NYT publishes ‘news story’ on pregnancy centers

The New York Times, a daily publication that claims to “Publish All the News That’s Fit to Print,” gave front-page play to the growing number of pregnancy centers that discourage abortion.

As a journalist, I believe in the value of skepticism: It’s a healthy attribute in reporting and writing newspaper stories. My question related to this particular Times report: At what point does skepticism detour into editorializing?

Let’s start at the top (boldface emphasis mine):

WACO, Tex. — With free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, along with diapers, parenting classes and even temporary housing, pregnancy centers are playing an increasingly influential role in the anti-abortion movement. While most attention has focused on scores of new state laws restricting abortion, the centers have been growing in numbers and gaining state financing and support.

Largely run by conservative Christians, the centers say they offer what Roland Warren, head of Care Net, one of the largest pregnancy center organizations, described as “a compassionate approach to this issue.”

As they expand, they are adding on-call or on-site medical personnel and employing sophisticated strategies to attract women, including Internet search optimization and mobile units near Planned Parenthood clinics.

Is that double attribution really needed? Does putting “a compassionate approach to this issue” inside quote marks intentionally call the description into question? What do we have here: simple journalistic attribution (that’s a good thing) or scare quotes (that’s not)?

Keep reading, and the Times provides this background:

Pregnancy centers, while not new, now number about 2,500, compared with about 1,800 abortion providers. Ms. Maxon estimated that the centers see about a million clients annually, with another million attending abstinence and other programs. Abortion rights advocates have long called some of their approaches deceptive or manipulative. Medical and other experts say some dispense scientifically flawed information, exaggerating abortion’s risks.

What approaches are deceptive or manipulative? What is the scientifically flawed information? Will both sides get a chance to comment on the claims?

Immediately, both sides receive an opportunity to weigh in briefly:

Jean Schroedel, a Claremont Graduate University politics professor, said that “there are some positive aspects” to centers, but that “things pregnant women are told at many of these centers, some of it is really factually suspect.”

The centers defend their practices and information. “Women who come in are constantly telling us, ‘Abortion seems to be my only alternative and I think that’s the best thing to do,’ ” said Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International, which she described as a “Christ-centered” organization with 1,100 affiliates. “Centers provide women with the whole choice.”

Later, the Times returns to the criticisms raised against the pregnancy centers:

Some centers use controversial materials stating that abortion may increase the risk of breast cancer. A brochure issued by Care Net’s national organization, for example, says, “A number of reliable studies have concluded that there is an association between abortion and later development of breast cancer.”

Dr. Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer, who calls himself a “pro-life Catholic,” said studies showing abortion-breast cancer links are “very weak,” while strong studies find no correlation.

Other claims include long-term psychological effects. The Care Net brochure says that “many women experience initial relief,” but that “women should be informed that abortion significantly increases risk for” clinical depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. An American Psychological Association report found no increased risk from one abortion.

How does Care Net respond to the claims that its materials are inaccurate?

[Read more...]

Gov’t RFID tracking: Creepy or mark of the beast?

When I first heard rumblings about school districts in Texas using locator chips to track students, I assumed it wasn’t true.

So my jaw dropped while reading this Associated Press story. It begins:

To 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez, the tracking microchip embedded in her student ID card is a “mark of the beast,” sacrilege to her Christian faith – not to mention how it pinpoints her location, even in the school bathroom.

But to her budget-reeling San Antonio school district, those chips carry a potential $1.7 million in classroom funds.

Starting this fall, the fourth-largest school district in Texas is experimenting with “locator” chips in student ID badges on two of its campuses, allowing administrators to track the whereabouts of 4,200 students with GPS-like precision. Hernandez’s refusal to participate isn’t a twist on teenage rebellion, but has launched a debate over privacy and religion that has forged a rare like-mindedness between typically opposing groups.

When Hernandez and her parents balked at the so-called SmartID, the school agreed to remove the chip but still required her to wear the badge. The family refused on religious grounds, stating in a lawsuit that even wearing the badge was tantamount to “submission of a false god” because the card still indicated her participation.

Now I find government agencies electronically stalking children to be creeptastic just for basic civil liberties reasons, but I’m intrigued by this religion argument. Most of the story focuses on either the involvement of civil liberties groups against the practice or the school district’s justification for the practice, which it assures everyone is mostly financial, with a bit of a nod to efficiency and security. (Funds are paid to schools based on attendance so kids who are ditching one class but still on campus can be counted for the daily tally.)

