AP embraces cliches, labels in seminary prez profile

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Sorry, I just finished reading The Associated Press’ feeble attempt at profiling Albert Mohler on his 20th anniversary as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

From the start, the story reads like a reporter (in this case, more than one reporter since it has a double byline!) and editor got together and decided to see how many cliches and labels they could mix together in one shallow report. Instead of providing insight into Mohler, the AP settles for presenting a cardboard cutout.

Let’s start at the top:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — For the last 20 years, Albert Mohler has led the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention, restoring it to more conservative principals even though it meant purging faculty who were out of step with his beliefs.

Unless I’m missing something, doesn’t the AP mean “principles” and not “principals?” But I digress.

I hope you caught the “conservative” label in that first sentence. That’s just the first of seven times that word appears (five times as an adjective) in this 800-word story.

The second sentence:

He expressed satisfaction with the transformation as he recently welcomed a new crop of students to the Louisville campus of stately brick buildings and perfectly manicured lawns. Donations, enrollment and the school’s budget have grown dramatically since Mohler took the helm, and there’s no sign of him leaving.

Stately brick buildings and perfectly manicured lawns? Dear cliches, welcome to the party!

Let’s get to the meat of the story (or what passes for it):

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A Messiah was born … in Tennessee

Let’s face it: Some parents give their babies weird names.

Years ago, as a features writer for The Oklahoman, my wife, Tamie, wrote about a teenager named Cocaine — er, Kokain:

Kokain Mothershed thinks his father must have been on drugs when he named him.

Check his birth certificate, and you’ll find only that first and last name. Ouch. It’s real, all right.

But why in the world would anyone name their child after an illegal substance?

“Well, that’s a real good question,” the 17-year-old from Oklahoma City said. “I’m just glad (my dad’s) in recovery now.”

The Douglass High School junior quarterback is as quick on his feet as he is in the pocket. He’s already looking at colleges and wants to study computer science.

And he hasn’t let the drug connection ruin his life, he said, even though he can’t escape the image.

“I’ve got a cousin. Her name is Marijuana,” Kokain said. “But I don’t see her much. She’s locked up now.”

Strange, huh?

But this is the United States, land of the free, so parents have the right to name their offspring whatever they want — no matter how Strange.

Or maybe not.

An Associated Press story out of Tennessee reported earlier this week:

NEWPORT, Tenn. (AP) — A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.”

Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ordered the name change last week, according to WBIR-TV (http://on.wbir.com/1cDOeTY).The boy’s parents were in court because they could not agree on the child’s last name, but when the judge heard the boy’s first name, she ordered it changed, too.

“It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is,” Ballew said.

Um, only in America. Or something like that.

The first AP story, referenced above, hit the quick high points, but I wondered if the wire service would give the case more serious attention than a gee-whiz bright. I was pleased to see a slightly more in-depth report last night.

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Results vary as media follow Rick Warren’s return

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Over the weekend, Rick Warren returned to the pulpit for the first time since his son’s suicide nearly four months ago.

This made national headlines — and rightly so.

The coverage that I saw ranged from weak to adequate to truly exceptional.

On the weak side, the Los Angeles Times did a bare bones report that seemed to scream: “Just going through the motions! Nothing to see here! Move along!”

The full extent of the Times’ coverage from inside Saddleback Church:

Rick Warren, bestselling author and pastor of an evangelical mega church in Orange County, preached for the first time on Sunday after his son’s suicide.

Matthew Warren, 27, shot himself in the head in April following a long struggle with mental illness.

On Sunday, his father appeared in jeans and a black T-shirt in front of an estimated 10,000 congregants at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest and vowed to fight prejudice against people with mental illnesses.

“It’s amazing to me that any other organ in your body can break down and there’s no shame and stigma to it,” Warren said. “But if your brain breaks down you’re supposed to keep it a secret.”

For those paying attention, the “Sunday” in the Times’ lede might seem strange (which is a nice way of saying “downright inaccurate”). Other media, after all, reported that Saddleback has five weekend worship services, and that Warren began preaching at them Saturday afternoon.

On the adequate side, that’s how I’d characterize The Associated Press’ report on Warren’s return to the pulpit.

