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.

***

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:

[Read more...]

Pew news: You don’t have to be religious to be Jewish

 Readers (and bloggers) “of a certain age” will recall the famous advertising campaign for Levy’s “real Jewish Rye” bread showing photos of people who are distinctly non-Jewish enjoying a sandwich on the famous bread.

Now, a study from the Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life — reportedly the first major Jewish demographic survey in more than a decade — reveals that many American Jews feel people don’t have to be, well, religiously oriented to be Jewish. Several religion reporters were apparently briefed on the study’s results at last week’s Religion Newswriters Association convention in Austin, Texas, and numerous stories broke this past Tuesday, the day the research results were formally released.

The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein kicked things off:

The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish — resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.

The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, found that despite the declines in religious identity and participation, American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

While Wertheimer might be feeling grim, the survey respondents appear happy enough, both collectively and individually.

Scribe Emily Alpert at the Los Angeles Times focused on someone who appears to fit the “demo” of the survey:

Growing up Jewish, Marilyn McLaughlin loved lighting the braided candle and singing to mark the end of Shabbat. She relished studying the Talmud and weighing its ethical questions.

But sitting in synagogue left her cold. “I was stuffed with religion,” McLaughlin said. “But I had no deep connection to it.”

A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that more than a fifth of Jewish Americans say they have no religion. Yet like McLaughlin, they still identify themselves as Jewish.

Scholars say that the Jewish people have long seen themselves as more than a religious faith, also defining themselves as Jewish through culture or ancestry. Only 15% see being Jewish as “mainly a matter of religion,” the new survey of nearly 3,500 Jewish Americans shows. Less than a third of Jews — even religious Jews — think someone can’t be Jewish without believing in God.

As more Americans of all faiths turn away from religion, Jewish secularism seems to be booming too. Pew found that the share of “Jews of no religion” appears to have surged, compared to a somewhat different survey a dozen years earlier. Younger Jews are much more likely to shrug off religion than their elders.

Alpert’s article puts the Jewish “nones” question in perspective: lots of people in America allegedly are turning to secularist views, so why not in the Jewish community?

[Read more...]

Public esteem for journalists sinking. Why?

I’m not ashamed to say that I love journalism. I’m elated that I get to work in this field and I love the work I get to do. I have high regard for the good that journalists’ accomplish, this week providing just one example. You can’t be a media critic without being aware of the downsides. Heck, it’s my job to look at problems with media coverage. And yet still, I am so very thankful for newspapers and media outlets that tell us about the world around us. When I read a story about an event or an interview, I try to remember what a blessing it is that someone was there and took the time to tell me about it.

But the fact is that public esteem for journalists is sinking. The Pew Research Center asks Americans about the contributions to society of various groups:

While there have been modest declines in public appreciation for several occupations, the order of the ratings is roughly the same as it was in 2009. Among the 10 occupations the survey asked respondents to rate, lawyers are at the bottom of the list. About one-in-five Americans (18%) say lawyers contribute a lot to society, while 43% say they make some contribution; fully a third (34%) say lawyers contribute not very much or nothing at all.

Compared with the ratings four years ago, journalists have dropped the most in public esteem. The share of the public saying that journalists contribute a lot to society is down 10 percentage points, from 38% in 2009 to 28% in 2013. The drop is particularly pronounced among women (down 17 points). About as many U.S. adults now say journalists contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all” to society (27%) as say they contribute a lot (28%).

The change in public perception of journalists is particularly noticeable and Pew looks into it:

The decline in public views about journalists’ contribution to society since 2009 is more pronounced among women than men. Roughly three-in-ten women (29%) say journalists contribute a lot to society’s well-being, down 17 percentage points from 46% in 2009. Men’s views on this are about the same today as they were in 2009.

The decline in the perceived contribution of journalists cuts across partisan leanings, age and education level. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents as well as Republicans and Republican-leaning independents all are less likely to say journalists contribute a lot to society’s well-being today (down 8 points among Republicans/leaning Republicans and 10 points among Democrats/leaning Democrats).

Unfortunately, we don’t know why the public holds journalists in such low esteem. I have my own theories, but I wonder what you think? And what are your own views on journalists’ contributions to society? What are some highs and lows you’ve witnessed?

[Read more...]

That stark divide in Catholics in America and on high court

Shortly before Barack Obama reached the White House, pollster John C. Green of the University of Akron visited the classroom here at the Washington Journalism Center to meet with a circle of mainstream journalists from around the world. At one point during his presentation, he created a chart detailing the changing landscape of religion in contemporary America.

The key was that a solid belt of religious believers — something like 20 percent or so — remained on the cultural right, people who could be identified in a number of ways — but primarily by the fact that they actively practiced more traditional forms of religious faith. Worship attendance was one key statistic.

On the cultural left, a fascinating coalition was emerging that was about the same size as the one on the right. This camp — roughly 20 percent or so — consisted of a growing number of people who were openly agnostic or atheist or who were — this was the emerging trend — the so-called “nones,” vaguely spiritual people with no ties to religious bodies.

