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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So, is Benedict XVI lying about motives for his retirement?

So let’s say that The Telegraph prints a story from its Rome bureau about the interesting new statements by Pope Benedict XVI about events surrounding his historic decision to retire. The top of the story, logically enough, starts with Benedict’s own point of view:

“God told me to do it,” the 86-year-old former pontiff told a friend, six months after his decision to step down shocked the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

God had implanted in his heart the “absolute desire” to resign and to devote himself to a life of prayer and reflection, Benedict told the anonymous confidante, according to Zenit, a Rome-based Catholic news agency.

“It was not because of any type of apparition or phenomenon of that sort,” he said, but instead the result of a “mystical experience” received during “a direct rapport with the Lord”. He said the more he sees the “charisma” of Pope Francis, his successor, the more he is convinced that it was “the will of God” that he became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.

So far, pretty normal stuff — journalistically speaking.

However, later in the story the omniscient editorial voice of the newsroom added:

Benedict returned to live in the Vatican in May, saying that he would remain “hidden from the world”, devoting the rest of his life to prayer and theological study. His remarks will do little to dampen speculation about the more worldly reasons for his departure.

Although old and frail, he does not appear to be suffering from any specific illness, prompting speculation about his true motives.

Etc., etc. Now, you put these two sections of the news report together and you can get this kind of distressed remark from a faithful GetReligion reader:

“So, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a liar?”

Actually, no, for at least two reasons — one journalistic and the other theological.

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Pod People: CBS asks if Pope is breaking with Vatican

The previous week gave us a lot to talk about here at GetReligion. Check out these GetReligion posts from Friday alone for a few bad examples of media coverage (here, here and here).

In the latest Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I chatted about some of the early problems with media coverage of Pope Francis’ remarks on blackmailing people for sins they’d repented of. See my posts Pope Francis’ 1st miracle: media coverage of mercy and Media obsession dangers: Pope and gay priests. We also talked a bit about the struggle to cover denominational news when there is no  major or easy-to-understand controversy on which to report (News crisis: when people agree (Lutheran edition)). And we discussed the difficulties of reporting on lawsuits or other one-sided updates (When lawsuits attack).

Whatever the Pope says is news. Every time a pope gives an interview, except headlines. This was an intriguing and open and flowing interview. Headlines are proper and to be expected. At the same time, it’s important to accurately convey the news in the headline. It’s worth taking some time to understand the context of remarks (such as the gay mafia issue which was the focus of the question that generated the headlines). And it’s important to make sure that one’s own biases and obsessions aren’t coloring the way the news is being presented.

All that to say that I have a favorite example of media mis-steps on this. It comes from CBS and was caught by a conservative criticism site. You can read their full coverage here but they feature Dean Reynolds asking a man who left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 2006 over his belief that individuals with same-sex attraction would be purged. It’s an interesting choice for a single source bit, but that’s neither here nor there. Check out this exchange:

MICHAEL HERMAN: I don’t think gay people in general have felt loved in this church for a long time. So, to have any indication of being loved and being welcomed is huge.

REYNOLDS: Michael Herman is a gay Catholic who quit the priesthood in 2006, after he felt the Church intended to purge gays. In the past, the Church has called homosexuality a depravity, contrary to natural law which can never be approved. Pope Benedict XVI said, as recently as 2005, that homosexuality was incompatible with the priesthood. But Herman says this pope’s tone will have a ripple effect….

HERMAN: …The effect that that will have on parents who have gay children – on gay Catholics themselves, I think, is extremely positive – when all we’ve heard, for many years, is negative, negative, negative.

REYNOLDS: Do you think he’s breaking with the Vatican?

Do you think the Pope is breaking with the Vatican. So much wrapped up in that question, no?

The ghost in Bud Day’s obituary

Of the many wonderful parts of the New York Times, my favorite is the obituary section. Perhaps it’s being a pastor’s daughter, perhaps it’s that my mother’s side of the family were morticians, but I love reading a good obituary. Let’s look at one headlined “Col. Bud Day, Vietnam War Hero, Dies at 88.”

Col. Bud Day, an Air Force fighter pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War, imprisoned with John McCain in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” and defiantly endured more than five years of brutality without divulging sensitive information to his captors, earning him the Medal of Honor, died on Saturday in Shalimar, Fla. He was 88.

His death was announced by his wife, Doris.

Colonel Day was among America’s most highly decorated servicemen, having received nearly 70 medals and awards, more than 50 for combat exploits. In addition to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the highest combat award specifically for airmen.