What I was really hoping for, though, was an explanation of the family’s religious views on the mark of the beast and how this RFID card relates to those views. On that front, I was a bit disappointed:

John Whitehead, [founder of Virginia-based civil rights group, The Rutherford Institute] believes the religious component of the lawsuit makes it stronger than if it only objected on grounds of privacy. The lawsuit cites scriptures in the book of Revelation, stating that “acceptance of a certain code … from a secular ruling authority” is a form of idolatry.

Wearing the badge, the family argues, takes it a step further.

“It starts with that religious concern,” Whitehead said. “There is a large mark of Evangelicals that believe in the `mark of the beast.’ “

At first I tried to find the scripture verse quoted above. Then I realized that it’s just a quote from the lawsuit and that the lawsuit cites scripture. I’m sure that if you’re already familiar with the line of thinking espoused here, you understand perfectly what this all means. But it’s a bit oblique for those of us who aren’t as familiar. I don’t quite get the religious objection, based on this story’s characterization of it at least. I found this Courthouse News Service write-up of the lawsuit a bit more helpful just because it quotes a bit more from the lawsuit:

A magnet high school is booting out a Christian student because she has religious objections to wearing the school’s chip-embedded ID badge, the student claims in court.

Andrea Hernandez, a student at John Jay High School and John Jay Science and Engineering Academy, sued the Northside Independent School District, Jay High School Principal Robert Harris and Jay Academy Principal Jay Sumpter, in Bexar County Court…

Hernandez and her father object to the badges, based on Scripture in the book of Revelation.

“According to these scriptures, an individual’s acceptance of a certain code, identified with his or her person, as a pass conferring certain privileges from a secular ruling authority, is a form of idolatry or submission to a false god,” the complaint states. “Plaintiff was offered an ‘accommodation’ whereby the radio chip would be removed from the plaintiff’s badge. Under this ‘accommodation,’ however, plaintiff would still be required to wear the badge around her neck as an outward symbol of her ‘participation’ in the project.”

Hernandez says defendant Harris has banned her from distributing flyers and petitions to other students at the school, arguing against the project.

I’m sure there’s much more that could be written about this passage from Revelation and how it relates to some people’s objections to RFID tracking devices issued by government agencies. It sounds like there was not much explanation in the court filings.

What is this “American Catholic Church,” anyway?

What we have here is kind of a Son of the WomenPriests story — with an interesting twist.

When covering the WomenPriests, mainstream reporters have used some very awkward language suggesting, to be blunt about it, that the WomenPriests are valid Roman Catholic priests for the simple reason that they say that they are valid Roman Catholic priests.

The implication is that the Catholic Church is not in charge of declaring who is and who is not a priest in the Catholic Church. As your GetReligionistas have stressed in our posts on this topic — click here for a small library — this is something like a journalist saying he is a columnist at The New York Times for the simple reason that this reporter has decided that he is a columnist at The New York Times. Does the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway play shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals? If she proclaimed this to be true, would major newspapers print her claim as truth?

This brings me to a short political story in The Austin America-Statesman in which it was crucial to clearly present the ecclesiastical status of a man who was once a Catholic priest and, now, is a different kind of priest.

The shock, this time around, is that the American-Statesman team comes very, very close to getting an A-grade for its efforts on this journalistic equation. Here’s the top of the story:

Austin school board newcomer Dr. Rev. Jayme Mathias narrowly defeated incumbent Sam Guzman early Wednesday morning to represent District 2, an area of East Austin deeply affected by last year’s school board decision to convert a neighborhood school to an in-district charter school run by an outside organization.

That controversial move made the unseating of a board member less surprising than it might have been.

What was a surprise was Mathias’ post-election comment to a reporter that he will be the first openly-gay school trustee, something he hadn’t mentioned during his campaign. However, people involved in the election — including his opponent — said they knew Mathias is gay, and it wasn’t an issue.

Now, that first reference to the man’s name is a bit strange. Most newspapers reserve “Dr.” references for people with medical degrees. Is that the case this time? It’s hard to know. Also, shouldn’t that be “the Rev.” Jayme Mathias? Some papers, in this case, would even say “Father” Jayme Mathias.

However, this man’s clerical status is a bit complex. However, that doesn’t mean that it could not be described in simple, brief, accurate language, in keeping with the fact that the religion element of this story is of secondary importance. Thus, readers are told:

Mathias, a former Roman Catholic priest, is the first non-Hispanic to represent District 2 since the school district moved to geographic representations in 1992.

“I’ve been ministering among the Hispanic community my entire adult life,” said Mathias. “I speak Spanish fluently. I’ve been so immersed in this culture, it’s absolutely part of who I am.”

