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April 2, 2013

That New York Times doozie-of-a-correction notwithstanding, many American journalists understand exactly what Easter means for Christians.

That fact was evident in some of the exceptional enterprise stories that graced leading front pages on Sunday.

Eight of my favorites (in random order):

1. Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about a parish’s ministry to the poor resonating on Easter:

Easter is the oldest and most important Christian celebration. It marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. But more symbolically, Easter represents for Christians a procession — through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection — from death to new life.

“When we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are also celebrating our own resurrection,” said the Rev. Bruce Forman, Sts. Peter and Paul’s pastor since 1990. “In our lives, we have smaller deaths and resurrections. We die to selfishness, anger and resentment. And when we overcome those things, we discover that something new happens.”

2. Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer shared the emotional story of a liver transplant bringing new life:

DAVIDSON — On this Sunday morning, when more than a billion Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Easter’s promise of new life will have special meaning for the Rev. Lib McGregor Simmons and her 1,400-member congregation as they march into the sanctuary singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

For Simmons, the bleakest moment of the year came on Jan. 20, as she conducted the funeral for a 97-year-old member of her flock at Davidson College Presbyterian Church.

“It’s very likely,” she told herself during the service, “that my husband’s funeral will be the next one.”

Gary Simmons was only 63. But unless he got a new liver soon, he had only months, maybe weeks, to live.

3. Renee Elder of the Raleigh News and Observer focused on the rebirth of faith and hope for one family:

CLAYTON — As Christians gather to observe Easter and the resurrection of Christ, the Blackmon family of Clayton has another rebirth to celebrate: their baby daughter Sofie’s second chance at life.

During Sunday morning services, parents Melissa and Brent Blackmon will speak at the Church at Clayton Crossings, giving thanks for the congregation’s many prayers and gestures of support through Sofie’s ordeal. They also will tell their own story of faith and how it grew – even as hope seemed dim for the life of their youngest child.

4. Mary Niederberger of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlighted an agreement between Episcopalians and Anglicans to allow a homeless ministry to continue:

When Leonard Williams attends the Easter service today at Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship, an Anglican church for the homeless in Uptown, like Christians everywhere he will be celebrating the resurrection of Christ from the tomb.

But Mr. Williams, 53, and others who attend Shepherd’s Heart also will be celebrating the new life that has been breathed into their church after a recent significant agreement between Pittsburgh’s Episcopal and Anglican dioceses. A long-running conflict in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh resulted in a 2008 split, with many of the churches leaving and creating the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh,linked to the theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America.

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February 12, 2013

For a newspaper junkie, one of the joys of the digital age is being able to scan hundreds of front pages when major breaking news occurs.

And the first resignation of a pope in nearly 600 years falls under the category of major breaking news, right?

Already, tmatt and Mollie have tackled key angles and questions in the media’s coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising announcement — read their posts here, here, here and here.

I want to focus on the exceptional — and in a few cases, not-so-exceptional — reporting on the 85-year-old pontiff’s decision by some of the nation’s leading regional newspapers.

On breaking news such as this, reporters at major metro dailies scramble to “localize” the big international story. For most, that means seeking comment from the local bishop or archbishop. It means visiting a daily Mass and interviewing the priest and parishioners. It means contacting experts at the closest Catholic university or seminary.

Peter Smith, the Godbeat pro at the Louisville Courier-Journal, produced one of my favorite local front-page stories:

The stunning news came through early morning tweets, texts and broadcasts.

Throughout the Archdiocese of Louisville on Monday, Catholics were processing Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to become the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to leave the papacy by resignation.

Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who has met Benedict many times and is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that it was a “morally strong” decision.

Smith’s story avoids the editorialization about Benedict and the Catholic Church found in so many national reports. Instead, Smith stays true to old-fashioned journalistic virtues, quoting specific sources — such as Kurtz — by name and allowing them to react to Benedict’s announcement and reflect on his eight years as pope.

