mainstream press covers religion news in politics, entertainment, business
It is, without a doubt, one of the most frustrating, infuriating things that can happen to a reporter.
You write your story. You are extra careful -- since it's on an emotional topic full of fact-claims that are in dispute -- to make sure that you have included several qualified voices offering competing points of view. You make sure your story is the length assigned by the editors.
You turn the story in. Then, when it comes out (this happens A LOT in ink-on-paper news) you see that the copy desk has -- for some reason, often page layout -- basically cut the story nearly in half. To make matters worse, the editors didn't thin the story in a way that left the balanced structure intact. They just chopped off the end.
Some of your sources are furious. They accuse you of bias, because the story is so one-sided. They have no way to know that the printed story is not the story that you wrote.
I bring this up because I saw an Associated Press story the other day -- with a Vatican dateline -- that had me really shaking my head. It had, I thought, all kinds of problems in terms of balance and essential information. It didn't help that this was on a very controversial topic, one cutting against the grain of most reporting about Pope Francis. The lede:VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope's own advisers question.
Now, there is no need for me to go into the many problems that I had with this report. Why? Because the story that I ran into online was a horribly truncated version of the full report by veteran reporter Nicole Winfield.
Oh the humanity! When I saw the full story on the AP homepage I was left with very view questions. Only one, in fact. Hold that thought. This is a very solid story about a very complicated topic.
Here is the heart of the story. Yes, note the ironic fact that this pope's much-publicized emphasis on mercy -- journalists rarely place this in the context of his many statements on sin and confession -- is at the heart of the controversy. Also note that people are having to give the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI some high marks on this issue.One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received the pope's clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against children as young as 12. The Rev. Mauro Inzoli is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, The Associated Press has learned.The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to Francis for clemency by citing the pope's own words about mercy in their petitions, the church official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are confidential."With all this emphasis on mercy ... he is creating the environment for such initiatives," the church official said, adding that clemency petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests who raped and molested children.
Note the care with which Winfield used the anonymous sources. Yes, there are no names, but readers are left with crucial factual details that provide context.
There is much more. For example, Pope Francis appears to have ordered the dismissal of three veteran Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith staff members who handle sex-abuse cases.
The story flashes back to how St. Pope John Paul II eventually evolved to take a tougher stance on this issue. Francis has backed a "zero tolerance" stance, but now appears to have modified that in some cases. Why?Victim advocates have long questioned Francis' commitment to continuing Benedict's tough line, given he had no experience dealing with abusive priests or their victims in his native Argentina. While Francis counts Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley as his top adviser on abuse, he has also surrounded himself with cardinal advisers who botched handling abuse cases in their archdioceses."They are not having zero tolerance," said Rocio Figueroa, a former Vatican official and ex-member of the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative Catholic lay society rocked by sex scandals. The Vatican recently handed down sanctions against the group's founder after determining that he sexually, psychologically and physically abused his recruits. His victims, however, are enraged that it took the Vatican six years to decide that the founder should be isolated, but not expelled, from the community.The church official stressed that to his knowledge, none of Francis' reduced sentences had put children at risk.
So what part of this AP story do I question?
Well, for many abuse victims, it has added insult to hellish injury that the bishops supervising pedophiles and ephebophiles have paid little or no price for their efforts -- in many cases -- to shield these priests from justice, including quietly transferring the accused to new parishes with no warning to the faithful.
Thus, I was stunned when the following information was placed at the end of the story, rather than near the top. This paragraph concerns some proposals from Pope Francis' own sex-abuse advisory commission.Francis scrapped the commission's proposed tribunal for bishops who botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation. The commission's other major initiative -- a guideline template to help dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children -- is gathering dust. The Vatican never sent the template to bishops' conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main abuse-resource website.
That is stunning news.
Nevertheless, this is a solid report on a major news story involving one of the most powerful and charismatic religious leaders in the world. How do journalists ignore this story?
Thus, look for follow-up coverage in other news outlets?
LGBTQ advocates fear "religious freedom" bills moving forward in states. https://t.co/pooHQJsliu— NPR (@NPR) February 26, 2017
Well, that didn't last long.
