Pope Francis to the media: Try being good neighbors

Think of this as a one-time GetReligion commentary from a guest who is an expert, in many ways, on the behavior of the professionals who work in the world’s news media. This is, of course, the annual papal message for World Communications Day, marking the feast of St Francis de Sales — the patron of writers and journalists.

Click here for the full document.

Now, parts of this text raise some interesting question. The pope is, clearly, serving as a good cop and a bad cop at the same time, in terms of his commentary on the news business.

But which point of view gets the upper hand in this essay? That’s where I would like to hear from GetReligion readers in the comments pages (those of you who are patient enough for the whole Disqus process).

Let’s start here:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect. A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Would the people charged with moderating the comments pages at The National Catholic Reporter agree? Times have been rather rough over there.

Now, only a few words later, there is the flip side of the coin, with @Pontifex offering some thoughts — plus and minus — on (I’m reading between the lines) everything from that MSNBC vs. Fox News thing to Twitter:

The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests. The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us. We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.

While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement. What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.

Some would consider that final statement to be quite wise.

Others in the world of social media will simple scream: LOL!

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#OMG! Christians starting to use Twitter — details at 11!

Anyone who’s been around the news for a while will notice that, from time to time, media outlets will “discover” something that’s been talked about, elsewhere, for quite some time. Nearly 20 years after the online world of AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe began to morph into the Internet as a place where people can find information about God, at last a metropolitan daily newspaper has learned that Christian folk are using Twitter to communicate with each other.

As a breathless newsreader might say on those grating “teaser” TV news breaks during commercials: “Details at 11!”

In this case, the apparently surprised outlet is The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. Owned by a business unit of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the DesNews, or DN, as it’s known locally, actually does a very good job of covering religion in general, and, as might be surmised, a good job of tackling LDS news. They don’t have the occasional edginess of the secularly owned Salt Lake Tribune when it comes to the Mormon beat, but the DN often pleasantly surprises with its Godbeat coverage. Indeed, I find their coverage of non-Mormon faith topics, in general, to be quite good.

Oddly enough, this article about “How social and digital media are changing #religion” isn’t all that bad, in my opinion. As journalism, the content is pretty good.

But, then there is the sense of gee-whizziness throughout the text:

Brian Hemsworth’s book club wasn’t anything to write home about.

The club — one of about 80 created and founded by Mosaic, a non-denominational Christian church in Pasadena, Calif. — didn’t offer much for the members, save for some discussion on the previous week’s service and the occasional get-together at a picnic or church function.

It was all standard and by-the-book.

That was, until Hemsworth and other group members flocked to Twitter and began dropping their hashtags and tweets. They snapped photos and sent them instantly via the new-age telegram.

Soon enough, what was once a weekly gathering transformed into an everyday discussion.

“People just began to connect,” Hemsworth said. “People are wanting to find ways of connecting and getting together. And social media is really helping that.”

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How to follow totally secular Syria news on Twitter

The goal here at GetReligion is, of course, to look at the good and the bad in mainstream news coverage of religion events and trends. This means we devote 99 percent of our time to news articles. That’s no surprise.

Yet, in the Internet age, more and more newsrooms are offering — online — an expanded menu of materials that are RELATED to the news in ways that are hard to label. Some fit under the whole “news you can use” umbrella and others are clearly meant to be exercises in reader education.

I find the latter to be especially interesting since the folks running the newsroom are, in effect, telling readers what matters the most to the people who are producing and framing the coverage of the news. The result is often quite revelatory.

Consider the recent Washington Post piece that ran under this bold headline:

The 23 Twitter accounts you must follow to understand Syria

Wow. Really?

Now, it is certainly true that the civil war in Syria is a unique environment, when it comes to gathering news. After all, many of the most important players have a tendency to shoot at reporters they view as hostile. In this context, social media is crucial.

Please, please hear me say that I think Twitter is an information source that must be taken seriously in this context. As the intro to this piece notes:

The news about Syria has been, and continues to be, important, fast-paced and at times overwhelming. It’s a lot to keep up with, not least because every facet of the conflict and how the world responds is complicated and deeply controversial. Smart people can and do disagree vehemently about what it all means — and what to do about it.

These are the people you should follow on Twitter to keep track of what’s going on inside of Syria (as well as within relevant circles outside of it), what it means, why it matters and how to think about it.

You can hear the same reality expressed at the top of a major piece in The New York Times.

Western journalists are struggling to cover what the world has so far seen largely through YouTube. But while some television news crews have been filing reports from Damascus, the dangers of reporters being killed or kidnapped there — as well as visa problems — have kept most journalists outside the country’s borders and heightened the need for third-party images.

“The difficulty of getting into Syria, the shrunken foreign correspondent corps, and the audience gains for social media make it likely this story will be consumed differently by the American public than tensions or conflicts in past years,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Syria the deadliest country in the world for reporters. Last year, 28 journalists working there were killed, and 18 have died so far this year, according to the group, a nonprofit based in New York.

Thus, there is a clear need to follow Twitter feeds close to the action.

