN became the latest to report that — surprise, surprise — D-I-V-O-R-C-E is a problem in the red states.

Just last week, I referenced Oklahoma’s high divorce rate again in analyzing coverage of a federal judge striking down the Sooner State’s ban on same-sex marriage. However, I added:

But lest anyone jump to the easy conclusion that there’s no difference between people sitting in the pews and everyone else when it comes to divorce, be sure to read Religion Newswriters Association president Bob Smietana’s recent Facts & Trends piece on “bad stats.”

So why do I bring up all of the above one more time?

Because the Los Angeles Times just published a story on a new study examining the issue:

Divorce is higher among religiously conservative Protestants – and even drives up divorce rates for other people living around them, a new study finds.

The study, slated to be published in the American Journal of Sociology, tackles the “puzzling paradox” of why divorce is more common in religiously conservative “red” states. If religious conservatives believe firmly in the value of marriage, why is divorce especially high in places like Alabama and Arkansas?

To figure that out, researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Iowa analyzed county divorce statistics against information from an earlier study of religious congregations. They categorized Protestant denominations that believe the Bible is literally true as “conservative Protestants.”

Researchers discovered that higher divorce rates among conservative Protestants were tied to earlier marriages and childbearing – factors known to ramp up divorce. Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages, University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer Glass said.

Unfortunately, the Times story is shallow (less than 500 words) and relies on stereotypes:

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Will Pope Francis embrace all the ‘progressive’ nuns?

Journalists are rarely true prophets, but they often try to look into the future and see what they want to see — often with the help of long-time sources on one side of an issue who are also anxious to see what they want to see.

The sources for these wish-fulfillment stories are real. The quotes are real and almost always valid. The issue addressed in a trial-balloon story of this kind may be timely. However, it is crucial to note that these reports rarely feature quotations from people on the other side of whatever hot-button issue is being, allegedly, covered.

That appears to be the case with the recent Los Angeles Times story that ran under the headline, “Vatican observers look for thaw between Pope Francis, U.S. nuns.”

The lede is a picture perfect:

When the Vatican censured an organization representing thousands of American nuns, it did so in part because the group had not spoken out enough against gay marriage and abortion.

The Vatican said the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had espoused “radical feminist themes,” adding, “Issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.”

Now, some observers of the Roman Catholic Church are wondering whether the arrival of a new pope will thaw the frosty relationship between the nuns and the Holy See.

You can just feel the yearning, can’t you?

Now, all kinds of people observe the Vatican and some even know what they are talking about.

So who are the voices of conservative Catholic authority in this piece who believe that Pope Francis is going to embrace the DOCTRINAL STANDSclick here for a refresher — taken by these progressive nuns? As you read the piece, look for traditional Catholic voices who believe that this pope is going to be “inclusive” when it comes to their doctrinal views on abortion, salvation, Christology and, well, neopagan approaches to faith?

Again and again, it must be stressed that the Vatican, even under Pope Benedict XVI, praised these nuns for their stands on poverty and social justice. Yet the Los Angeles Times piece, as you would expect, notes:

In September, 17 months after the censure, Pope Francis said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” Since he took office in March, the pontiff has also repeatedly spoken about the need for economic justice, which would seem to match the nuns’ emphasis on serving the poor.

Meanwhile, I can’t find a single conservative or centrist Catholic voice quoted in the piece. Did I miss someone?

Instead, the story does a fine job of repeating the mantra that “some observers” think this and that “some actions” of the new pope can be interpreted as favorable to the progressive nuns by these clusters of nameless observers at the Vatican.

Meanwhile, there are — as there should be — on the record quotes from some academics who back the editorial viewpoint of this story.

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Paparazzi snap model in church, model snaps back

Instagram photo posted by Cara Delevingne

Can’t a Victoria’s Secret angel slip into a pew without being photographed from the altar?

It would seem not, as UK catwalk sensation Cara Delevingne lamented her loss of privacy Thursday on Instagram by sharing an image of two men with camera gear trailing her inside a Florence, Italy, church.

The Los Angeles Times cobbled together a story for its entertainment section (the standing feature is called Ministry of Gossip, the Gospel on Celebrity and Pop Culture, which I think is funny).

Delevingne, minus her wings, was taking a break from filming the drama (get this) “The Face of an Angel” to visit an unnamed house of worship when she called foul on the photographers, the Times said.

All would have been fine if that’s where the brief had ended. But the Times asked questions it didn’t answer:

Social media-savvy Delevingne was the most Googled fashion figure in the U.K. in 2013, according to the Telegraph, so demand for photos of the Engish “It” girl is not surprising. But do they really need to be in a church? (It’s unclear if the model was sightseeing or praying.)

We have at least three unanswered questions, by my count.

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LATimes asks some of the crucial Cardinal Mahony questions

If you were going to design a Catholic cardinal (as opposed to an Episcopal Church bishop) who would please the powers that be at The Los Angeles Times, that man would have to look a whole lot like Cardinal Roger Mahony.