A week after Donald Trump's stunning election as president, I wrote a GetReligion post with this title:Based on Trump's win, it looks like religious liberty really is a thing — with no scare quotes
In that post, I gave a brief history of biased and lackluster media coverage of religious freedom bills tied to conscience claims by people of faith. (If any of this is new to you, I'd encourage you to take a moment and read that post before proceeding with this one.)
In a nutshell, here's the issue I explored back in November:Fast-forward to the 2016 presidential election, which was won by a candidate — Donald Trump — who pledged in a letter to Catholics last month to "defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions."It seems that — to many voters — religious freedom was an important issue in the Nov. 8 election. An issue to which many news organizations were tone-deaf, based on their previously mentioned coverage.So will coverage of this subject improve based on a new president in the White House?Perhaps.
I then cited a newsy, balanced Associated Press story that raised my hopes for better journalism.
I'm not feeling as optimistic, though, after a reader called my attention to a weekend NPR report on religious freedom bills. On the positive side, the NPR piece offers a nice case study in how a news organization that claims "impartiality" ought not to cover the issue.
Here are three problems with NPR's story — honk if you've heard any of these before here at GetReligion:
1. Scare quotes on "religious freedom"
As we've explained once or twice or a zillion times, many major news organizations insist on putting quote marks around terms such as "religious liberty" and "religious freedom."
As Dictionary.com defines scare quotes, they are "a pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense."
So, a few days ago when NPR reported on sanctuary churches housing immigrants and citing religious freedom, that term got no scare quotes. But when NPR covers conscience legislation in Bible Belt states such as Alabama and Mississippi, "religious freedom" always seems to get scare quotes.
And yes, this weekend's online headline relied on scare quotes:LGBTQ Advocates Fear 'Religious Freedom' Bills Moving Forward In States
2. So-called religious freedom
But can listeners hear scare quotes on the air? Nope, but NPR has that covered, too.
There's more than one way for a not-so-impartial news report to flag its skepticism:There are renewed efforts at the state level to pass so-called religious freedom bills. LGBTQ rights advocates believe that's because local lawmakers are anticipating support from the Trump administration.
Here we go again:May 9, 2015 May 4, 2016
Yes, we'll keep defending journalism essentials, even when faced with 'so-called' impartiality https://t.co/5TqD34y8HT— GetReligion (@GetReligion) June 22, 2016
The Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's bible" — recommends that "so-called" be used sparingly. As I've suggested before, I see plenty of room for news organizations — NPR in this case — to use it more sparingly. It screams editorialization and bias.
3. Favoritism toward the gay-rights side
Framing is frequently a problem in news coverage of religious freedom legislations and lawsuits.
Here is a typical example with some excellent background that remains relevant:February 6, 2015
Overall, the NPR story is framed in a tilted way that presents the issue primarily as LGBT advocates concerned about gay rights as opposed to, you know, people of faith seeking to protect their freedom of conscience.
Strangely, the written version of the NPR report is even more slanted than the audio story. (I have no idea how an NPR story goes from audio to written form, so any theories of mine on the difference between the two would be pure speculation.)
In the written version, the first three sources are all LGBT advocates. But on the audio report, a voice on the other side gets a chance to respond earlier rather than at the end.
Still, both versions suffer from framing bias. It's more obvious in the written report:In Alabama, there's a bill that allows adoption agencies that are religiously affiliated to hold true to their faith if they don't think same-sex couples should be parents. The psychiatric community has found no evidence that having same-sex parents harms children.
After reading the line about the psychiatric community, I made a note on my printout: "Is that even the point?"
The written story keeps going without a response from the faith side. But in the audio version, NPR immediately goes to a soundbite buried at the end of the written report. Speaking is Rep. Richard Wingo, the Alabama House bill's sponsor:"It doesn't matter what I think," he says. "If you are a follower of Christ then what matters is what does the word of God say. What does God say about it?"
For those new to GetReligion, let me stress that I am making a case for journalism that treats both sides fairly and gives each an equal opportunity to present its point of view.
If NPR truly is committed to impartiality, it must work harder to make sure stories such as this one don't favor one side (and generally for NPR, that would be the progressive side).