So, according to the principalities and powers at The Washington Post, who are the Twitter authorities who are crucial to follow if readers want to understand the events unfolding in Syria?

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Associated Press: Think before you tweet

Romenesko published a memo the Associated Press sent out after a couple of tweets received negative attention from news consumers. We discussed one of those tweets in the post “#StandWithWendy? The Associated Press Does.” Long story short: the employee who #StoodWithWendy should not have done so. Now everybody gets to be reminded of the standards in play.

From: AP Standards
Sent: Monday, July 15, 2013 11:37 PM
Subject: “From the Standards Center” – Social media and breaking news: avoiding pitfalls

Think before you tweet. It seems simple enough, and it’s a rule of thumb that can prevent the vast majority of missteps that a journalist might make on social networks. But given some recent issues that have come up on Twitter, it’s a good time to review some best practices, courtesy of Social Media Editor Eric Carvin.

Among the recent problems:

* A tweet that a staffer sent from the @AP Twitter account, related to the abortion fight in Texas, included the hashtag #StandWithWendy — a reference to Wendy Davis, a state senator who’s been fighting to block a new abortion law. This was an attempt to get more attention for the tweet, but it clearly violates AP policies on steering clear of opinion or advocacy.

* AP staff tweets related to the Zimmerman verdict largely were very smart and professional, but a lot of critics pointed to a tweet that was critical of the verdict from a former, temporary staffer who was not employed by AP at the time of the tweet. The widespread reaction serves as a reminder of how a single tweet from an individual can affect the greater AP.

Seems ridiculous that AP would be blamed for a stringer’s tweet, but it’s a good reminder to all of us that our social media presence reflects on our various associations (sorry to my fellow Lutherans, St. Louis Cardinals fans and Herb Alpert aficionados).

As for the initial #StandWithWendy tweet, I’m glad that the AP acknowledged its existence and the problems therein. Specifically, the memo says that that there are social media lines that should not be crossed:

 

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Mormon missionaries: switching from bikes to iPads?

Mormon missionaries on bikes in Ghana. (Photo via Mormon.org)

From CBS News:

SALT LAKE CITY — The common image of Mormon missionaries has long been two young men wearing white shirts and ties walking through neighborhoods, knocking door-to-door.

I can attest to that image.

Just last week, while on a reporting trip to Nicaragua, I kept running into Mormon missionaries fitting the above description — on a dirt street in a poor neighborhood, at a pizza place in a busy commercial district and elsewhere.

Now, it seems, that image may be about to undergo an overhaul.

More from CBS:

But in a few years, that image may be replaced by one of young Mormons sitting with an iPad, typing messages on Facebook.

Recognizing the world has changed, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders announced Sunday night that missionaries will do less door-to-door proselytizing, and instead, use the Internet to recruit new church members.

The strategy shift reflects the growing importance of social media and people’s preference to connect over sites such as Facebook rather than opening their homes to strangers, church leaders said.

Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack is typically on top of breaking news in the Mormon world, and that’s true in this case.

The top of her Salt Lake Tribune report:

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Spotting the sacred ghost in the era of iWeddings

Let me begin with a few confessions.

First of all, let me stress that I know that there are plenty of weddings that are completely secular or, well, they should have been completely secular. You know what I mean?

Second, I have been to quite a few weddings in recent years, in large part because I sing in our church’s choir and in an Eastern Orthodox wedding the choir is a big part of the proceedings. One of these rites was my daughter’s own wedding. During all of these rites and even, for the most part, the celebrations afterwards it has never entered my mind to whip out my iPhone and put something up online. However, I recognize that I am getting very old and, thus, lived a large chunk of my life before the all-digital era.

Third, I was totally prepared for The New York Times team to leave religion completely out of the fine feature story that ran under the headline: “The ‘I Dos,’ Unplugged.”

However, I was wrong. The story included a brief nod to the fact that some weddings are, imagine that, religious events and, thus, it is rather sad to see them crashed by rampaging hoards of social-media addicts with smartphones. More on that angle in a minute.

Here is the summary paragraph for this slice-of-life-today classic:

The hottest topic in wedding circles this year seems to be whether to request, remind or even require that guests go cold turkey on technology during the event. Everyday couples (which is to say, not just those at risk of being exposed on TMZ) have started treating their guests like paparazzi, confiscating their cellphones and cameras, even throwing them out of the reception if they violate the no-posting-on-Tumblr announcement that the best man makes from under the wedding canopy.

Emily Post, text your office, time for a new mandate: Bridesmaids, thou shalt not Instagram photos of the bride drinking manhattans while getting her hair done in a bun.

On wedding chat boards, brides-to-be fret over the problem: their queries read like dystopian, post-Zuckerbergian versions of Dear Abby. A typical entry might sound like this: “I have a wonderful best friend and she means well, but you should see the photos of my sister’s wedding she put on Facebook — photo bombs of Grandma, drunk Uncle Louis making rabbit ears behind the preacher, my creepy cousin licking the cake, and a shot of the bride and groom contorting as if they needed to go the toilet. My fiance hates cameras. I don’t want a thousand iPads in my face as I’m walking down the aisle. My florist said the flower girls will cry. Help! What do I do?”