AP’s story seems to provide all the relevant facts, including this section:

In the sermon, first in a series called “How To Get Through What You’re Going Through,” Rick Warren said he had the perfect role model for his struggles.

“God knows what it’s like to lose a son,” Warren said.

He remained mostly composed, but choked back tears at times, including when he thanked his surviving two children.

Obviously, that direct quote refers to Jesus’ death on the cross. Here’s my question: Should the AP specify that? Or is it OK to assume that most readers know what he’s talking about?

On the truly exceptional side, check out this report from Time magazine writer Elizabeth Dias, whose specialties include religion coverage.

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Ready! Set! Be bored by Illinois’ same-sex marriage debate!

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s “Religion News on the Web” page is one of the places I go to peruse religion news.

A headline from Illinois caught my attention today:

AP: Politics and the pulpit: Black churches at heart of gay marriage debate in Illinois

That topic interests me, so I clicked on the link.

Let’s start at the top of The Associated Press report:

SUMMIT, Illinois — When a proposal to legalize gay marriage started gaining momentum in the home state of President Barack Obama, it seemed a quick and easy deal: The pastor of his former megachurch endorsed it with powerful testimony at the Capitol and Democrats control Illinois’ government.

But fervor over the idea has stalled for months in that exact spot where faith and politics are inseparable.

Black churches — where the pulpit has always been political — are deeply divided over their support for same-sex marriage and are central to the Illinois measure’s passage, which awaits a House vote as early as this week. On either side of the issue, pastors and politically active congregations have waged intense campaigns with robocalls, columns and sermons.

What do you think of that lede?

When I worked for AP, I always enjoyed writing creative ledes much more than inverted-pyramid-style ledes (meaning straight-news, just-the-facts intros). So I understand the desire to grab the readers’ attention with something more stimulating than “Black churches in Illinois are deeply divided over same-sex marriage, stalling proposed legislation on the matter.”

But honestly, the lede AP used contains way too much editorialization for my taste. And way too little attribution. Who thought the proposal seemed like a “quick and easy deal,” for example? Doesn’t that subjective fact demand a named source?

Still, I kept reading, holding out hope that the story would reflect passionate voices on all sides of the debate.

The first source introduced — an openly gay pastor — certainly seems fired up:

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Gays, Boy Scouts and the religion angle

I’ve been swamped with my regular job the last few days, so I have not had as much time as usual to peruse religion headlines.

However, news that the Boy Scouts of America may drop its ban on gays has been impossible to miss.

The Associated Press has a rapid-fire second-day story that includes input from a variety of  sources — pro and con — on the possible change:

NEW YORK (AP) — The Boy Scouts of America’s proposed move away from its no-gays membership policy has outraged some longtime admirers, gratified many critics and raised intriguing questions about the iconic organization’s future.

Will the Scouts now be split between troops with gay-friendly policies and those that keep the ban? What will a National Jamboree be like if it brings together these disparate groups with conflicting ideologies? Will the churches long devoted to scouting now be torn by internal debate over the choices that may lie ahead?

After those opening two paragraphs, AP immediately turns to a source in the religion world:

A top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose conservative churches sponsor hundreds of Scout units that embrace the ban, was among those alarmed that the BSA is proposing to allow sponsoring organizations to decide for themselves whether to admit gays as scouts and adult leaders.

“We understand that we are now a minority, that it is not popular to have biblical values, not popular to take stands that seem intolerant,” said Frank Page, president of the SBC’s executive committee. “This is going to lead to a disintegration of faith-based values.”

Later, the story includes comments — or lack of comments — from Mormon and Roman Catholic officials:

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A killer like us? AP reporter evokes inmate’s humanity

Last week, I railed on the Journalism of Narcissism.

Specifically, I critiqued a first-person account by a writer who said he hid in a church bathroom and pretended to be a true believer while reporting on Brazilian evangelicals in New York.

That post prompted regular reader FW Ken to comment:

How can you write at any depth if people don’t open up to you, and how do people open up if you don’t engage with them. I’m not suggesting extensive self-disclosure or getting overly personal, but if your subjects are really people to you, you have to be a person to them.