No, the story critiqued isn't fake news. But it's certainly flawed.
How do you telescope nearly 20 years of a show about religion into an hour or two?
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the PBS news magazine that made television religion-coverage history, announced late last year that it was ending its long run in mid-February of this year. It used its last two episodes to sum up the changes and trends the show has covered since its debut in September 1997.
Meanwhile, erstwhile funder, the Lilly Endowment, is sinking its money into another venture involving religion and ethics. More on that in a moment.
R&EN took awhile to wrap up what’s been an impressive haul of stories. Here’s a show that sent correspondents to cover the faith community’s help in cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina; the work of Catholic Relief Services after the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of southeast Asia and the deaths and elections of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis.
Their Rome coverage alone was amazing considering they had not nearly the budget nor personnel as did the larger TV networks.
This month, the show’s correspondents each focused on a different aspect of the show’s coverage as well as which of the many things they covered still stands out. Judy Valente chose programs on America’s poor:JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: In my years reporting for Religion & Ethics, I interviewed many people who not only had compelling stories to tell, but ended up deeply touching my own life. One of those unforgettable people lived in tiny Pine Apple, Alabama, a place so poor many residents still get their water from outdoor spigots. Dr. Roseanne Cook cared for the poorest of Pine Apple’s poor. Not known to most of her patients, she also happens to be a Sister of St. Joseph, a Catholic nun. She told one story I will never forget, about being robbed on a secluded road.
Kim Lawton focused on the show’s interfaith coverage and the growth of the “nones.”KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Over the last two decades, we’ve covered some major shifts across America’s religious landscape. When we first went on the air, the big religion demographics story had been the so-called “mainline decline” -- the significant loss of members in denominations that had long been considered the religious establishment. Interfaith dialogue usually consisted of Christians and Jews getting together.One of the biggest changes since then has been a rising recognition of America’s complex religious diversity. In 2012, the Pew Research Center announced that while the US remains a majority Christian nation, for the first time ever, the share of Protestant Christians dropped below 50%. About 70 percent of Americans overall are Christians, but the number of Americans who are part of non-Christian faiths, especially Muslims and Hindus, continues to rise.Another key demographic change has been the dramatic rise of the religiously-unaffiliated, the so-called “nones.” That’s N-o-n-e-s. Today, more than 20 percent of all Americans say they do not identify with any particular religion. And the drop in affiliation is especially evident among young adults.
Lucky Severson focused on interesting Christian personalities, such as Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Rev. Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, N.J.
Bob Abernethy focused on some of the best quotes from his lengthy interviews with older, wiser personalities, such as the late William Sloane Coffin, the late author Phyllis Tickle and author Frederick Buechner. After asking the latter about what makes him a believer,ABERNETHY: And then we talked about suffering.BUECHNER: You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You can’t believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God and look at the horrors. But my answer to myself is, don’t give up hope. Don’t give up hope. God is greater than all those things. The holy transcends all the wretchedness.
Tim O’Brien talked about Supreme Court decisions in which religion played a part. And Fred de Sam Lazaro reported on his coverage of issues affecting women overseas: Fistulas in Ethiopia, sex trafficking, surrogate mothering and abortion in India.FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: It feels somehow appropriate that the very last story I filed for this program was from Kolkata last week, about the legacy of Mother Teresa. It was from this city -- and on the same subject -- that I did my very first story for Religion & Ethics newsweekly. In nearly two decades, in hundreds of reports, grey -- like my own scalp -- became a dominant color. Few issues can be seen in absolutely black and white terms. They are fraught with complexity and often unforeseen consequences. Take surrogate motherhood -- a billion dollar industry in India in which poor women were hired to carry the fetuses of foreign biological parents.
He concludes:It’s been a million mile journey, literally making the foreign less foreign. I could not have dreamed it would take me to Kalamazoo and Timbuktu. You saw it here.
It's easy to understand why they're all feeling quite nostalgic. Very few -- if any -- religion reporters had the travel budgets they got. One of the up sides of video is that you can't do reporting by phone!