Col. Day was a genuine hero who earned much recognition. Later we get some details on how he was tortured:

Major Day was strung upside-down by his captors, but after his bonds were loosened, he escaped after five days in enemy hands. He made it across a river, using a bamboo-log float for support, and crossed into South Vietnam. He wandered barefoot and delirious for about two weeks in search of rescuers, surviving on a few berries and frogs. At one point, he neared a Marine outpost, but members of a Communist patrol spotted him first, shot him in the leg and hand, and captured him.

This time, Major Day could not escape. He was shuttled among various camps, including the prison that became known as the Hanoi Hilton, and was beaten, starved and threatened with execution. His captors demanded information on escape plans and methods of communication among the prisoners of war, as well as on America’s air war.

In February 1971, he joined with Admiral Stockdale, then a commander and the ranking American in the prison camp, and other prisoners in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while rifle muzzles were pointed at them by guards who had burst into a prisoners’ forbidden religious service.

Great details, right? And isn’t that interesting that he was in a “forbidden religious service”? So what religion was Col. Day? And why in the world is this detail excluded from the obituary?

I’m interested in the religious views of … everyone. Whatever they are. Knowing how fully my faith in Christ informs everything, and seeing how others’ religious views inform them, it is the most important piece of information I look for in an obituary. When it’s not there, it confuses me. How could someone write up the life of an individual and leave out such an important part as their religion? It boggles the mind.

This is something of a common complaint I have, but in this case it’s also somewhat personal. I’m Lutheran, of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. So was Col. Day. I wanted to see how the Times dealt with his religion. Other than that reference to a “religious service,” it’s not.

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Media obsession dangers: Pope and gay priests edition


Ermagerd, everybody! The Pope has renounced all church teaching on everything! Stop the presses! Start them again! Freak out!

That’s my impression of Twitter, online and broadcast and cable news today. From my morning read:

CBSNews: Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge” gay clergy? http://cbsn.ws/14dnXJD

BreakingNews: Pope Francis says he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation – @AP http://apne.ws/17Oyvw2

Raushenbush: Pope Francis on Gays: Who am I to judge them? http://huff.to/12xEA1z

DavidCraryAP: #PopeFrancis reaches out to gays, says he won’t judge gay priests http://bit.ly/16tTmDo  by @AP #LGBT #Catholic

Biggest news story of the day. And why, exactly, is this news? Everyone agrees it’s news, but why? It would be news if he was changing church teaching on whether homosexual acts are sin, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether sexually active gay men should be priests, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether strong homosexual tendencies are a barrier to ordination. And, to be honest, no matter what was said it would be news even if the word “homosexual” or “gay” were uttered by Pope Francis, since that’s all that the media really care about these days. What, specifically, is the news?

I was glad I read the Associated Press story first because, setting aside the headline and lede, it included the minor detail that Pope Francis did not depart from traditional church teaching on sin and homosexuality. That was a detail left absent from most every other report I read:

ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT (AP) — Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference as he returned from his first foreign trip.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked.

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

Could we all pause to agree that this is the best dateline in the history of datelines?

The distinction being suggested here is clear — the Vatican in 2005 said that deep-rooted homosexual tendencies are a barrier to priesthood. Now the Pope says that if you a priest who confesses to sexual sin, you should be forgiven and your sin forgotten. But is this the contradiction or change of policy the media fervently pray it is? I’m not sure. The original document signed by Benedict was about the formation of priests — in no way was it about not forgiving ordained priests who have sinned — sexually or otherwise. Likewise, Francis isn’t referring (at least as far as what’s been published to this point) to the formation of priests but, rather, about forgiving clergy who have sinned sexually.

Anyway, note the last line “gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.” What you’re seeing here is traditional Christian teaching both in terms of a clear understanding of what sin is and that sin is forgiven and forgotten. You can’t forgive, obviously, something which is not a sin. There would be no need to forgive and wipe away something that should be celebrated, right?

I’ve written before about how poorly the media understand forgiveness as a key Christian teaching. Yes, Christianity has for 2,000 years had an impossibly rigorous moral code that its adherents strive to follow. That these same adherents fail is not exactly news-breaking. It has been said that the life of the Christian is one of repentance. (To repent, by the way, means to turn away from. If one repents from a sin, that means they have turned away from the sin.) That the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about the forgiveness of these sins is — somehow, even after it has changed the hearts of billions of humans — the great under-covered story of those last few thousand years. Again, this forgiveness means something very little in a culture without sin. Thus, I guess, the confused stories coming out today.