Likewise, The Dallas Morning News does a nice job of sticking to the facts — although its report lacks Smith’s writing eloquence:

The resignation of 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI is a symptom of a changing world, where leaders are expected to make split-second decisions and more appearances than humanly possible, Bishop Kevin Farrell said Monday.

“I believe this was a sign of his great love for the Catholic Church,” said Farrell, who leads the Dallas diocese of 1.2 million Catholics. He was appointed by Benedict in 2007.

Benedict is the first pope to resign in over 600 years, and his tenure will end at 8 p.m. Feb. 28.

Farrell said he was shocked when he heard the news, but the feeling diminished upon further reflection on the pope’s declining health and the increasing expectations of the Catholic Church’s highest leader.

On the other hand, The Arizona Republic’s front-page report reads more like an editorial — one highly critical of Benedict and the Catholic Church — than an impartial news report.

This section of the Arizona story is typical of that newspaper’s slanted approach:

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January 18, 2013

A few weeks ago, a Twitter post from Tim Townsend, the award-winning religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, caught my attention.

The tweet linked to a Gawker.com piece titled “Journalism is not narcissism.”  The enlightening essay concludes:

The extent to which we train a generation of young writers to become robotic insta-memoirists is the extent to which a generation of stories from the wider world does not get told. The real tragedy of journalism-as-narcissism is not the general pettiness of the stories it produces; it is the other, better stories that never get produced as a result.

I was reminded of that piece this week when I came across a Religion Dispatches post headlined “A Journalist in Church, Hiding in Plain Sight.”  I forwarded a link to the article to my fellow GetReligionistas with a one-word subject line: “Weird.” (And yes, I acknowledge the irony of writing a first-person blog post related to this.)

My boss replied to my e-mail with this note:

A great example of a non-hard news item that we should write about.

It’s linked to the religion beat, period.

So here I am, assigned to make sense of this “journalist” who hides in a church and lives to write about it.

Let’s start at the top:

I’ve often wondered why I hid from them that day. It was two years ago and a rousing Sunday service was winding down at the Portuguese Language Missionary Pentecostal Church in Queens. The pastor, a fiery sermonizer who looked the part of an insurance salesman in his oversized metallic gray suit, had just asked the congregation’s baptized members to approach the front of the church and form a tunnel, through which the unconverted (não crentes, as Brazilians call them) could walk and feel the power of the church’s faith.

As the first of several women approached the gauntlet of cheery Christians, their heads downcast in perhaps shame or contemplation, I double-timed it down the church’s back hallway to the shoddy bathroom. For several tense minutes I waited, until it was safe to once again hide in the back row.

While cowering in the bathroom, and later in my seat, I rationalized my disappearing act on purely journalistic grounds: I was only there to observe. Yet my rapid heartbeat hinted at something else: fear. Fear of being found out, of being asked straight out if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—I had not and still have not.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but wouldn’t the better journalistic approach be to carry a notepad, introduce yourself as a reporter and ask if it’s OK to hang out in the back and see what the church is all about? Isn’t that what journalists do? 

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January 1, 2013

I am blessed to be a member of an absolutely wonderful congregation. It’s a healthy mix of people who work together to keep the mission of our congregation going and thriving. Our regular focus on the Divine Service inspires all of our mission work, including a parish school and community programs.

I had to say that before pointing out this one tiny … issue. See, we have this 100-year-old Nativity scene we set up each year. The older folks in the congregation have let us know that this must always happen. Somehow over the years it got mixed with both another Nativity scene and with a Noah’s Ark scene. It’s ridiculous. In with the oxen and cattle and camels are pairs of zebras and rhinos and elephants. There is some theological beauty in combining these two scenes, but it’s kind of a train wreck.

I thought of that when I read this great story by Tim Townsend in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For all the importance that Nativity scenes have in the lives of Christians in America and throughout the world, it’s interesting how little coverage we get of them in news stories. For many, it might be difficult to write an interesting or newsy story about them.

When the duke of Urbino in Italy needed a gift for the queen of Spain, he turned to his friend, the painter Federico Barocci.

Barocci, a devout Catholic, worked during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1597 he had painted his version of one of the most recognizable images in all Christendom.

