Roadmaps should guide us, including through Sudan

Sudan may be hard for geography-challenged Americans to find on a map, but Reuters — one of the largest news organizations — is an old hand at world coverage.

Unfortunately, Reuters presents more of a puzzle than a map in its update on the case of Mariam Yahya Ibrahim, who has been desperately trying to escape Sudan with her husband, her child and her life.

As you may remember, the militantly Islamic government of Sudan accused Ibrahim of deserting Islam for Christianity and for marrying an American Christian man. Her original sentence was 100 lashes for “adultery,” then execution for “apostasy.”

On June 23, an appellate court overturned the decision, and the family prepared to leave the country — only to have security agents re-arrest her at the airport in Khartoum. Now let’s see how well Reuters follows up.

Well, the story gets mushy right out of the gate:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese authorities and U.S. officials in Khartoum are negotiating to allow a Sudanese woman, who married an American and was recently spared the death penalty for converting to Christianity, to leave Sudan, sources close to the case said.

Not exactly. As CNN and other media report, Ibrahim has stated that she was raised Christian and never professed Islam.

Another puzzle in the story: Why were she and her family staying at the U.S. embassy? Reuters says:

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Seeking the shooter’s motive at Seattle Pacific University?

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This time, it appears that a lone gunman acting for some unknown, mysterious reason decided to gun down students at Seattle Pacific University, an evangelical campus that is part of the 100-plus member Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach).

This means that religion is part of the story, right from the beginning. It also means that reporters are going to dealing with quite a bit of religious language and information, when hearing from witnesses and campus leaders.

Early on, the wire-service report I kept seeing was produced by Reuters. Other than the emerging details of the shooting, what was the crucial information that readers needed to know, according to this very early report? Check this out:

Seattle Pacific University is a Methodist liberal arts college about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Seattle’s downtown, with about 4,000 students enrolled. The college website said students are subject to disciplinary action for such behavior as extramarital sex or homosexual activity and for the possession or use of alcohol.

Students could be seen embracing and otherwise consoling one another on campus, some crying as they recounted hearing a gunshot. An evening prayer service was being held at a campus church.

“We’re a community that relies on Jesus Christ for strength and we’ll need it at this time,” said Seattle Pacific University President Daniel Martin.

One journalism professor sent me that clip and focused on the discipline code reference with this simple question: “Relevance?”

Good question. I realize that the Reuters team was working at the online-research stage of reporting and, thus, the college website was right there and easy to find. But, with an off-campus shooter, was the basic Christian (and evangelical) doctrine reflected in that code relevant to the story? (Also, Seattle Pacific is a Free Methodist school — not to be confused with the much larger United Methodist Church.)

Was the Reuters team, essentially, saying that this was one of those strange right-wing campuses that might attract someone who was angry at intolerant right-wing Christians? Surely not.

The New York Times offered a much calmer — denominationally accurate, I might add — take on the school’s worldview:

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Balkan absurdist reporting by Reuters

At Get Religion it is usually considered bad form to criticize wire service reports for lacking context. There is only so much information that a reporter can pack into a 300 word story. The absence of an explanatory sentence or two that gives the reader some clues as to the meaning of the story is seldom fatal to an article’s journalistic integrity — but it can at times lead to an article coming across as a Haiku.

This article from Reuters entitled “Bulgarian police detain 120 after mosque attack” I readily concede does not fit into the 5 – 7 – 5 sound (on) pattern of classical Japanese poetry nor the 17 syllables of contemporary English Haiku. Nevertheless the imagery created in this short piece does a great job of telling the story.

A problem with imagery, however, is that the reader must be aware of the symbolic meaning of the nouns being used. The story has a wonderful lede:

Bulgarian police detained more than 120 people on Friday after hundreds of nationalists and soccer fans attacked a mosque in the country’s second city Plovdiv, smashing its windows with stones.

Why is this wonderful you ask? On one level there is an absurdist quality to this sentence with overtones of Monty Python, Lemony Snicket and Eugene Ionescu. A mosque has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque in Bulgaria’s second city has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque in Bulgaria’s second city has been attacked by a mob of soccer fans and (Bulgarian?) nationalists casting stones.

Each iteration makes the story ever so slightly more ridiculous, but at the same time it conveys the absurdity of life through the incongruity of its elements and apparent absence of reason. But this is the Balkans.

