Newspaper reporter critiqued by GetReligion fires back

First off, my apologies for that click bait.

Megan Finnerty, a Page 1 reporter for the Arizona Republic, didn’t really fire back at my recent negative review of her pre-Easter story on “Tips for Jesus.”

In fact, the thoughtful email that she sent me with the subject line “Read your critique of my story” was kinder than my snarky critique, titled “What would Jesus tip? Be sure to ask … secular ethicists!?”

With Megan’s permission, I thought I’d share a bit of what she had to say, in hopes of providing a behind-the-scenes perspective on GetReligion’s focus, which is the mass media’s coverage of religion news. Before reading her comments, though, be sure to peruse the original post, if you haven’t already. If you don’t, the rest of this won’t make sense.

OK, everybody back?

Here is Megan’s response (edited slightly for publication, with her approval):

I read your thoughts on my TipsForJesus story.

I’m totally not emailing you to defend my work. I’m emailing you because I want to be better and do smarter, more thorough, sensitive work. So I send this note to you in the spirit of learning from someone who does this kind of work — writes about Christianity — all the time. So below, I’m going to walk you through my logic and processes so you can see how I got where I was going. And if you see some big glaring gap in logic or mistake in processes, or just room for improvement, I am open to your ideas.

I LOVED your idea of including how Jesus responded to extravagance. When I read it in your critique, I remembered it, but sadly, none of the religious I interviewed for the story mentioned that piece of scripture.

I interviewed a religion writer (who didn’t make the quote cut because he didn’t say anything super-vital…), a pastor (who I quoted) and a deacon (who I did not quote because he didn’t say anything that hadn’t been better said by others…)

I agree with you, my story would’ve been more complete, and more interesting had I included that Scripture passage.

But I felt like the rest of your critique of my story is that A. I put the pastor at the end and B. I didn’t only interview Christians or biblical scholars. I mean, story organization is always a matter of taste, but I put the pastor at the end so as to make his ending quote land with more force. He was a wonderful interview.

As for not interviewing more Christians, or not asking if TipsForJesus is “Christian” as opposed to just “moral,” those are interesting ideas. To be honest, it NEVER occurred to me to ask if it was “Christian” behavior.

I just thought about how every faith tradition celebrates charity, so I sort of saw this behavior as Christian, sure, but also, if he had named the Instagram account TipsForAllah, or TipsForGod, it wouldn’t really impact the answer to that question — the answer would be yes, charity is positively viewed by all major world religions. So, I just didn’t think it was a compelling question because I felt like my readers would say they knew the answer is yes…

But, are you saying it was naive or wrong or not smart to take for granted that the tipping was, indeed, “Christian?”

And as for not focusing my interviews on explicitly self-identified Christians more or exclusively, I wanted to open the gist of the story up to as many people as possible — Christians and non, because I think we all have a stake in charity, in questions of morality and in how the rich practice charity. And, my readers are not all Christians, you know? I wanted to draw in as many people as possible to being thoughtful and to contending with these really hard questions — most good for most people per dollar vs. good for people I care about or who I’m connected to.

I write every once in a while about the intersection of religion and various aspects of daily life and I am open to feedback and criticism because I know that I am not an expert. So I appreciate the thought you put into analyzing my story. I don’t really think my story qualifies as a holy ghost story, though. Other than leaving out the piece of Scripture, I don’t see what key idea or deeper Christian point I left out …

I replied to Megan and thanked her for being so nice in her response. I pointed out that I wrote not long ago about the inherent difficulty that we at GetReligion face in critiquing journalism without knowing the full, behind-the-scenes story of the reporting, writing and editing involved.

And I said:

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What would Jesus tip? Be sure to ask … secular ethicists!?

 
Just in time for Easter, The Arizona Republic decided to write about #TipsforJesus.

As the Page 1 reporter who wrote the story put it on Twitter, “@TipsforJesus still leaves $$$, so for #Easter, we asked ethicists — is it moral?”

Here’s a crazy question: Since we’re talking about Jesus, wouldn’t the better approach be to interview Bible scholars and ask, “Is it Christian?” 

For those joining GetReligion in progress, this is what we frequently refer to as a holy ghost. Granted, most of the haunted stories we critique don’t feature Jesus in the lede:

There’s nothing in the Bible to indicate Jesus was an especially good tipper.