And as Christians mark Jesus’ birth today, they will do so with imagery that owes less, perhaps, to historical accuracy than to artists such as Barocci and thousands of others who preceded him for 1,000 years.

The hook is that Barocci’s Nativity is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. But Townsend uses this as item to write an interesting story exploring the theology and artistry of the scene:

Historians and theologians say it is that sense of family intimacy, coupled with the humbling circumstances of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, that has resonated with Christians for centuries.

Many Christians hang a crucifix or cross — a symbol of the resurrection — in their homes, “but the other pillar of Christianity is the incarnation,” said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. “When the savior of the world was born, he wasn’t born in a palace, he was not born as a king. He came as a defenseless child.”

And, of course, Luke made Christ’s vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable. When the time came for Mary to deliver the child, she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” wrote the author of Luke’s Gospel.

There is a ton of history packed into the story as well as interpretations of same, making it a rare, meaty story in the midst of a lot of fluffy stories. You should read the whole thing.

The whole thing reminded me of the stir over Pope Benedict’s writing that the Gospels don’t mention any animals at the manger. Townsend mentions it toward the end of the piece, which concludes:

Eventually manger scenes became a feature in many Christian homes throughout the world. Carlson said that when he was growing up, he loved to play with the creche figures in his parents’ house.

“What got me into trouble was that I also had these little toy soldiers,” he said. Did he ever mingle the two? “Never,” he said, smiling.

Carlson has 14 creches decorating the archbishop’s residence on Lindell Boulevard at this time of year. He keeps two of them up year-round. One, a gift from a family in South Dakota made of wood and dating to the 19th century, sits on a mantle directly across from the desk in his home office. He looks at it every day.

“To me,” he said, “it’s just a simple reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son to be with us.”

Our house currently has three manger scenes: a toy one for the children, a nice ceramic one my mother sent me this year and the one my Dad picked up when he was studying in Israel. It’s such an obvious point but it’s nice to see something so important to me and my family in the news. What’s more, it’s nice to learn more about the history of their development and their significance throughout the ages.

Nativity image via Shutterstock.

October 31, 2012

In yet another case of liberal bias by GetReligion, tmatt screamed “Boooo!” the other day at a one-sided story praising Halloween evangelism.

I chimed in with a comment noting that in my Associated Press days I did a “hell house” story and included both sides — long before GR-style ghostbusting became a ghastly gleam in the Internet’s eye.

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d highlight a couple of stories reporting on how some Christians deal with the holiday’s pagan roots. Before I do, I want to be sure to give a hat tip — pumpkin hat, that is — to Religion News Service for the above video, which RNS included in its daily e-mail today.

The first story was written by Taya Flores, a reporter for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind. Flores does a nice job of taking what could be a yawner of an annual story and making it interesting reading. The top of the story:

Heather Salemink of Lafayette has celebrated Halloween since childhood. She can recall dressing in costume and her dad decorating the house.

So even as a Christian, she never questioned whether her children would celebrate the holiday, too.

“Kids need opportunities to imagine themselves in different worlds,” said Salemink, 34. “It’s really kind of fun to watch them explore different parts of the world through their imagination. In Christianity, there is so much that requires belief in things that you can’t see.”

But not all religious groups approach Halloween with such ease and excitement. Controversy still surrounds the holiday, which has origins in ancient Celtic spiritualism.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of anecdotal ledes that start with someone who does not fit the theme of the story. In other words, if the story is about people who don’t approach Halloween with ease and excitement, begin the story with one of them, not with somebody who has no problem with Halloween.

Nonetheless, there’s much to like about this story. The writer provides historical background, quotes experts and pastors and even includes other faiths besides Christianity:

Other religions may shy away from the holiday as well. Traditionally, Muslims do not approve of Halloween either.

“Halloween, because it has pagan roots and traditions, is not something Islam will approve for its followers,” said Aurangzeb, president of the Purdue Muslim Student Association.