The story continues:

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Miscues in news on gay blessings and marriage from London

The Valentine’s Day statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England on gay marriage has fluttered the Anglican dovecots.

The story received A1 treatment from the British press and it spawned commentaries and opinion pieces in the major outlets. The second day stories reported some activists were “appalled” by the news whilst others were over the moon with delight — but being British their joy did not rise to continental expressions of euphoria.

The story continues to move through the media and on Sunday the BBC had one bishop tell the Sunday Programme that clergy who violated the Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage protocol might be brought up on charges — and could well be sacked.

So what did the bishops do? A scan of the first day stories reports that they either said “no to gay marriage but yes to gay civil unions” or “no to gay marriage and no to blessing gay unions.” The first day reports were evenly divided between the “no/yes” and “no/no” schools.

The Independent interpreted the document as no/yes.  The lede  in its story entitled “Gay marriage: Church of England to offer prayers after weddings but no same-sex marriage for vicar” stated:

Gay couples will be able to have special prayers following their weddings but members of the clergy are banned from entering same-sex marriages when these become legal next month.

The Church of England issued its new pastoral guidance following a meeting of the House of Bishops to discuss the issue on Friday. Despite condemning “irrational fear of homosexuals” and saying all were “loved by God”, the document sent a clear signal separating the Church’s concept of marriage and the new legal definition. …

Civil partnerships will still be performed and vicars have been warned that married couples must be welcomed to worship and not subject to “questioning” or discrimination. Same-sex couples may ask for special prayers after being married but it will not be a service of blessing.

The Telegraph also took the no/yes line. The lede to its story entitled “Church offers prayers after same-sex weddings — but bans gay priests from marrying” stated:

Gay couples who get married will be able to ask for special prayers in the Church of England after their wedding, the bishops have agreed. But priests who are themselves in same-sex relationships or even civil partnerships will be banned from getting married when it becomes legally possible next month.

Compare this to the dispatch from Reuters which took a no/no line. Its lede stated:

Church of England priests will not be allowed to bless gay and lesbian weddings, or marry someone of the same sex themselves, according to new guidelines issued by the church, which is struggling to heal divides over homosexuality.

Why the disparate interpretations? Was this a case of the Church of England speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time? Offering an ambiguous statement that allows individuals to read into it what they are predisposed to find?

Perhaps. One should never underestimate the skill of the Sir Humphrey Appleby’s at Church House in churning out drivel. But in this case I believe the reporters’ suppositions as to the meaning of phrases drove their interpretations. The problem was not imprecise language from the bishops but a lack of understanding of technical language from reporters.

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A ‘new twist’ in states’ same-sex marriage debates

A time or two, we’ve highlighted media coverage of what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported back in October:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

Now comes Reuters with what its headline characterizes as a “new twist” in the same-sex marriage debates.

The top of that wire story:

(Reuters) – Oregon voters will likely face two questions about gay marriage when they go to the ballot this year: whether to become the 18th state to let same-sex couples wed, and whether the state should be the first to allow florists, cake makers and others to refuse to participate in these weddings on religious grounds.

The ballot initiatives set up what some activists have said is the next frontier in the marriage debate — as more states move to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, those who object on religious grounds want a legal right to opt out.

“This is not a sideshow issue,” said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the Oregon ballot initiative and the coming debate over religious exemption. “This is going to be the issue that we fight about for the next ten years, at least, in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement.”

The next frontier in the marriage debates? Perhaps.

A new twist? Maybe, although two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a story for Christianity Today with this headline:

Should the Marriage Battleground Shift to Religious Freedom?

But back to the Reuters story: What to make of the journalism?

Here’s my take: It’s a straightforward piece that presents the facts and quotes folks on both sides. (It’s written in inverted-pyramid style, but I don’t think it falls into the “suitcase lead” trap, to borrow a phrase I came across on Poynter.org this week.)

Among Reuters’ sources, we hear from an advocate for the proposed religious exemption:

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Reuters editors read mind of Pope Francis on abortion


So, GetReligion readers, it is time for short religion-news quiz.