But for eight months, the anonymous person behind the TipsForJesus Instagram and Facebook accounts has left 250 to 600 percent of his bills at steakhouses, resort bars and restaurants, predominately in the Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles areas.

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the central mysteries of their faith this weekend, ethicists, charity experts and servers around the country ponder slightly smaller Christian mysteries: How effective and moral is this kind of giving? And where might this tipper show up next?

The TipsForJesus diner typically leaves $2,500 to $7,000, documenting his largesse on Instagram with 81 photos of signed receipts and closeups of smiling servers.

From there, the 1,700-word story provides an all-you-can-eat buffet of numbers and analysis by sources representing important-sounding-but-secular organizations such as the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

One of the sources, ethicist Peter Singer, argues that “the most moral act is to save as many lives as possible per dollar”:

A professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer is the pragmatist who pointed out in a December Washington Post op-ed that every Make-A-Wish dollar spent on the 5-year-old San Francisco leukemia survivor known as Batkid would’ve been better spent fighting poverty in Africa.

“It’s proven time and time again that donations go furthest when we give to impoverished people in developing countries,” Singer said in a Skype interview.

Later, another expert feels comfortable suggesting that Jesus would frown on #TipsforJesus:

Jesus would argue that you should be giving to the poor, said Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale University and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, which tests the effectiveness of social services policies and charity initiatives.

“So this feels gimmicky rather than actively saying, ‘Let’s look to Jesus to guide us in acts of charity,’” Karland said.

As I read the story, I kept wondering if anyone would raise this question: How did Jesus himself react to an extravagant gift? John 12:3-8 of the New Testament recounts (in the New International Version):

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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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Strangely faith-free story about ministry to feed the poor

For the past two decades, I have spent quite a bit of time driving the back roads of the Southern Highlands, which is one of the many names that locals use to describe the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

One of my very favorite East Tennessee roads runs from the back of Johnson City — where my family lived during our Milligan College years — down the Nolichucky River into the back side of Greeneville. The mountains there are high, lonesome and as beautiful as any in the region. They are almost completely free of development, especially when it comes to tourists.

But as any local knows, there are mountain people up in there and their lives are very hard. The word “Appalachian” has many meanings and extreme poverty is part of the picture.

The Washington Post ran a fine, but haunted, news feature the other day about a rolling food-bank project to fight hunger among the shattered families along those mountain roads above the Nolichucky. Please read it all, because it’s well worth the time.

If you look carefully at the photo that ran with the piece, you learn that this particular anti-hunger project has a name, a name that is not mentioned in the article for some reason. However, readers do find out quite a bit about the bus driver and the people he feeds.

The driver’s name was Rick Bible, and his 66-mile route through the hills of Greene County marked the government’s latest attempt to solve a rise in childhood hunger that had been worsening for seven consecutive years.

Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.

So, earlier this year, a food bank in Tennessee came up with a plan to reverse the model. Instead of relying on children to find their own transportation to summer meal sites, it would bring food to children. The food bank bought four used school buses for $4,000 each and designed routes that snake through some of the most destitute land in the country, where poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.

Good stuff.

However, as a former resident of the region, my religion-ghost alarm went off immediately when I saw — in that photo, not in the story text — that the name of the food bank was Second Harvest. As it turns out, this charity is linked to Greeneville Community Ministries.

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That’s one very, very poor headline about the pope

As I have stressed many times here at GetReligion, it’s important for readers to understand that reporters rarely write the headlines that accompany their stories.

Editors and specialists at copy desks write the headlines. It’s tough work, and I say that as someone who did that job for several years early in my career.

A good headline can really help a story. A bad one can warp the framework in which the reader encounters the ideas and fact in the text. Alas, that’s just the way the business works.

I often wonder if your GetReligionistas need to develop a special feature or slug-line for bad headlines about religion, especially bad headlines about stories that are either really good or, at the very least, solid.

Take, for example, that Huffington Post headline that dominated a Reuters report about yet another interesting statement — from remarks made without a prepared text — by Pope Francis. Let’s look at a key chunk of the text first:

“If we step outside of ourselves, we will find poverty,” he said, repeating his call for Catholics to do more to seek out those on the fringes of society who need help the most,” he said from the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don’t have food — that’s not news. This is grave. We can’t rest easy while things are this way.”