There’s variance among Jewish believers. Daniel Frank, director of the Jewish Studies Program and professor of philosophy at Purdue University, said from a traditional point of view, Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish festivals, whether it be pagan or Christian.

However, some conservative and reformed Jews may celebrate Halloween as a cultural holiday.

“Orthodox Jews as a typical rule don’t celebrate Halloween,” said Nora Rubel, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York. “Conservative and reformed Jews can, but it’s left to the individual family. It’s not just the pagan roots that bother Orthodox Jews but also the Christian roots.”

No pagans are quoted, however.

The other story was written by Tim Townsend, religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Townsend’s piece focuses on St. Louis-area churches using Halloween’s pagan roots to grow their flocks. The top of the story:

DES PERES — Jason and Stacey Leeker grew up going door to door on Halloween night, collecting candy in costumes. But after the couple dedicated their lives to their Christian faith, they decided they would shield their own children from Halloween’s pagan roots.

Last Saturday evening, the Leekers and their three children ventured out to Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church’s trunk-or-treat party.

Trunk-or-treats — Halloween tailgating parties, with kids going from car trunk to car trunk — are an increasingly popular alternative for schools, churches and community groups to traditional doorbell trick-or-treating.

For the Leekers, the church atmosphere provided a safe Halloween outing where they could give their 5- and 3-year-old a taste of the holiday’s fun.

Like the Indiana story, the Post-Dispatch report provides historical context:

Jack Santino, a professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has written that Halloween has its origins in a pastoral festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-ween). Throughout Europe, it was the biggest festival of the Celtic calendar, and a celebration of the end of harvest and the beginning of winter.

The Celtic people believed that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year “traveled into the otherworld,” Santino wrote, and “their ghosts were able to mingle with the living.”

They lit bonfires to honor the dead, “to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living.” Early missionaries appropriated many pagan rituals and subtly transformed them into Christian rituals.

Like a trick-or-treat bag full of candy, Townsend’s story brims with specific details from trunk-or-treat events that he obviously visited firsthand.

If the story lacks anything, it’s a perspective on how mainstream Halloween has become in churches and whether many still resist the holiday. That’s a minor criticism, however, because I think the report’s strong focus on a specific phenomenon — trunk-or-treats — gives it a newsy, journalistic edge.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Any insights on the stories mentioned? Any links to other Halloween-related religion stories that you’ve come across and your thoughts on them?

August 23, 2012

A few days ago a religion reporter tweeted at us:

Will @getreligion cover Todd Akin’s #legitimaterape comments & the conservative #Christian reax? Would grab new @Patheos readers, too.

Now, even though we’ve been around for many years, some people are still confused about precisely what we do. We actually have a very limited focus. We don’t “cover” anyone’s comments or the “conservative #Christian” reaction (or anyone else’s reaction) to same. We understand that there are many places on the internet where people may want to discussion politics or religion but we are only interested in media coverage of religion news. And not just general media coverage but only mainstream media coverage. Opinion sites and opinion pieces are just that — disseminators of opinions (for example, you can read a liberal New York Times columnist compare Rep. Paul Ryan and all other pro-lifers to the Taliban, a moderate Washington Post columnist compare Rep. Todd Akin to the Taliban, and a libertarian Washington Examiner columnist interview women who were conceived via rape or who conceived and bore children of rape). We only care about the news reporting.

Now, the comments referenced above are being covered by news pages, too, in a manner we might call “flooding the zone” (one media research outlet notes that already these comments have received four times the coverage of another notable gaffe last week from a much higher-ranking politico). So we have a variety of mainstream media news stories to look at.

The most fruitful avenue for first-day Godbeat reactions to the story were to examine where Akin got the idea that the bodies of women who’ve been raped reject pregnancy. I thought this Tim Townsend story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a great read for the origins of those claims (turns out that Akin did get his views from medical doctors, although their views aren’t widely accepted, to put it mildly). Someone should consider doing a story on how natural family planning education, which focuses on how female fertility works and is popular among pro-lifers, is at dramatic odds with these views Akin mentioned.