Raise your hands (or click comment) if you have read the following Pope Francis quotation, or a variation on it, in the past year or so.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. … The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

Also, of course, there is the part where the pope stresses the need for improved pastoral care on hot-button issues — such as abortion — and adds that the church:

“… cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Lots of hands being raised out there in cyberspace, I am sure. In some ways, that “obsessed” soundbite — usually yanked out of context — was the religion-beat quote of the year.

OK, now here is a quote from that “obsessed” timeframe, the same basic news context. It comes from a Pope Francis speech to — wait for it — a gathering of Catholic physicians, specifically gynecologists:

“The culture of waste, which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker,” he said, according to a English translation offered by The National Catholic Register.

“Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant ‘yes’ to life. … Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don’t have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life’s most defenseless. …

“Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world.”

So, how many of you read those words from the days just after the “obsessed” quotation rocketed around our planet?

One more relevant quotation, this one drawn from the most careful, specific statement Pope Francis has made, his revelatory, book-length document Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). While addressing a wide range of topics, with statements to challenge both the mainstream left and the right, the pope stated on the right to life:

Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. …

Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest on this question. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations.” It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.

How many of you saw that crucial statement quoted in a mainstream media report?

Why must we march, once again, through this familiar and not-so-familiar territory? I wanted to cover that ground in response to the wave of emails I have received about that rather stunning Reuters report that moved the other day, the one that in several cases appeared with a headline that stated:

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Isn’t that special? Satan pays a visit to the Bible Belt (updated)

When the devil issues a press release, the media pay attention.

Satan has stirred a hell of a commotion in my home state of Oklahoma the last week.

The Associated Press produced the first national report on Satanists seeking a spot on the Oklahoma Capitol steps, followed soon by national outlets such as CNN, Religion News Service and Reuters as well as the Tulsa World. (Update: The Journal Record, an Oklahoma City business newspaper, had the original scoop.)

I’m approaching this critique with a bit of trepidation, not out of any fear of the Evil One but because — given my ties to Oklahoma and the religion beat — I know four of the five reporters who handled the stories referenced above. My plan is to make a few constructive criticisms, ask a few pointed questions and pray that no one sticks me with a pitchfork.

Let’s start with AP’s initial scoop:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse steps.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorized the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009, and it was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

If I’m the editor, I raise an obvious question about that lede: According to whom? The use of the adjective “unwittingly” particularly seems to cry out for attribution (a named source identifying who provided the information). Otherwise, it comes across as editorialization.

I also wondered about the lowercase “satanist,” particularly since the AP story switched back and forth between lowercase and uppercase versions of the word. In checking my handy dandy AP Stylebook, the journalist’s bible, I found this succinct entry:

Satan — but lowercase devil and satanic

Hmmmm, that doesn’t really answer the Satanists question — or is it satanists?

In reading the AP story, I couldn’t tell if the Satanists/satanists were serious about the monument or engaging in a publicity ploy.

I felt like CNN’s Belief Blog did a much better job of answering that question:

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Viva la Eurorévolution

Religion ghosts haunt the stories out of Kiev this week, but the Western press has yet to hear their shrieks.

The events unfolding across the Ukraine — protests against the government’s move away from Europe towards Russia — are not faith stories as defined by editorial desks in London and New York, but the clash of nationalism and politics in Eastern Europe cannot be understood without reference to religion.

The Guardian‘s reporter in Kiev has described the scene on Monday morning:

Throngs of anti-government protesters remained in control of parts of central Kiev on Monday morning, as police kept their distance and Viktor Yanukovych’s government pondered its next move. After huge protests on Sunday, during which several hundred thousand people took to the streets of Kiev to call for the president’s removal, protesters erected makeshift barricades around Independence Square – the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Nearby, the main City Hall building was taken over by protesters without police resistance on Sunday evening.

Many of the windows were smashed and “Revolution HQ” was daubed in black paint on its stone Stalinist facade. Inside, hundreds of people milled around receiving refreshments; many who had travelled from the regions to Kiev were sleeping on the floor.

The independent Eastern European press has characterized the street protests as a revolution.  Lviv’s Vissoki Zamok, stated that nine years after the Orange Revolution, “the Eurorevolution” was underway.

It is symbolic that on December 1, the anniversary of the referendum in favor of independence that took place 22 years ago, Ukraine was once again the theater of mass demonstrations in support of its sovereignty, the rights of its citizens and its European future.

Why is this happening? Protestors have taken to the streets to denounce President Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on November 29.

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