Mathias said that in March he joined the more progressive American Catholic Church, which allows priests to marry or live in domestic partnerships. He is now pastor of Holy Family American Catholic Church.

Did the newspaper need to call the local Catholic diocese for clarification in this case? Probably not.

Did the newspaper — to provide clarity for readers — need to add at least one sentence, or phrase, about the history and size of the American Catholic Church?

I think that it would have helped. Why? Well, there are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. How many people are in this American Catholic communion? It’s hard to tell, but it appears there are 24 small parishes in this fold — in the world. Total global membership of 2,000 or so?

This would be an interesting detail to know, if the goal is to explain the pilgrimage of Mathias. All this would take is a sentence or two. That’s all.

Jeers, not cheers, for latest cheerleader story

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In the midst of the Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting earlier this month, I did a quick, positive review of a New York Times story on a legal clash over Kountze, Texas, high school cheerleaders painting Bible-based messages on football banners.

Since that first story, the same Times writer has written about the East Texas lawsuit at least three more times. Two of the three follow-ups make sense to me. One reported on Texas Gov. Rick Perry weighing in on the case. The other concerned a court ruling.

But the latest story makes me wonder if it’s really that slow of a news month for a Times writer stationed in the Lone Star State. The headline on the 1,200-word report:

In Texas, a Legal Battle Over Biblical Banners

Um, yeah. We got the idea with the first story on the subject more than two weeks earlier.

To be fair, I recognize that reporters do not write their own headlines. So let’s judge the story on its own merits. The angle on this new report is that a Christian superintendent has gone against the predominant feelings in a largely Christian town.

Except that the first story already covered that angle quite adequately.

From the original report:

While testifying on Thursday, Mr. Weldon — he and school board members had been subpoenaed, though Judge Thomas later nullified those subpoenas — said two lawyers he contacted, a district lawyer and a lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards, advised him to prohibit the students from writing Bible verses. But he said that he supported the cheerleaders and that, as a Christian, he agreed with their religious viewpoints.

“I commend them for what they’re doing,” Mr. Weldon testified.

Mr. Weldon and lawyers representing the district have said that they would like to allow the cheerleaders to put religious messages on the banners, but a declaration from the judge was needed to determine whether the district is required to restrict such banners.

So what’s the new angle? Here’s the lede to the latest report:

KOUNTZE, Tex. — In a barrage of recent e-mails, telephone calls and letters to his office, Kevin Weldon has been called some of the worst things a Christian man in this predominantly Christian town can be called: un-Christian, and even anti-Christian.

“I’ve been in this business a long, long time,” said Mr. Weldon, the superintendent of the 1,300-student school district in Kountze, northeast of Houston. “People that know me know how I am. Even though I got those things, I’m going to be honest with you, this may sound very flippant, but it just went in one ear and out the other.”

Mr. Weldon, 53, is in a position that few superintendents in small-town Texas have found themselves: taking a stand on religious expression that has put him at odds with the majority of his students and his neighbors, not to mention the governor, the attorney general and, some in Kountze believe, his God.

So what actual evidence does the Times provide that Weldon has become persona non grata in this East Texas town?

The paper quotes one politician running for Congress who suggests that the superintendent “can either overturn his ban on religion, or pack his bags.”

Otherwise, there’s this:

Not everyone has been so harsh. Rebekah Richardson, 17, a Kountze High School cheerleader, said: “We understand that he’s in a hard situation.”

Mr. Weldon said that over all, people in Kountze have treated him respectfully. He has attended the football games without incident, watching the Kountze Lions burst through the very banners (“But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” one read) at issue in the lawsuit. “It’s a great small town, and they’re just standing up for what they truly believe in,” he said. “You can’t fault people for that.”

In a heavily wooded part of the state called the Big Thicket, Kountze is an old-fashioned town of 2,100 with a history of religious tolerance. In the early 1990s, residents elected their first black mayor, Charles Bilal, a Muslim. The majority white, Christian voters made Mr. Bilal the first Muslim mayor in the United States. His granddaughter, Nahissaa Bilal, 17, a Christian, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Just curious: Did the Times feel compelled to perpetuate stereotypes even when the facts did not support them? Rather than resort to a cliche lead about the superintendent receiving a “barrage” of complaints, would a more accurate opening have focused on a tolerant town generally respectful of its superintendent despite disagreeing with his action?

The weirdest part of the story: It’s based up high on the superintendent’s own Christianity, yet the Times never feels compelled to explore his faith or beliefs or even his specific denominational affiliation. He’s described only as a “Protestant,” while the offended politician is a “born-again Christian.”

Strange, strange, strange …