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Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

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From North Korea with love: Will pope respond? At the moment, media haven't a clue

From North Korea with love: Will pope respond? At the moment, media haven't a clue

In a typical news cycle, the pope and North Korea aren’t in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence. Yet, news was out yesterday about an invitation to Pope Francis to consider visiting the Hermit Kingdom.

Questions abound. How many Catholics still exist there? Would the pope merely hobnob with the powers-that-be or actually deliver a sermon to the masses? Would his visit come with certain conditions insisted upon by the Vatican?

Also, considering the horrific religious persecution in that country, what North Korean citizen in his or her right mind would wish to publicly show allegiance to a pope? This Nixon-goes-to-China possibility comes with some W’s: We know “who” and “where” and can guess “how,” but we don’t know “why” or “when.”

Here’s what BBC said:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit the country, South Korea's presidential office has announced.

The invitation to visit Pyongyang will be delivered by South Korean president Moon Jae-in who will be in the Vatican next week as part of a trip to Europe.

No pope has ever visited North Korea, though the late Pope John Paul II was once invited.

North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations.

The aforementioned papal invite was extended in 2000, the article says.

According to news wire the Associated Press, the Vatican insisted at the time that a visit from the pope would only happen if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea.

After a description of the complete lack of religious freedom in the country:

According to news site NK News, North Korea does maintain a Catholic church in Pyongyang - the Jangchung Catholic Church — though it is not officially affiliated with the Vatican.

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This is not a generic prayer story: A flooded cave, 12 Thai boys and a former Buddhist monk

This is not a generic prayer story: A flooded cave, 12 Thai boys and a former Buddhist monk

When it comes to emails from GetReligion readers, the notes I have received about the ongoing drama in the flooded Thai cave have been quite predictable.

Of course, people are concerned. Of course, readers are following the dramatic developments in the efforts to rescue the 12 young members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach. Click here for an evolving CNN time line of the rescue.

But there is a rather logical question that people are asking, one that goes something like this: We keep reading about people praying for the boys. What kind of prayers are we talking about?

Ah, another case of generic-prayers syndrome.

Actually, there have been a few interesting religion-angle stories written about this drama, with the Associated Press offering a feature that must have run in some publications (we can hope). Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.

However, here is a piece of a rather typical faith-free news report -- care of the New York Times -- similar to those being read by many news consumers.

Many family members have spent every day and night at the command center near the cave, praying for the boys to come out alive.

Relatives said they were not angry with the coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, for taking the boys into the cave. Instead, they praised his efforts to keep them alive during the ordeal.

“He loves the children,” said Nopparat Khanthawong, the team’s head coach. “He would do anything for them.”

The boys got trapped in the cave on June 23 after they biked there with Mr. Ekkapol after practice. The vast cave complex was mostly dry when they entered. But the cave is, in essence, a seasonal underground river, and rain began falling soon after they arrived. Within hours, they were trapped by rising water.

You can see a similar story at The Los Angeles Times, only with zero references to faith.

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Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

For years -- decades even -- I have been active in the whole "media literacy" cause, trying to help Americans (especially in religious circles) understand more about the role that mass media play in our culture.

During these same decades, I've heard journalism educators -- on the cultural left and right -- argue that the same thing needs to be happening in elite newsrooms and even educational institutions, only in reverse.

Let's stick with the journalism angle: One of the main reasons that pros in our newsrooms often do such a lousy job of covering religion is that there are so few editors and managers who know any thing about religion. Let me stress that the issue is not whether these journalists are religious believers. The issue is whether they know crucial information about the lives, traditions and scriptures linked to the lives of millions and millions of believers who reside in this culture and often play roles in public life.

I've mentioned this before: I'll never forget the night when an anchor at ABC News -- faced with Democrat Jimmy Carter talking about his born-again Christian faith -- solemnly looked into the camera and told viewers that ABC News was investigating this phenomenon (born-again Christians) and would have a report in a future newscast.

What percentage of the American population uses the term "born again" to describe their faith? Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent back then? I mean, Carter wasn't telling America that he was part of an obscure sect, even though many journalists were freaked out by this words -- due to simple ignorance (or perhaps bias).

This brings me to this weekend's think piece in The American Conservative, a magazine defined by cultural conservatism not conservative partisan politics (thus the presence of several big-league #NeverTrump scribes). The double decker headline on this piece asks:

Woke Progressivism’s Glaring Religion Gap

Identity politics demands that we "educate ourselves." So why are its practitioners so often ignorant of religious belief?

Here is Georgetown University graduate student Grayson Quay's overture, which ends with a stunning anecdote:

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Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

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Serious charges against a preacher friend of George W. Bush (oh, and Barack Obama, as well)

Serious charges against a preacher friend of George W. Bush (oh, and Barack Obama, as well)

Here is a name that may or may not ring a bell for many news consumers: The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell.

Maybe the video at the top of this post will refresh your memory. That's Caldwell, a megachurch pastor from Houston, saying one of the prayers at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush as president.