The crowd, most of whom are already involved in charity work, interrupted him often with applause.

“We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those (who need help most),” he said.

This is yet another example of the pope attempting to promote that has been called a “religious sense” or a “religious sensibility” that surrounds the events of everyday life. See my recent Scripps Howard column for some additional examples.

His point is that true faith is found in words matched with deeds, not with words alone.

So what was the headline at HuffPo?

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Who’s feeding the starving people?

If you’re familiar with USA Today, you know that the front page generally features a few short, newsy pieces and a longer “cover story” that goes in depth and jumps inside the newspaper.

Wednesday’s big story focused on the poor still struggling to recover in an Ohio county despite some overall positive signs on the economic front.

As the Gannett flagship newspaper is apt to do, the 1,800-word report mixes a rapid-fire barrage of sources: real people, experts and government data.

It didn’t take long for the story to raise my GetReligion antenna. Let’s start at the top:

TROY, Ohio — The rise in poverty here is evident in the mass of people who crowd the waiting room of the free health clinic every Thursday night — so many that the volunteer staff turns away about half of them.

It is marked by the bare shelves of the food pantry at Richards Chapel United Methodist Church, a one-story sanctuary where dozens of laid-off factory workers, retirees and young parents with children fill the dining hall daily for a free lunch.

And it is lived by Nancy Scott, a former stay-at-home mom working a temporary minimum-wage job, who says she had to choose between exhausting her paycheck on rent and utilities or living in her 1990 pickup.

She chose the truck.

This rural community, 22 miles north of Dayton, has seen an explosion of poverty in the past four years that is among the highest increases in the nation. Last year, 16,000 people lived in poverty in Miami County — one of every six residents, the Census says. Four years ago, just as the Great Recession was taking its grip on the nation, one in 16, or 6,000 people, suffered in poverty here.

As I kept reading and flipped the page, I wondered if the story would provide any more insight on the church referenced in the second paragraph.

On the jump page, the Troy residents’ predicament is boiled down this way:

But for people in Troy — and the tens of millions of Americans like them — the daily hardships of poverty aren’t captured in statistics or healed by political promises. As lawmakers in Washington grapple with the “fiscal cliff” and Americans do their holiday shopping, thousands of people in Miami County are managing on little or no income.

But how are they managing? Is the religious community playing any role at all? These are questions that crossed my mind.

Later, there’s this description of the town:

In Troy, empty storefronts blot the main street and shopping centers, but there are signs of recovery. At least eight companies are building or expanding, which is expected to create more than 500 jobs, says J.C. Wallace, president of the Troy Area Chamber of Commerce.

What about the houses of worship? Are they empty, too? Or are they bustling with activity amid the economic problems?

Eventually, the story returns to Scott, the woman living in her truck, and paints a relatively detailed portrait of her circumstances and predicament.

Then comes the killer quote:

“Without the churches, people would be starving in the street,” she says.

Bam!

Sounds like a perfect opportunity to explore the religion angle.

And the story does follow up with these three paragraphs before moving on to more government statistics:

That’s no exaggeration to David Richey, pastor of Richards Chapel United Methodist Church. He and his wife, Beverly, run a food pantry and a soup kitchen where they dish out close to 1,000 meals a month.

The people who walk through the door “don’t make enough to have three squares a day, so we have to supplement that for them,” he says.

The biggest increase they see: families with children.

Sooooo … do we have a ghost here or not?

On the one hand, USA Today doesn’t ignore the churches. On the other hand, the religion angle seems to be downplayed. Only one church is mentioned. The woman living in the truck isn’t asked about her own faith. No effort is made to explore the role of churches in feeding starving people. Is the Methodist church the only one feeding the hungry? Are the shelves really bare at the church’s food pantry? If so, why?

Interestingly enough, when I got online to grab the link to the story, I came across a related USA Today video titled “More poor eat all three meals at church soup kitchens.” In the three-minute video, produced by the writer of the print story, officials with the Methodist church as well as Presbyterian and Catholic churches in Troy discuss their work feeding the poor. People helped by the churches also are interviewed. It’s the kind of background that would have answered some of my questions from the dead-tree story.