These religiously unaffiliated Americans were natural allies, on social and moral issues, with liberal believers and the larger numbers of ordinary people who claimed religious ties, but rarely took part in worship. That’s the sea of vaguely spiritual folks in the middle of our national life that I often refer to as “Oprah America.”

The growth on the moral, cultural and religious left was highly significant, said Green. It was also very important to know that the vaguely religious landscape in the middle was changing, with the movement in the direction of a moderated cultural liberalism, rooted in radical individualism.

All of this information, and more, would hit the headlines — with Green as a major voice in the presentations — through the landmark Pew Forum “nones” study (click here for .pdf) released in the fall of 2012.

I bring it up to note another one of the fine details in the data in a related Pew Forum study, a detail that certainly appears to be linked to a religion ghost in today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Green had noted that it is impossible to discuss any of today hot-button social and moral issues — gay rights in particular — without noting the changes sweeping through the ranks of white Catholics, especially those who rarely attend Mass. The frequent Mass attenders tended to remain loyal to Catholic beliefs. Those who rarely attended Mass? No way.

As noted in a 2010 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

White mainline Protestants and white Catholics have become more supportive of gay marriage, though virtually all of the change in opinion among both groups has come among those who attend services relatively infrequently.

About half (49%) of white mainline Protestants support same-sex marriage while 38% oppose this. This is a reversal of opinion from the past two years when 40% favored and 49% opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Just 35% of white mainline Protestants who attend church at least once a week favor same-sex marriage, nearly the same percentage as in 2008-2009 (34%). Among those who attend services less often, support has increased by 11 points (from 42% to 53%).

There has been a similar shift among white Catholics — 49% now favor same-sex marriage while 41% are opposed. Opinion was more evenly divided over the past two years (44% favor, 45% oppose). Here too, support has increased among those who attend services less than weekly, from 51% in 2008-2009 to 59% in 2010.

And what about that powerful circle of American Catholics involved in the U.S. Supreme Court decision?

[Read more...]

The day after: The prophet John Green, revisited

It should be a quiet day on the religion-beat front, in the wake of yesterday’s nail-biters in the real world of politics. If the past repeats itself, as it often does, it will take a few days for the religion elements of the story to emerge, other than the usual “Obama won the Catholic vote (whatever that is)” headlines.

We do know several things for sure, on the day after. The ultimate ties that bind are race and religion, even when those two realities pull in different directions. The map also shows the degree to which many working-class voters in the urban Northeast and Midwest remain in deep, deep pain and many are convinced that the government is their ultimate, if not only, friend. GOP leaders seem to be deaf to their populist cries. (Then again, I am a registered Democrat who just bought a Chevy Cruze).

In its wrap-up analysis, USA Today went back to the map:

The changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday — not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago, when Obama attracted broader support, especially among whites.

But this time the contest was much closer in a country that is undergoing tectonic shifts in its demography. “We have never had a more polarized electorate,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres says.

If there was one thing that seemed to unite the nation, it was a sense that the stakes were high and the election mattered.

The nation froze in place in an amazing state of gridlock. Things pretty much remain the same on the nation’s hot-button moral, cultural and religious issues: The only vote that actually matters, at least for a few years, is that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s his country, but he lets us live here. For church-state insiders, all eyes are on his editing pencil and numerous First Amendment cases (free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty) are headed his way.

As election night plodded on, I kept thinking about University of Akron scholar John Green and that recent Pew Forum “Nones” study and America’s growing coalition on the secular and religious left. To be specific, I flashed back to a Media Project seminar in the summer of 2009, when Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.

In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America’s liberal religious denominations (such as the “seven sisters” of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.

The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality — the pluses and the minuses — of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. This could, to say the least, shape the party’s relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.

Here’s what Green had to say, a few weeks ago, after the press gathering announcing the “Nones” report. This is taken from a column I wrote for the Scripps Howard News Service.

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the “Nones” skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

“It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”

Sound familiar?

So where does this go? Where will journalists be looking for the next wrinkle in this story?

The reality that trumps many of these religious divisions is, of course, race. At some point, cultural conservatives are going to have to find a way to separate married and religious African-Americans and Latinos from the single adults and secular people in those large ethnic groups. White voters divide alone lines of religious practice (the “pew gap”) and marital status, while black and Latino voters do not.

If cultural conservatives are not able to do this, then do the math.

Meanwhile, here comes the deeper information from the exit polls. If journalists continue to march in lockstep, we are only days away from reports about the growing division between young evangelicals and old evangelicals (whatever the word “evangelical” means).

“Nobody cares” about Obama’s abortion beliefs? Really?

I was taping the Crossroads podcast earlier and host Todd Wilken asked me something about why reporters were mishandling the news that Senate candidate Richard Mourdock believes even a human life conceived in rape can be a “gift from God.” I was kind of at a loss. I reject the idea, advanced by some critics, that it’s just partisan bias or an attempt to help President Barack Obama in the final days of his campaign. But the coverage was so over-the-top, it was hard to defend at all.