Obviously, Mahony never tossed out the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith. However, he was also never anxious to step on the toes of liberal Catholics who leaned in that direction. Meanwhile, he was one of the princes of the church that doctrinally conservative (and politically conservative) Catholics most loved to hate and it was easy to see that the cardinal felt the same way about them.

Cardinal Mahony took over in 1985 and his progressive Catholic resume grew year after year. He was a strong voice on Latino issues and immigration. After the Los Angeles riots, he was the voice of moral authority seeking peace and economic justice. He was one of the first people Al Gore would see when he hit town to talk about the environment. He spoke out early and often on the death penalty, labor conditions and nuclear disarmament. He was the driving force behind the massive, postmodern, all-but-interfaith Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that cost $189 million and infuriated liturgical traditionalists (and some on the economic left) who called it the “Taj Mahony.”

As a stunning Times profile put it earlier this month:

Where his predecessors had talked up praying the rosary, Mahony touted his positions on nuclear disarmament and Middle East peace, porn on cable TV and AIDS prevention. No issue seemed outside his purview: When an earthquake struck El Salvador, he cut a $100,000 check. When a 7-year-old went missing in South Pasadena, he wrote her Protestant parents a consoling letter.

Reporters took notes and the influential took heed. The mayor, the governor, business executives and millionaires recognized a rising star and sought his company.

Among the thousands of papers that crossed his desk in September 1986 was a handwritten letter.

“During priests’ retreat … you provided us with an invitation to talk to you about a shadow that some of us might have,” Father Michael Baker wrote. “I would like to take you up on that invitation.”

The note would come to define Mahony’s legacy more than any public stance he took or powerful friend he made.

In other words, there was a bomb ticking during the entire Mahony era. That bomb, of course, was the hidden cost — personal, spiritual and financial — of the scandal rooted in the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy under the control of the cardinal.

This massive Times piece does a very, very solid job of charting the sweep of the scandal, using the sickening case of Father Michael Baker as the connecting thread.

The documents in the scandal are outlined and dissected. It’s easy to see why Mahony was such a symbolic figure, in part because his tenure in Los Angeles began precisely at the start of the clergy-abuse-scandal headlines. His career arc, notes the Times, aligns perfectly with the whole scandal era and he was still in power when everything came crashing down, with the release of the massive secret files stashed away by his staff.

Yes, this is the rare piece that actually begins at the beginning, not with the headlines in Boston.

… In 1985, after a molester priest caused a scandal in Louisiana, U.S. bishops held a closed-door session on abuse at their annual conference.

Mahony and other bishops subsequently received a lengthy report warning of the legal and public relations ramifications of abuse and offering tips for dealing with such cases. The report, written by a priest, a psychiatrist and a lawyer, presented the topic in a risk-analysis manner appealing to pragmatists like Mahony.

“Our dependence in the past on Roman Catholic judges and attorneys protecting the Diocese and clerics is GONE,” the report said.

The key lawyer behind that report stressed that it was time for Catholic officials to start leveling with police and reporting accusations against abusers, rather than continuing to hide them. Mahony didn’t do that for many years.

What the Times editors never really ask, in this otherwise gripping feature, is a basic question: Why?

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Is the media missing out on African-American church news?

Hell hath no fury like a reporter scorned, is my version of the traditional proverb.

Last night the Los Angeles Times had me going. A report on the lawsuits surrounding the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles — a major player in the city’s African-American community — in a story entitled “Judge dismisses defamation lawsuit filed by ex-First AME pastor” had me working the phones, calling lawyers and sources in California to track down news that was new to me. And for a reporter whose beat includes church law to be caught flat footed was quite a comeuppance.

Had I missed a major story? Here’s the lede:

A Los Angeles County judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit by the former pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, who alleged he suffered emotional distress when he was removed from the helm of Los Angeles’ oldest black church.

Last December the paper reported the church filed suit against its former pastor the Rev. John Hunter, his wife and a group of other church officials and directors of affiliated corporations. It said:

Hunter has had a rocky tenure at the church. Since taking over First AME in 2004, Hunter has been sued for sexual harassment, a civil claim that was settled for an undisclosed amount. The Times reported in 2008 that an internal audit found he charged $122,000 in jewelry, family vacations and clothing to the church’s credit card. He later agreed to a nine-year repayment plan.

He earned a generous salary during his tenure, lived in a $2-million home and drove a Mercedes-Benz paid for by the church. His wife earned $147,000 a year running nonprofit organizations connected to the 19,000-member congregation. But over the last few years, the hilltop church in the West Adams district has fallen into debt. The church owes nearly $500,000 to creditors and some vendors say they have not been paid in more than a year.

The latest LA Times story reports on Hunter’s counter-suit, where he alleged First AME had:

“embarked upon a campaign to discredit and defame” him “by asserting maliciously false and inflammatory statements as well as taking steps to publicly humiliate him.”

This story is light on context. First AME has over 19,000 members and plays an active role in the community with numerous charitable and educational programs for at risk youth and the disadvantaged. Perhaps readers would have known this, but the importance of the church in the community was not spelled. [Read more...]


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