The video makes me curious why USA Today chose not to explore the religion angle in its print story. Was a purposeful decision made to downplay the churches’ role? Was that angle deemed not important enough for the paper version? Was it simply a matter of space?

Image via Shutterstock

Shock: Bishops decide to defend Catholic tradition!

OK, let’s deal with some basic questions about Catholic bishops and politics.

In terms of basic journalism language, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released pastoral documents about, oh, nuclear weapons, were these statements doctrinal or merely political?

When the bishops speak out on America’s actions abroad, let’s say in Iraq or the Middle East in general, are there statements doctrinal or merely political?

When the bishops release pastoral letters on issues of economic justice, are these statements merely political or are they rooted in Catholic social teachings, scripture and tradition? We should ask the same question about the bishops and their longstanding support of health-care reform. Yes, I know that politics can enter into the discussions of HOW BEST to pursue these aims, but no one wearing a bishop’s cross considers these goals to be mere politics.

How about discussions of abortion and euthanasia, topics that the Vatican has raised to the highest levels of doctrinal authority, arguing from the same theological principles as its teachings on the fundamental dignity of the poor, the suffering, the weak and, yes, the unborn. Is that mere politics? How about the death penalty? Immigration reform and the rights of immigrants? How about the deadly spiritual cancer of racism?

The bottom line, of course, is that journalists covering these kinds of Catholic statements and actions must attempt to recognize and grasp the doctrinal content linked to these public issues. Of course the bishops consider the political implications of their actions. But, in the end, they know that there are scriptures, traditions and doctrines that must be defended.

You see, in the ancient churches (hat tip to G.K. Chesterton) the saints have the right to vote. On many issues, the bishops cannot discuss whether or not to toss out 2,000 years of Christian tradition.

With that in mind, let’s look at the latest horror story from The Baltimore Sun, which is, alas, the home town newspaper whenever the bishops hold their meetings in the premier episcopal see of the Catholic Church here in America. By the way, when you get ready to click this link, pay attention to the actual content of the URL code. Interesting, right? And now the lede:

Meeting for the first time since voters in Maryland and two other states legalized same-sex marriage, members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Tuesday that they have no plans to soften their position that genuine marriage can occur only between one man and one woman.

They have “no plans to soften their position” on the definition of marriage? Who do the members of the Sun team think these bishops are, for heaven’s sake? Baptists? Episcopalians? Presbyterians? Free-church evangelicals? The actual issue, of course, is what strategy the bishops will choose to pursue in defending centuries of doctrine on this topic — first and foremost within their own complex and divided flock. That’s the heart of the story.

Yes, we must read on:

Over the past year, a variety of hot-button issues have put the church and its teachings in the public spotlight. While some activists this week urged the church to focus on its mission of aiding the poor instead of politics, church leaders started looking for better ways to articulate their positions and win converts to their stances on issues that have played out in the political arena. …

The bishops said they plan to refocus their opposition to a provision of President Barack Obama’s health care law that requires most employers, including religious institutions, to provide health insurance covering contraception.

Once again, the newspaper avoids the actual issue in the health-care fight. The bishops support health-care reform, as they have for decades. The issue is whether the government can mandate that Catholic institutions provide products and services to their own employees — people who voluntarily work for Catholic ministries or who choose to attend Catholic schools — that the church’s doctrines proclaim are sinful.

Looming in the background is an even larger Constitutional issue, which is whether the government can recognize one level of religious freedom when doctrines are linked to worship, while refusing to recognize the same level of religious liberty when doctrines lead to actions in religious ministries that interact with the public. Is a Catholic parish fundamentally more religious than a Catholic soup kitchen? Is a Catholic Sunday school Catholic, while a Catholic high school is not?

When reading this article, please look for evidence that the Sun team has any willingness to accurately quote the voices of activists on both sides of that debate. Does the Sun leadership know that this is the topic being debated, or are the editors convinced that this whole public-square fight — involving Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, evangelical Protestants and other traditionalists — is mere a political spat about politics, about opposition to the current occupant of the White House?

Was that the case with nuclear weapons, racism, poverty, the Iraqi war, health care, immigration, labor, the death penalty and other public issues?

Come on people, cover the real debates, including the ones that are rooted in eternal principles, as well as fleeting politics. Do some reading. Ask some tough questions to informed people on both sides.

Come on. It’s journalism. Give it a try.


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