My big beef in this whole thing is not so much that pro-life candidates are being asked tough questions. Abortion is a super tough topic and one deserving of tough questions. What chaps my hide is that reporters are incapable of asking any tough questions of pro-choice candidates.

To that end, you should be sure to read this piece by Trevin Wax headlined “10 Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate is Never Asked by the Media.” Please. Read it.

A few days ago, we remembered the data that show that about 25 percent of Americans say they favor no restrictions on abortion, about 20 percent of Americans say they support consistent protection of the unborn and the rest want something in between. I think the problem with the media might be that they’re incredibly familiar with that group who favor no restrictions on abortion and have trouble looking at things from a different angle. As tmatt noted long ago, citing a Pew Forum poll, there are even fascinating numbers that show how many DEMOCRATS want to see strong restrictions on abortion rights.

I was reminded of all that during this fascinating exchange on Twitter between a political reporter at the Weekly Standard, John McCormack, and a religion reporter at Newsweek/Daily Beast, David Sessions. It began with McCormack complaining about disparities in press coverage. I’ll just reproduce the exchange here:

John McCormack: At the very least, someone might want to get the president to say precisely what his position on late-term abortion is (link)

David Sessions: Seriously, nobody cares.

John McCormack:  What do you mean?

John McCormack: People don’t care about abortion? Are you an idiot?

David Sessions: the weird idea that its “corrupt” not to ask about Obama’s abortion position when we know it & it’s not a campaign issue.

David Sessions: his position is plenty clear to people who care about that issue.

John McCormack: Please tell me: What is Obama’s position on third-trimester abortions?

John McCormack: He’s evaded the issue (link) … You may yawn at killing of almost born human beings. Others think it’s an atrocity.

David Sessions: who cares? If you care what the answer to that is, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough.

John McCormack: Who cares? So you can’t say.

John McCormack: Country may be divided on abortion early in pregnancy. 86% say it should be illegal late in pregnancy per Gallup.

John McCormack:  But nothing to see here. “Who cares?” You are a disgrace to journalism.

David Sessions: it’s absurd to pretend like this a huge moral press failure when it’s not even close to being a campaign issue.

John McCormack:  It is a human rights issue. What is/is not a campaign issue depends on what the media asks the candidates.

John McCormack:  And it is a gross double standard for the press to make IN & MO Senate candidates abortion stances the BIGGEST STORY EVER…

John McCormack: without even thinking for a second whether Obama himself might hold extreme positions on abortion.

David Sessions: I completely agree about that.

OK, so hopefully each side on this journalistic tussle can learn something. I want to add a few thoughts. First, people really care about abortion. It may not be the single most important issue in every singe mind when we go into the voting booth, but of all the issues out there, it’s a biggie. Consistently. If you are a religion reporter, it’s good to know this. Also, plenty of people who are fine with first-trimester abortion are not fine with third-trimester abortion. You should probably know that, too, so saying “If you care what the answer is about his third-trimester abortion position, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough” is just not true.

OK, as to the charge that abortion is not an Obama campaign issue, I don’t really know what to say other than you might want to watch even a tiny little snippet of any portion of the Democratic National Convention from this year. (Some jokingly called it an Abortion Jamboree or Abortion-palooza.) Also, as a swing state resident, I would say that abortion ads are the number one thing I’m seeing from Obama’s campaign. I’ve received glossy mailers, emails and a deluge of TV ads. Trust me, it’s possibly his biggest issue that he’s running on in Virginia. If you are a national reporter, you should probably have some familiarity with this. Or as the New York Times put it last week:

According to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, the Obama campaign and Democratic groups have run commercials relating to abortion about 30,000 times since July 2 — about 10 percent of their ads — including one that falsely claimed Mr. Romney’s opposition to abortion extended to cases of rape and incest.

The ad with the false claim was still running in Virginia as recently as last week, I’m pretty sure (although it’s possible I saw it on a DVR’d program from earlier in the month).

Now, as McCormack writes, even if it weren’t a major plank of President Obama’s campaign, it’s still important enough as a human rights issue to cover. To put it another way, that last debate showed us that neither candidate disagrees with each other on the U.S. policy of using drones to target terrorists. Does that mean that since it’s not a campaign issue, it shouldn’t be covered? Hardly. I think the press can rightly judge certain topics of importance meriting coverage even if votes aren’t being won or lost on them. But, again, that’s not even the case with abortion coverage.

But at least we can all agree that however this topic is covered, it should be done so in a balanced way. If the press posture is that it’s extreme to hold the position that Mourdock holds, the one that only 20 percent of the country shares, where does that put President Obama and his positions? And if only one set of political actors is treated as extreme, as needing to apologize for a position, as if their existence on a party ticket is scandalous, and the other side is treated as if “nobody cares” about their positions, how good is that?

Photo of a disinterested child via Shutterstock.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X