Breaking! Politician says Christianity is only true religion

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A headline from the Washington Post:

E.W. Jackson says non-Christians are engaged in ‘some sort of false religion’

Reaction from the reader who passed along that story link to GetReligion:

GASP GASP GASP!

Well, if I am interpreting the sarcasm correctly, there seems to be a disconnect between the Post and that particular reader concerning the news value of that story.

Let’s start at the top:

At a morning sermon Sunday in Northern Virginia, Republican lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, a Chesapeake pastor, said people who don’t follow Jesus Christ “are engaged in some sort of false religion.”

Jackson offered that view while describing a list of the “controversial” things he believes, and that must be said, as a Christian.

“Any time you say, ‘There is no other means of salvation but through Jesus Christ, and if you don’t know him and you don’t follow him and you don’t go through him, you are engaged in some sort of false religion,’ that’s controversial. But it’s the truth,” Jackson said, according to a recording of the sermon by a Democratic tracker. “Jesus said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life. No man comes unto the Father but by me.’”

That quote is, indeed, attributed to Jesus in John 14:6 of the New Testament. From the King James Version:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

The fact that many Christians believe Jesus is the only way to salvation isn’t exactly breaking news. At the same time, I understand why a mainstream news organization would deem Jackson’s remarks newsworthy.

The key, it seems to me, is to put the candidate’s comments — and beliefs — into a proper context. The Post seems to fall short in that regard.

Here’s what missing: any kind of theological — as opposed to political — insight into Jackson’s remarks.

The story continues:

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Taking a legal walk in a church’s non-religious woods

For decades, I have been covering stories involving clashes between religious organizations and state and county tax officials. The key plot elements in these legal dramas usually include:

* The church is a growing nondenominational Christian group. In other words, an independent congregation with little or no access to national church-state lawyers.

* Neighbors are worried about the church’s expanding facilities and the impact on traffic.

* Tax officials want more revenue. Duh.

* There is some question about whether some of the land is being used in a way inconsistent with the church’s non-profit status (think concerts, athletic events, food festivals, etc.)

At the moment, The Washington Post is covering a pretty typical battle in nearby Prince William County. The top of the story is very straightforward — then hits the key snag in the case.

Behind New Life Gainesville church in western Prince William County, there’s a gravel path that leads to a thick grove of tall pines and rippling streams.

As far as New Life leaders are concerned, that land is part of their church and should enjoy the same tax-exempt status as the building that holds the arched-ceiling chapel. But county officials have a different view: They say the woods aren’t used for religious purposes and should be taxed. When the county sent a $1,000 property tax bill, church leaders were not happy.

“Giving glory to God … is not taxable,” said Pastor Mike Hilson, who recently joined New Life Gainesville, formerly Fireside Wesleyan Church.

Prince William officials say that taxing some land owned by religious institutions is nothing new and that they are simply following state law, which mandates that only land that is “exclusively” for religious use is tax-exempt.

That’s interesting. So the issue isn’t that the church is using the land in any way that violates its non-profit status. The growing congregation is not, at this point, using the land at all. So if the church held regular prayer walks through the grove it would suddenly become religious?

Late in the story, the Post team notes another relevant wrinkle in this case:

Both sides in the Prince William debate agree that for-profit ventures on church land — such as a cafe or rental housing — should be taxed. But leaders at New Life Gainesville say the woods behind their church do not bring in any revenue. And because the land is in a protected rural area, the church cannot divide off the taxed land and sell it.

“The idea we’re going to throw a Starbucks back here is kind of ridiculous,” Hilson said.

County officials say they are simply following existing laws at the local level. Meanwhile, Virginia leaders are concerned about clarity in the state’s laws.

The Post also quotes a local-level expert, who rather predictably notes the following:

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Triumph of the stringer in the Nairobi massacre coverage

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African reporters are coming into their own with the stories coming out of Kenya this weekend. If you step back from the reports on the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi — now entering its third day as of the writing of this post — and look not at the content of the news, but how it is being presented, you can see examples the changes taking place in journalism. Advances in technology, newspaper and network business models, and the worldviews brought to the reporting by journalists have resulted in different stories today than would have been written 10 years ago.

Religion is part of the story. In the last week Boko Haram has killed over 150 Nigerians, the Taliban has killed 70 plus churchgoers and the Mall death total is expected to rise.  All of the attacks were undertaken by Muslim terrorist groups, and the initial reports suggest they were targeting non-Muslims.

Twitter and the internet have changed the game. The police, the president of Kenya and the terrorists (if the tweets from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab which claim responsibility are to be trusted) have taken to Twitter or posted statements on the internet to release information that in the past would have come from press conferences or interviews. This story written by AFP and printed in The Australian as “More hostages freed as explosions rock mall complex” draws on on-the-scene reporting from local stringers and staff, statements posted on the web, Twitter tweets and press conferences.