I wrote not long ago about some of the reasons for R&EN’s demise, so I won’t repeat all that here, except to say that money from the Lilly Endowment steadily went down in recent years.
But Lilly is not out of the religion news business, I learned recently. It’s funding an “ethics and religion desk” on the website www.theconversation.com that appears to be mainly essays on religion and ethics submitted by academics. It’s not near as vibrant as actual news coverage and I’m guessing the show is getting a lot less than the $5 million+ that Religion & Ethics Newsweekly needed each year. But it is a mystery why Lilly robbed Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. But as tmatt keeps saying, "Opinion is cheap, news is expensive."
Twenty years is not a bad run in TV land. I just wish that something else was out there to replace it. Like maybe a cable news company or two? Even a old-school broadcast network?
Sadly, TV execs seem no more convinced today than they were two decades ago that broadcast religion news interests a lot of people. As the late AP religion writer George Cornell used to write, religion makes more money and involves more people than sports.
Anyone listening out there at Fox, CBS, NBC, CNN or ABC?
It isn't hard news, but sometimes the best thing journalists can do with really interesting people is sit down and talk to them -- with a recorder turned on.
The Atlantic has two interesting Q&A features up right now offering chats with men representing two very different brands, or styles of conservatism.
The first interview is a familiar byline for those who follow Beltway journalism -- Tucker Carlson of The Daily Caller (where I knew him as an editor who welcomed news-writing interns from the Washington Journalism Center program that I led for a decade). Of course, now he is best known as the guy lighting up the Fox News ratings in the prime evening talk-show slot formerly occupied by Megyn Kelly.
The second interview is with the noted Internet-era theorist David Gelernter, a Yale University computer science professor who is also known for his writings (often in The Weekly Standard) on art, history, politics, culture, education, journalism, Judaism and lots of other things. Many readers will recall that he survived an attack by the Unabomber. I would think that, for GetReligion readers, his book "Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber" would be of special interest, because of its blend of commentary on journalism, faith and public life.
Why point GetReligion readers to these two think pieces? The Carlson piece is interesting because of what is NOT in it. The Gelernter interview (and an amazing 20-point attached memo written by Gelernter) is must reading because of what IS in it.
Here is the passage in the Carlson piece -- focusing on his personal worldview and its roots -- that is creating some buzz:To the extent that Carlson’s on-air commentary these days is guided by any kind of animating idea, it is perhaps best summarized as a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe. The country has reached a point, he tells me, where the elite consensus on any given issue should be “reflexively distrusted.”“Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”“But the problem with the meritocracy,” he continues, is that it “leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid -- I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.”Carlson recounts, with some amusement, how he saw these attitudes surface in his neighbors’ response to Trump’s victory. He recalls receiving a text message on election night from a stunned Democratic friend declaring his intention to flee the country with his family. Carlson replied by asking if he could use their pool while they were gone.
Wait for it.“I mean people were, like, traumatized,” he says. And yet, in the months since then, “no one I know has learned anything. There’s been no moment of reflection … It’s just, ‘This is what happens when you let dumb people vote.’” Carlson finds this brand of snobbery particularly offensive: “Intelligence is not a moral category. That’s what I find a lot of people in my life assume. It’s not. God doesn’t care how smart you are, actually.”
This is a rather God-haunted article, in part because Carlson is talking about rejecting the dominant worldview of DC insiders and the press that covers them. That's the whole thrust of the article. Is Beltway-land known as a rather secular environment or what?
Meanwhile, might his own values and beliefs have something to do with religion? Carlson has been interested in faith issues in the past, but the Atlantic interviewer never spots the ghost.
But the Godtalk returns -- sort of -- in a discussion of Carlson's infamous interview with liberal writer Lauren Duca of Teen Vogue. In this case, Carlson is reacting to a holier than thou stance that he believes exists among the liberal DC elites. Once again, what is the basic worldview of DC and its elites?
When asked about what caused his blunt clash with Duca, he responds:Finally, he answers, “It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption -- and it’s held by a lot of people I live around -- that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”
Read it all.
