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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Reuters skips a key detail in Israel’s wedding wars — divorce

Everybody loves a wedding, or so culture would have us believe. However, according to a report from the Reuters news agency, not every Israeli likes the wedding options available in that country:

For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married — God’s way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel’s most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licenses in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them. Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

I can’t say, for certain, how long this has been going on. However, I seem to recall that over the past decade, at least, I’ve heard stories from Israelis about booking a flight to Turkey or elsewhere to have a civil wedding, so as not to be under the thumb of the Orthodox hierarchy.

The reasons for avoiding this range from the couple themselves being secular (many, if not most, Israelis are) to not wanting the burden of “proving” their Jewishness to the rabbis’ satisfaction to, well, let’s return to the third potential reason in a moment.

Here’s some more explanation from the Reuters account:

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad — even in a non-religious ceremony — outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

[Secular Pilates instructor Stav] Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

And, Reuters notes, there are entire other communities in Israel for whom an Orthodox-sanctioned marriage is just not possible:

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Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Bloomberg’s totally unbiased abortion story

The best construction I can put on the article we’re about to look at is that Bloomberg editors and reporters accidentally put an abortion rights op-ed in the news section by accident. And yet there are enough things about the piece that make it seem like it was a failed attempt at a news story to make me think otherwise.

The op-ed article begins:

At least 58 U.S. abortion clinics — almost 1 in 10 — have shut or stopped providing the procedure since 2011 as access vanishes faster than ever amid a Republican-led push to legislate the industry out of existence.

I read that, assumed the media professional who submitted it had accidentally flagged a particularly histrionic op-ed (as sometimes happens), and looked for the name of the Planned Parenthood official or other abortion rights supporter who had penned it. One expects to see such bias in ideological media, but one would hope for more impartiality among people claiming to be news writers. I’ll note way up top that the story does not substantiate the lede. There’s no way it could, to be honest. But, hey, other than that problem …

I’ll also note, up top, that if you want to work for one type of political campaign, practice writing “access” as much as possible. However, that word is a really weak word to use for news writing.

More generally, I find the anti-regulatory bias of this piece just fascinating. I’m trying to imagine a mainstream media report about another industry that had a bunch of health and safety problems. Many dozens of reports of legal, health and safety violations all across the country. Including, say, a major practitioner in that industry being convicted of serial murder of very young children and horrible treatment of customers. Urine. Blood-soaked instruments. Narrow hallways that prevented evacuation of dying customers. That sort of thing. And then imagine that legislatures passed stricter regulations for same. Then imagine that some of the regulated parties were unable to or chose not to meet the basic standards required of other similar outfits.

Do you think the lede would be about how awful the regulators were? Of course not! One might even expect to see a story about how awful it was that the regulated industry was unable to meet basic standards of care or health or safety.

Anyway, the entire story is something of a mess, but let’s just look at the next few sentences:

A wave of regulations that makes it too expensive or logistically impossible for facilities to remain in business drove at least a third of the closings. Demographic changes, declining demand, industry consolidation, doctor retirements and crackdowns on unfit providers were also behind the drop. More clinics in Texas and Ohio are preparing to shut as soon as next month.

Opponents have tried to stop access to abortion through civil disobedience, blockades and legal action. Clinics were bombed and doctors killed.

Again, such a fascinating opposite-day spin on meeting health and safety regulations. Unfortunately there’s not substantiation in terms of data to support the claim that meeting the same standards as other outpatient surgical centers do is somehow impossible. Perhaps that’s why the second line is added. More use of the word “access”! I’m trying to think of some way to respond to “clinics were bombed and doctors killed” but I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence. We all know that this hackish and unprofessional. Particularly for an article about safety and health regulations at abortion clinics that somehow doesn’t mention Kermit Gosnell …. once. Literally not once. No mention of the charges against him. The grand jury report. The convictions for murder.

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When Planned Parenthood isn’t news (fraud edition)

Is fraud a religion story? Not necessarily.

Are the actions of Planned Parenthood religion stories? Not necessarily.

But what about the larger issue of the ongoing problems that the mainstream news media have had covering abortion and other social issues related to religion? Is it worth noting here, for instance, the very odd lack of coverage of Planned Parenthood’s recent settlement over fraud allegations?

You wouldn’t probably know it from media coverage but, as one conservative think tank noted this week:

Alliance Defending Freedom’s recent analysis of state and federal audits of family planning programs suggests that in 12 states, Planned Parenthood affiliates overbilled Medicaid for more than $8 million. One federal audit of New York’s Medicaid family planning program reported that certain providers, “especially Planned Parenthoods,” had engaged in improper practices resulting in overpayment.