Oh. My. God. Are the bride and groom legal and financially liable if someone blows millions on a stock trade because he/she missed a crucial text?

This is great stuff.

I was particularly struck by the fact that many people complain that they cannot possibly be without their phones for an hour or two for medical or even legal reasons. In some cases, professional wedding consultants (it’s hard for me, as an Ortho-dad, to type those words without cracking up laughing) go so far as to offer high-strung people a “cellphone coat check” option that gets the smartphones out of the shaking hands of alleged participants, but allows them to quickly glance at them at strategic moments.

Now, what about that religion angle?

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Mysterious deluge of unreported Catholics

I’m on a few of those neighborhood list-servs. One of them is for area parents. One of the members is a local reporter and she asks for interviews with folks for various stories she’s working on.

Well, one of her recent stories was related to the Newtown massacre. Had any parents, she wanted to know, removed toy guns from their home in response to the Sandy Hook massacre? Some time later, she asked again. And again. One mother responded that the reporter should “give up” trying to force a story that wasn’t there.

Now, as someone who has used social media to find sources for stories I’m working on, I’ve given some thought to this. I think the best way to handle such searches for sources is to not constrain them too much to your particular idea of what the story should be. So here’s a great example of how to do it, from the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein:

Discussing Matthew Warren suicide at your church service? Bible study group? I’d love to hear: michelle.boorstein@washpost.com

In general, you want to keep the query as broad as possible so you don’t end up with a story where you’re forcing a few weak anecdotes into a preconceived hook that may or may not be valid.

Which brings us to this NBC News story  headlined “‘It was a sign’: Lapsed Catholics lured back by Pope Francis.” Now that reporters have a pope they like, instead of the last few, whom they clearly didn’t like, we’ll probably see a lot of coverage like this. I sort of imagine it all began with a social media request.

It begins:

Twenty million Americans consider themselves lapsed Catholics, but Pope Francis is convincing many to test the holy waters again with his bold gestures and common touch.

After years of disenchantment with the church’s hierarchy and teachings, former members of the flock say they are willing to give the Vatican a second chance under new leadership.

So of these 20 million, how many other than the three anecdotes in this story are we talking about? Well, it will not surprise you that it’s “unknown.”

What a trend piece!

We have a Dallas Baby Boomer Latina who generally drifted away from the Catholic Church after a divorce and such and switched to an evangelical church three years ago and recently started visiting Catholic Masses again.

We have a priest who says some people told him they’re coming back because of Pope Francis.

The article says that church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, birth control and “treatment” of women are the reason people have left the Catholic Church. Then it admits that Pope Francis “hasn’t given any hint of radical change on those issues.”

But the president of a website for returning Catholics says traffic is way up.

Anyway, here’s a sample anecdote:

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Got news? A fishy hole in all those Lent stories

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So it’s a Friday in Lent (only in Western churches, at this point), so what did you have for lunch?

As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I have always been interested in how other ancient churches — think Rome and, to some degree, Canterbury — handle the great fasting seasons. When you add them all up, including our normal fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, practicing Orthodox Christians live as vegans or, at the very least, vegetarians more than half the year. The Catholic Church, in recent decades, has been having a lively debate about the relevance of fish on Fridays.

My point isn’t theological. Actually, I think there is an interesting story here, one that rarely shows up in the mainstream press (I mean, beyond your basic Lenten fast food stories, such as this item from Nation’s Restaurant News). Those stories tend to lead to this kind of reporting:

Every year restaurant chains focus their menu development and marketing to make sure they are not giving up traffic and sales between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, a 40-day period when Christians observing Lent abstain from certain vices or habits.

For most foodservice brands that means stepping up seafood and fish offerings for the season when Christians typically stop eating meat on Fridays.

This year several chains, including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s, are finding new ways to market fish items typically promoted during Lent, which began on Feb. 13. Some chains are even thinking beyond the typical fried fish sandwich.

Well, it’s understandable that this story focuses on the dominant liturgical Christian tradition in our culture, which would be Catholicism. I get that.

However, this brings me to my main point: What is Lent, these days, even for practicing Catholics? What are the agreed-upon practices for keeping a holy Lent?

In particular, I’d like to ask for input from GetReligion readers, especially this site’s many Catholic readers: Does anyone know where this whole “give up one thing for Lent” idea came from? I dug into this five years ago for a Scripps Howard column and I couldn’t find anyone who knew the facts on where this universally discussed sort-of tradition came from.

It didn’t come from from Catholicism. We can’t blame the Lutherans or Anglicans. It’s sure as heck not from Eastern Orthodoxy.

This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a great case study for the state of Catholic spiritual disciplines and practices post-Vatican II. Here’s an even more important question: How many American Catholics are going to Confession before receiving Communion at Easter?

But back to the “one thing for Lent” thing. Here is what I found several years ago, talking to one popular Catholic apologist:

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