The quantity of information has increased, but has the quality? By this I do not mean discrepancies such as the Red Cross reports 69 dead and the police report 59, as noted in this Reuters report. Twitter provides immediacy, but no context. The Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu reports that al-Shabaab has identified the names and nationalities of the killers.  Three are listed as Americans (two from Minnesota and one from Kansas City), one Briton and one Finn amongst the Somali and Kenyan terrorists.  Major news — “Twin City killers in Nairobi Mall Massacre” — but can we trust it? I have no idea who the Shabelle Media Network is, and their report is drawn from a Twitter post.

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Faith and ghosts in Navy Yard victim story

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I sympathize with any journalist called upon to report on victims’ loved ones in the wake of a tragedy such as Monday’s Navy Yard shooting rampage.

From too many years of personal experience — starting with weeks spent on the victims’ beat after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — I know that it’s a delicate, gut-wrenching assignment.

I offer that caveat before critiquing a front-page sidebar from Tuesday’s Washington Post — the first edition published after the mass shooting. I recognize fully that I am not privy to the specific circumstances or difficulties involved in reporting — and editing — this story on deadline late at night.

The 800-word story focused on one victim’s family and featured this print headline:

THE LONG WAIT

A family clings to phones, prayer

With that headline, you assume that the story will contain a strong faith angle, and that is the case.

Let’s start at the top:

All day and into the night, they waited for news. Inside a three-bedroom home in Prince George’s County, Sylvia Frasier’s parents and siblings gathered, hoping to hear something about her fate.

The family had not been able to reach Sylvia, a 53-year-old network security administrator with the Naval Sea Systems Command, since they’d heard about the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday morning.

The Frasiers prayed and watched the live TV coverage. They clutched their iPhones and clasped one another’s hands every time a cellphone rang or beeped with a text message. Their minister came over, and everyone sat on the couches and sang from the Bible.

If I’m the editor, I ask for clarification on that phrase “sang from the Bible.” What exactly were they singing? A specific Scripture? A familiar song?

In my Church of Christ tradition, we sing from memory or from hymnals but not directly from the Bible. I asked my GetReligion colleagues about it, and Mollie, a Lutheran, replied, “It confused me, too. We sing all of our psalms, but we use particular chant tones to do so and they’re not in the Bible.”

More glimpses of the family’s religious background enter the story later on:

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Was the Navy gunman Buddhist? Does it matter?

YouTube Preview ImageSome 12 people were killed by a gunman at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yards on Monday morning. This being near the U.S. Capitol, reporters hit the scene early. Details came out slowly and sometimes incorrectly, even when sourced to D.C. police spokesmen. It was a difficult slog for reporters trying to figure out just what happened.

The Washington Post had a team of reporters on the scene, including Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein who lives nearby. She and the others did excellent work, getting stories from survivors that helped give a picture of the chaos and destruction that hit the military installation. At some point the shooter was identified as Aaron Alexis. Somewhat surprisingly, two journalists at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram actually knew him as their waiter at a favorite Thai restaurant. You can watch a video of them talking about the alleged shooter at the bottom of this story or embedded above.

Soon acquaintances were talking about what they knew about him, including that he was a regular worshiper at a Buddhist temple. Boorstein tweeted:

Suspect had been at least for a time a practicing Buddhist #navyyardshooting

She received some push back for tweeting this, which seems unfair. One person wrote, “Forgive me for thinking it’s of secondary importance at this early stage. It conflates his spirituality with his crime. I suspect deliberately.” Boorstein noted she was just sharing information, which is her job as a journalist.

It’s not that reporters always perfectly handle religious affiliation as it relates to news stories. But I think people would be hard-pressed to argue that religious affiliation is not a good piece of information to share, if well substantiated.

If the Post had been rushing to tie religious affiliation to motivation or make it the predominant fact of the case, that would be inappropriate — or would be inappropriate outside of any substantiating facts. But simply mentioning that someone had, at least for a time, been a practicing Buddhist? That’s simply sharing information that reporters have about someone of much interest. Again, this is all with the caveat that these pieces of information should be well sourced.

As for the Washington Post story on the alleged shooter, the religious affiliation was mentioned there, too. Here’s the relevant portion:

By Monday afternoon, a portrait of Alexis had begun to emerge. He lived until recently in Fort Worth, where he was seen frequently at a Buddhist temple, meditating and helping out. He was pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics as an online student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

But Alexis also had been accused in at least two prior shooting incidents, one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle, according to police reports.