One particularly bad story was out of USA Today, built off of an AP story:

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Can we get some historical context on the canonized popes?

If you’re elected Bishop of Rome, you join one of the world’s most exclusive lists. As the Supreme Pontiff of the 1.2 billion member Catholic Church, you are — quite literally — one in a billion. But after you die you have a chance to join an even more exclusive group: papal saints. Out of the 264 deceased popes only 78 have the honor of being canonized.

If you were one of the first 54 popes you had a good shot of making the cut (all of the first 35 popes and 52 of the first 54 were canonized). But since the 1500s, only one man — Pope Pius X, who died in 1914 — has been added to the list. Sixteen others are on the track to sainthood, but last week two former popes were moved to the front of the line: Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.

From 1572 to 1954, only one pope was declared a saint. And now, in 2013, two more are added to the list. In other words, this is significant religion story. So why then isn’t it being treated that way?

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the media covered the second miracle attributed to JP II. This weekend tmatt also wrote about the way journalists cover the divine healing in response to the intercessory prayers of the saints. But while some reporters have covered the miracles, the significance of the event seems to be lost on the media.

Consider, for instance, the lede in the New York Times:

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Round two: How not to report on a miracle

Being recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church is a difficult process — almost as difficult, apparently, as trying to explain that process in a mainstream new story.

I realize that tmatt just wrote an early post on this topic, but, trust me, there’s plenty more coverage out there, complete with new and unique gaffes. Let’s go with round two.

So, an official at the Vatican claims that a new miracle has been attributed to the late John Paul II, clearing the way for his canonization. The news may be fairly straightforward, but journalists seem to make the same three mistakes in their reporting:

Not defining the theological terms — The AP must assume that its readers are familiar with the process since they don’t attempt to define or explain any of the terms used in their report:

A Vatican official says a commission of theologians approved a miracle attributed to his intercession, clearing a key hurdle. The case now goes to a commission of cardinals and then Pope Francis. John Paul’s canonization is possible in autumn to coincide with the 35th anniversary of his election, though the official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to reveal details about the case that it may be too soon.

The Polish-born pope has been on the fast track for sainthood ever since retired Pope Benedict XVI waived the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into his life and virtues to begin just weeks after his 2005 death. John Paul was beatified in 2011.

Leaving terms like “intercession,” “canonization,” and “beatified” unexplained might be acceptable for the National Catholic Reporter. But a mainstream wire service should not assume its readers are fluent in Catholic.

Claiming the process makes a person a saint — As EWTN explains, “By canonization the Pope does not make the person a saint. Rather, he declares that the person is with God and is an example of following Christ worthy of imitation by the faithful.” That’s not the impression you’d get, though, from reading The Daily Telegraph:

The Polish pontiff is likely to be formally made a saint in the autumn.

Or as CBS News says:

Pope John Paul II has moved a step closer to sainthood.

Well, no. John Paul may be closer to being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, but his status has already been determined and is not due to what CBS refers to as “the saint-making process.”

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Miracle caused by mere memory of John Paul II?

There has been another development in the canonization case of the Blessed John Paul II, which means it’s time for another round of news stories that — to one degree or another — mangle what Catholics and members of other ancient churches believe about prayer and the saints.

Before we get going, here is a handy doctrinal reminder: For Christians, only God can perform miracles. Here’s how Father Arne Panula of the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C., explained it to me in 2011:

“What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray ‘with’ us, rather than to say that we pray ‘to’ a saint,” he said.

“You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not.”

Now with that in mind, check out the lede on this quick online story from The Atlantic:

The Vatican has reportedly “approved” a second miracle that can be attributed to the memory of Pope John Paul II, opening the door for him to become a full saint faster than anyone in recent history. The Vatican won’t reveal the details of the miracle just yet, but it allegedly concerns the “extraordinary healing” of a woman in Costa Rica, who recovered from a brain injury after praying to the deceased pope. A similar healing miracle was attributed to John Paul in 2011, giving him the two miracles required to reach full sainthood.

Whoa, that contains at least one totally new twist on the usual errors.

What in the world does it mean to say that the “memory” of Pope John Paul II was the cause of a miracle? Later on in the same paragraph, we have the more familiar error — the part about the healing talking place after someone “prayed to the deceased pope.”

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