Meanwhile, the much longer Conor Friedersdorf interview with Gelernter goes all over the place and is very hard to describe with a few snips of text. But first things first: Why is the Yale professor in the news at the moment?Last month, David Gelernter, the pioneering Yale University computer scientist, met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of joining the White House staff. An article about the meeting in The Washington Post was headlined, “David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser.”It is hard to imagine a more misleading treatment.By one common definition, anti-intellectualism is “hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible.”
It's pretty clear that, in this case, "anti-intellectual" actually means that Gelernter has been critical of the establishment that currently dominates higher education. Apples. Oranges.
But let's look at one long passage in which the faith-and-values question is openly addressed. If this interests you, then you'll need to read the whole feature.Friedersdorf: If our domestic policy were informed by a similar lodestar -- to stand up for what is basically good, to oppose what is basically evil, and to have the wisdom to know the difference (and when neither good nor evil are implicated), how should we approach the most controversial intersections of science and policy?I am thinking of questions like how much today's humans owe to future generations; if or when it is permissible to do research on stem cells from human embryos or to edit the human genome; what restrictions, if any, there ought to be on abortion or euthanasia; whether factory farms, or zoos, are wrong, etc. I don't mean to imply that these matters are all alike, or the most pertinent, but how you might guide policymakers who approach you in the course of trying to figure out what's best.Gelernter: Frankly, I think that guiding citizens (insofar as I'm able to guide anyone) is far more important than advising policymakers. I've published a series of pieces over the years on this sort of question in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (they translate them), which have led in turn to contributions to German anthologies on these topics, occasional lectures in Germany, etc. I've never found a place to publish such things in English, not for a handful of academics but for the educated public. That being said, I'm not quite sure I understand the question.Does it ask how I'd make a decision, or what decisions I've actually made? I make my own decisions from inside the modern-orthodox Jewish world; I try to read relevant Talmudic and halakhic and responsa literature. The rabbis, my rabbis, are my moral guides. But it's often the case that they haven't dealt quite with the right question, or I disagree (Jewish theology is a literature of constant disagreement; nor of course do I present my views as any sort of rabbinic position—considered becoming a rabbi long & hard, but didn't). In any case, I then turn on my brain and do my best to figure out the question. I'm too old to foist off the final responsibility on anyone but myself. So that's how I make these decisions. (There are philosophers who influence me, but as authors more than arbiters. Nietzsche and Wittgenstein have always enchanted me, more for the way they embrace art than for their doctrines. Wittgenstein would sit in the nave of Ely, not far from Cambridge, and admire it. Something I love to do, though he had a lot more opportunity.)As to my answers, I've written & argued in Germany that (for example) computers & social nets ought to be treated like bars or strip joints: not acceptable for children. (At least we ought to consider treating them that way.) I don't like the idea of legal restrictions. But I might urge that we get computers out of schools until our children are able to read & write half decently -- at least as decently as they used to during the middle two-thirds of the 20th Century.These are local decisions. But a science advisor's most important role is facing the public, not the president. A science advisor has to convince Americans that they're out of their minds to turn their backs on science. It is foolish, dangerous, and a waste of a beautiful opportunity.AI presents tremendously serious moral problems which we leave to Kurzweil and friends. But in practical terms, there's no way on earth I could get a piece from a very different viewpoint before a mass audience.The ideological narrowness of mainstream commercial magazines is one of the deep, deep frustrations of my life. We have a thriving conservative intelligentsia in this country; it includes many (in fact most) of the smartest people I've ever met. (Think about Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Bill Bennett, Donald Kagan -- radically different sorts of thinker, all four strikingly brilliant. There are a few dozen more even at this exalted level.) It's a pleasure and a high honor to be part of America's conservative culture. But the Left hears nothing we say: nothing. Nothing. Most have shrugged this off; only a few of us care. Because I teach at Yale and, more important, because I belong to the art world & have since birth, I can't help caring -- and sometimes being outraged, sometimes just grief-stricken. What a damned mess we've made of intellectual life in this absurdly wealthy, lucky, blessed nation.
As if the interview is not enough, this package also includes -- as I mentioned earlier -- a 20-point document from Gelernter that is must reading. It touches on all kinds of things, ranging from America's toxic public culture to the crucial role that beauty plays in a good life.