The story then spends many paragraphs discussing those prior shooting incidents. But it returns to the affiliation with the Buddhist temple. An assistant to the monks at the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center is interviewed:

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Is a global fast for Syria a local news story?

According to Catholic News Agency:

Pope Francis made a global petition on Sept. 1 asking that everyone, regardless of religion or location, to fast and pray during the whole day of Sept. 7 for world peace, particularly in Syria.

I noticed that various friends and acquaintances were participating in a special day of prayer and fasting — some sent the word along to join in, some merely mentioned that they were doing it, some shared how their particular parish was taking up Pope Francis’ call. I had seen a few wire reports leading up to the day of fasting and prayer, but I was curious if this would be considered a local news story.

The answer is, it varied.

The New York Times didn’t consider it a story. Period. If you run a query for “Francis” and “fast” for the last seven days, nothing comes up. Rod Dreher has an absolutely fascinating commentary on what the New York Times decides from its perch is newsworthy and what it doesn’t, using just this week’s coverage as an illustration. Let’s just say that nothing about Christians and Syria registers. But, you know, if you want a touching story about an elderly gay couple reminiscing about lots of public sex or a lengthy look at an all-nude gay resort in the Ozarks — two stories that were featured prominently — that is definitely your paper of record.

What’s particularly odd about the New York Times‘ inability to mention Pope Francis’ call for a day of fasting and prayer against war in Syria is that the paper ran a big story headlined, “Obama Falls Short on Wider Backing for Syria Attack.” I don’t know if the reporters and editors attempted to leave religion angles out of the story but when even a world leader like the Pope doesn’t make the cut, you have to wonder what is going on.

The Washington Post didn’t have anything in the Sunday paper, but it did have an Associated Press report online. Not about the global fast so much as Francis and some pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square. Nothing at all about local Catholics or other religious adherents who joined in.

But while the Post and the Times didn’t think local (or global!) participation in days of fasting and prayer were particularly newsworthy, some news organizations did:

Catholics unite in prayer before Syria vote
News 12 Westchester – 10 hours ago
Pope Francis asked Catholics to fast and pray for the refugees in the civil war-torn nation,and for a quick and peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict. (6:17 PM). WESTCHESTER – Catholics across the Hudson Valley united in prayer during Sunday Masses …

NC residents take part in global day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria
News & Observer – ?Sep 7, 2013?
PEACEMASS0908. Members of the congregation pray the rosary during a special mass led by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Saturday, September 7, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C. The mass was held in observance of Pope Francis’ call to join in a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria. … At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, dozens of people filled the pews at a Mass for Peace organized quickly after the pope spoke out last week against Western military intervention in Syria.

Actually, This News & Observer piece is worth a quick look:

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Jake Tapper on opinion journalism masquerading as news

I’m a longtime fan of Jake Tapper of CNN, and formerly of ABC News. I like that he asks tough but reasonable questions of politicians, regardless of which party they’re in. I like that he reports and presents the news without his opinion. I like that he’s not defensive when someone critiques his work.

Defensiveness is something we all suffer from, but we journalists seem to have it worse than most. But Tapper, being a high profile reporter, gets a lot of criticism. Sometimes he responds to it by agreeing with the critique and modifying his wording or approach. Sometimes he explains why he disagrees with the critique. He engages with readers and he cares about getting good stories. I only wish we had more journalists of his type.

You can see examples of how GetReligion has written about his work and his response to criticism here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, herehere, here, here, and here. What’s really striking about the frequency with which we write about his journalism is that he’s not a reporter of religion but of politics. Almost all of the reporters we praise that frequently are religion reporters. Most of our criticism is probably levied at political reporters. He clearly has an interest in the role religion plays in politics, and that interest has paid off with solid stories and a devoted following among various news consumers.

He gave a brief interview to Robin Rose Parker at the Washington Post Magazine. I thought it worth noting. A few of his thoughts:

Most interviews that I do are not super aggressive. They can’t be, and they shouldn’t be; that would get pretty tiresome. So when there’s an interview that’s tough or a question that’s tough, it’s something that raises eyebrows. It’s not easy to do that in the White House briefing room, at a press conference. That’s never easy. It’s not fun. Because as humans we are built to try to avoid conflict. Society constantly looks down its nose at conflict, even if the media doesn’t. And it’s not a comfortable feeling. It’s absolutely nerve-racking. It’s much easier to be chummy with people in power. It’s much easier to ask softball questions, to not upset the apple cart. And that’s why most people, including me, don’t spend all of their time asking tough questions. But there are times when they are called for, and I think definitely they’re needed in politics, in political journalism.

He talks about how he appreciates those politicians that rise to the challenge of answering tough questions as well as those that understand it’s his job to ask those questions. I particularly liked his concluding thoughts:

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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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