My quick reply:

Totally agree, FW Ken.

Now for something totally different: How about a first-person piece that actually works?

I’m referring to an Associated Press reporter’s story over the weekend recounting her experience covering a recently executed murderer. In a striking way, AP’s Dena Potter demonstrates the power of — believe it or not — high journalistic integrity and compassion in gaining a source’s trust. That’s opposed to, say, deception and tricks.

Potter wrote a straight news account last week of Robert Gleason Jr.’s death in Virginia’s electric chair. But her weekend essay — headlined “A killer like me” by one news organization — highlights the flashes of ordinary humanity she glimpsed in the cold-blooded murderer:

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Tibet is burning

YouTube Preview ImageLet me commend for your reading this AP article by reporter Gillian Wong on the military crack down in Tibet. Entitled “As Tibet burns, China makes arrests, seizes TVs” this article reports on the wave of self-immolations that have swept across Tibet in protest to the Chinese regime’s occupation of the region.

It opens with a strong lede, provides the facts in a straight forward – balanced way, offers good comments from knowledgeable experts, provides the principle points of view — all while being written under a Beijing dateline (which means the reporter can find herself severely discommoded by the government for reporting unpalatable truths.)

The article opens:

Chinese authorities are responding to an intensified wave of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule by clamping down even harder – criminalizing the suicides, arresting protesters’ friends and even confiscating thousands of satellite TV dishes.

The harsh measures provide an early indication that the country’s new leadership is not easing up on Tibet despite the burning protests and international condemnation.

For months, as Tibetans across western China doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves alight, authorities responded by sending in security forces to seal off areas and prevent information from getting out, but those efforts did not stop or slow the protests. The self-immolations even accelerated in November as China’s ruling Communist Party held a pivotal leadership transition.

There is a strong religious component to the story:

Nearly 100 Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people have set themselves on fire since 2009, calling for Beijing to allow greater religious freedom and the return from exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Speaking technically, (e.g., removing the subject of the story and looking at its construction, language and the reporter’s craft) this is a superior news story — it has all the elements of good journalism. And when you add in the compelling subject matter of religious freedom and political self-determination for Tibet you have a great story.

Were I to add anything to this story, it would be a paragraph or two on what the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has to say about self-immolation. Buddhism holds that human life is sacred — how does suicide as political/religious protest stand in light of these teachings?

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Mixing scales of justice and songs of praise

Strange, strange, strange — like something out of a John Grisham novel.

That was my first reaction to an Associated Press news story about a Tennessee jury accused of singing, praying and reading Bible verses during deliberations:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The attorney for a man sentenced to death for the torture slayings of a young Knoxville couple says the jury spent the majority of its sentencing deliberations singing worship songs and reading Bible verses rather than discussing the case.

A motion filed on behalf of Lemaricus Davidson was recently unsealed along with pages of handwritten hymns and praise songs used by jurors during Davidson’s 2009 trial. His attorney says the impromptu worship service violated Davidson’s rights to a fair trial, due process and impartial jury.

The AP story is a rewrite of a longer report that first appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Both pieces impressed me as woefully short on specific details concerning the jury’s alleged infractions. For example, I want to know the specific songs they sang. Did they fancy “Rock of Ages?” Or did they lean more toward “Jesus Freak?” Similarly, I want to know the specific Bible verses they read. Concerning the Scriptures, the original Knoxville newspaper report notes:

The motion is based on a signed affidavit from a bailiff who served during Davidson’s 2009 trial. The affidavit included handwritten notes that said the praise service happened before deliberation, but does not specify a timeline or location of the service. It does show the jury members used copies of hymns while one member led the others in song while playing guitar. Another juror read a Bible verse — Psalm 90, verse 12 — according to the handwritten notes.

The King James Version of that verse says:

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

I’m assuming that the reported details are vague because the court records themselves are vague. Moreover, I’m assuming that the jurors either can’t, or won’t, talk about the case. In other words, the news organizations are reporting what they know, which isn’t a whole lot.

Hopefully, more facts will surface at a hearing on the defense motion set for next week.

Strange, strange, strange.

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