Despite mounting accusations of fraud, the organization that performs roughly one out of every four abortions in the U.S. has continued to ride the waves of taxpayer funding to annual surpluses. During its last reporting year alone, Planned Parenthood received over half a billion dollars in taxpayer government funding, all the while performing a record 333,964 abortions. To solidify its place as the top abortion provider in the country, Planned Parenthood announced that all local affiliates would have to begin providing abortion services starting in 2013.

I don’t remember what the original allegations of fraud in Texas were but Planned Parenthood there agreed to pay the state $1.4 million $4.3 million to settle the claim that it had fraudulently overbilled the state’s Medicaid program for products and services that were never actually rendered, not medically necessary, and were not covered by the Medicaid program.

No biggie. This is just a story about the mainstream news media’s very favorite organization in the whole world paying to settle legal claims. I know that usually when other organizations — say Roman Catholic archdioceses — settle lawsuits even below a million dollars, it usually gets reported pretty far and wide. Rightly so. Certainly the country’s largest abortion provider — and a taxpayer funded one at that — should get some media coverage, no?

It’s so confusing how a private breast cancer charity choosing not to give Planned Parenthood a couple hundred thousand dollars generated thousands of stories but that same abortion group paying a $1.4 million $4.3 million fraud settlement doesn’t generate hardly any.

A quick Google search for Planned + Parenthood + fraud shows that the following outlets did pay attention. See if you can detect a pattern:

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AP keeps on standing with Wendy

On the Planned Parenthood site is the headline pictured here about Rick Perry signing a new in Texas:

“Texas Governor Rick Perry signed an abortion ban that threatens to shut down dozens of health centers and deny women access to basic care.”

This is what you’d expect from Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider, having killed some 300,000 unborn children last year alone. The organization is well loved by the majority of professionals in the mainstream news media and is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of half a billion dollars a year.

So how did the Associated Press announce this news? Associated Press has struggled with its coverage of the Texas legislature this summer, as you can read about here, here, here and here.

It was so journalistically indefensible that I had to assume that the entire AP Texas staff was on vacation. Remember the story that began, no exaggeration, “Republicans armed with Bible verses have given preliminary approval to some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country”? Remember the tweet announcing that the AP “Stands With Wendy,” since pulled?

Well, if you in any way doubt whether the AP #StandsWithWendy or #StandsWithJournalism, you may want to consider this tweet, barely distinguishable from Planned Parenthood’s own histrionic headline:

(You may be interested in reading how this tweet went over with followers, compiled here.)

This is undoubtedly the talking point of both Planned Parenthood and, oddly, the Associated Press. But is it more than a pro-abortion-rights talking point? Is it, dare I ask, even true?

Well, kudos to Reuters for actually doing the bizarre journalistic task of looking into the abortion rights campaign point instead of regurgitating it whole to millions of readers.

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A Newtown massacre in Nigeria, with ghosts

Absolutely horrific news out of Nigeria today. From the Associated Press:

POTISKUM, Nigeria — Islamic militants attacked a boarding school in northeastern Nigeria before dawn on Saturday, killing 29 students and a teacher. Survivors said that some pupils were burned alive in the latest school attack said to have been carried out by a radical terrorist group.

It’s a wire report, with all of the limitations you might expect, but read the whole story for details on how the attackers — Boko Haram is suspected — burned children alive. Some bodies were so charred they could not be identified.

The only mention of religion in the story is the first word, not uncommon for recent AP updates of strife in the country. But let’s just take the phrase “Islamic militants.” I think it speaks to the importance of fleshing out the religion angles far more than much reporting has done. For one thing, “Islamic” doesn’t quite identify the particular ideology in play. The children and teachers in this school included both Muslims and Christians. And even in the sphere of Islamic militancy, setting children afire and gunning them down in the back is not exactly de rigueur. There are Islamic militants all over the world fighting for or against any number of things, but when you’re performing weekly Newtown massacres, what, exactly, are you militating against? We need much more information about the particular views of the militants in question.

Usually when I’m going for more details, I find Al Jazeera helpful. In this case, neither this story nor the embedded radio interview provided many helpful details. Instead, much of the interview placed blame for the attack on Christian president Goodluck Jonathan — for general strife in the country and for not stopping the attack despite having three Nigerian states placed under emergency declarations. Instead of discussing religious angles to Boko Haram’s motivation, it pointed out that many of its victims are also Muslim.

But, of course, that’s not different from many other Islamic militants throughout the globe. I know that when children are massacred, reporters frequently try to blame something else — say a nation’s gun laws or political climate. It certainly beats trying to make sense of one evil or sick individual’s motivation. But Boko Haram is a major movement with self-professed religious motivation. Downplaying that in favor of other angles would be bad enough but ignoring it is even worse.

Much more helpful was, unsurprisingly, Reuters.

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