At the moment, Caldwell is -- as Texans would say -- in a heap of trouble, as you can see at the top of this report in The Houston Chronicle, under this headline: "Kirbyjon Caldwell -- Houston megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to George W. Bush -- indicted on fraud charges."

A prominent Houston pastor and spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush has been indicted on federal charges that he sold millions of dollars in worthless Chinese bonds to elderly and vulnerable investors, according to federal authorities.
Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, 64, and Shreveport financial planner Gregory Alan Smith, 55, were charged with 13 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering.
Caldwell is accused of using his position as the senior pastor of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church to help lure nearly $3.5 million in investments into historic Chinese bonds that are not recognized by the Chinese government. He and Smith told investors they could see returns as high as 15 times their initial investment, according to the indictment.

Now, pause and remember that many, and perhaps most, Americans who still read newspapers simply scan the headlines and then decide whether they want to dig deeper into a story. So read that Chronicle headline again.

Done? Now read this ABC News headline about the same story: "Megachurch pastor with ties to Presidents Bush, Obama to surrender Monday: Attorney."

Did you spot an interesting difference in these two headlines?

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Friday Five: Florida school shooting, Ash Wednesday photo project, Pence's 'mental illness' and more

Friday Five: Florida school shooting, Ash Wednesday photo project, Pence's 'mental illness' and more

Sometimes, a single picture really does tell the story in a way that a thousand words — or a million words — cannot.

Such was the case with Associated Press photographer Joel Auerbach's image of one woman consoling another after this week's mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Auerbach's photo was striking. Powerful. Gut-wrenching. And yes, there was a religion angle. More on that in a moment.

First, though, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Most weeks, we've already introduced you to the story featured here. This week is an exception.

The religion story of the week is an interview that NPR did with photographer Greg Miller, who has spent 20 years documenting "the smudge on people's foreheads" on Ash Wednesday. The piece on "The Penitent Pause for a Portrait" contains a number of the images.

It really is worth a click.

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Free-speech protests in Boston: How many points of view, on left and right, made it into news?

Free-speech protests in Boston: How many points of view, on left and right, made it into news?

To be honest, I'm still working through the emotions and, at times, confusion that poured out the other day in the Crossroads podcast that ran with this headline: "Your depressing 'think' podcast: Faith, hate and details that mattered in Charlottesville."

I want to make sure that readers know how much of a challenge hard-news reporters face covering massive protests at street level, as opposed to the angle used by members of the chattering classes as they sit in studio chairs in Washington, D.C., and New York City (and a few other hives).

Take the demonstration the other day in Boston. How many different points of view did you have to understand to explain to the public what appeared to happen there?

First: Let's mention the religion angle. I became interested in this "Free Speech Rally" because of the involvement of some pro-life, or anti-abortion, demonstrators. They were there as part of the coalition that put the event together for the expressed purpose of (a) standing up for the free-speech rights of conservatives outside the media mainstream and, at the same time, (b) to condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville. I think it's safe to say that religious faith is central to the story of the pro-life demonstrators.

According to reporter Garrett Haake of MSNBC, this small circle of demonstrators faced some pushy, some would say violent, opposition from the left. The quote from Haake's tweet:

These protests rarely end pretty. Antifa folks just mobbed some anti-abortion protestors w/ posters. Yelled & tore posters til cops came

Kudos, by the way, to MSNBC for reporting that information.

So we have some pro-lifers, we have some Antifa folks. Who else is there? Let's pause for a moment and look at the top of an ABC News report on this drama. I thought this passage -- which is a bit long -- was especially crucial:

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Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

If you're a sentient being, you're undoubtedly aware of the situation facing women living in patriarchal Muslim-majority nations. Likewise, you've also surely read your fair share of yarns such as this New York Times piece from 2015, headlined, “Women in Tunisia Tell of Decades of Police Cruelty, Violence and Rape.”

Or this 2016 survey story, from U.S. News & WorldReport, that placed eight Muslim nations among the 10 worst when measuring gender equality. Or this one from 2015, produced by Al-Jazeera English, on the situation facing women in Afghanistan.

Such stories of women's status and treatment in Muslim nations are a staple of Western journalistic coverage of the Islamic world. When done fairly and placed in their appropriate cultural context  -- without allowing that context to serve as an excuse — these stories are important and should be told.

But I'm wondering why stories detailing legal advances for women in Muslim nations seem not to receive equally strong play in mainstream Western news media?

Sure, such changes tend to strike Westerners as merely incremental and long overdue, which tends to dull their news value in the minds of some reporters and editors. Nor are such steps as life-altering as more difficult to achieve grass-root cultural changes, meaning how ordinary people actually live and treat each other no matter what the law says.

Still, legal changes, as aspirational as they may be, set precedents that can promote real change down the road. As such, they deserve wide media attention.

Two stories on this sort caught my eye last week -- though apparently not the eyes of many others in the world of elite Western media.

The first, reported here by Al Jazeera-English, told of how the Jordanian parliament has moved toward ending the ability of rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims, a time-honored loophole that persists in parts of the Muslim world.

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