Most of the Akin stories are related to politics (for example, ABC News’ “Obama Team Continues to Try to Akin-ize GOP Ticket“) or about trying to make political points. In this case, the media and the Obama team seem to be on the same page. Yesterday, for instance, the Washington Post offered coverage of Akin on pages A1, A6, A7, A15, C1, and C5. Far too many mainstream outlets have conflated the particular statement of one denounced Senate candidate with the general policy views of pro-lifers. These are two separate things but you might not know it from the media coverage.

Before I continue, I want to mention that roughly the same percentage of Americans report consistent views at the extreme ends of the abortion debate. In a poll showing that half of Americans self-identify as pro-life (compared to 41 percent who self-identify as pro-choice — a record low), only 25 percent said they thought abortion should be legal in all cases. I believe it was the same poll that showed that 22 percent of people think that abortion should be illegal no matter the circumstances of the pregnancy. But only one of these minority views is treated as a minority view in the media (to find media coverage that treats the other minority view as newsworthy, you generally have to leave the arena of mainstream media).

Take, for example, the media coverage of the two major political parties’ platform disputes. Pro-life Democrats agitated for changes to the Democratic Party platform this year. It’s kind of striking how little they asked for, particularly considering that they were refused. They just wanted recognition that not all Democrats support the official party platform against any limitation on abortion (their statistics indicate that the party platform is out of step with the views of many Democrats). Was there any media coverage of this? I don’t believe so. You can read about it at pro-life sites, but what about mainstream media sites? When it comes to the Republican Party platform debates on abortion, start spilling the ink and pixels.

Or take it down to the micro level. If roughly the same percentage of Americans hold the view that all abortion should be legal (whether the abortion takes place moments before birth or simply because the child is female or has Down syndrome) as hold the view that all abortion should be illegal (even if the child is conceived because of rape), why do the media only ask candidates about one of these positions?

When was the last time you heard a reporter ask a similar question of one of the 246 members of Congress who voted that it should always be legal to terminate an unborn child simply because she is female? Consistent pro-life politicians are routinely asked why women who get pregnant as a result of rape should be forced to continue their pregnancy. Consistent pro-choice politicians are almost never asked why they think it should be legal to kill an unborn child just because she happens to be female. Consistent pro-choice politicians are rarely, if ever, asked why it should be legal to kill an unborn child just because she happens to have Down syndrome. Heck, they’re rarely even asked why it should be legal to kill an unborn child on her way to the birth canal. Why is that? Or check out this analysis of how many reporters have asked President Obama about his record on legislation that would protect infants born after failed abortions (the answer — and the outlet — may surprise you).

It’s not even that these stories are particularly bad so much as they only crop up on one side of the debate. Even as the country becomes more and more pro-life, the long-time media struggles to report this issue well show no signs of abating. It fits with the media’s year of the “war on women” trope we’ve seen so much of, but it’s not good journalism.

September 19, 2013

It has been awhile since our own Bobby Ross, Jr., quoted that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tweet by New York Times religion scribe Laurie Goodstein that said (all together now): “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Mocking the typical newsroom attitude that three anecdotes equals a valid news trend, Ross asked if it was time for someone to write a story about “why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore?”

Discussion ensued, including this item at Poynter.org, and Bobby quickly wrote a follow-up post covering the conversation. In the midst of all that, I asked:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

To be more precise, what I meant to say is that — in light of the current advertising crisis in the news business — it is understandable that some professionals are questioning whether the religion beat, along with other complicated specialty beats, can thrive in an age of 24/7 journalism, with fewer journalists trying to produce more and more digital news products. There are, of course, many people (see art atop this post) who are convinced that the advertising crisis is going to kill American-model mainstream journalism, period.

On top of this new reality, there is the sad old fact that I stated in The Quill back in 1983:

The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

You might even say that far too many newsroom managers simply do not get religion, or words to that effect.

As the discussion rolled on, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher posted an item under this blunt headline: “Why Are Newspaper Religion Reporters Quitting?” You need to read all of it, but I would like to respond to a few statements in his post. So, let’s proceed:

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