Christians

Times of London offers classic example of how NOT to do religion survey stories -- at Christmas or ever

Times of London offers classic example of how NOT to do religion survey stories -- at Christmas or ever

There is great religion writing and there is lousy religion writing -- though most of it, like most journalism in general -- falls somewhere between the poles and is not worth endless discussion. But the following Times of London piece is such a missed opportunity that it's worth pulling it apart as a text-book example of how not to do the job.

In short, it's beyond lousy.

It should probably come as no surprise that the piece ran on Christmas Day. I say this because, and this just my conjecture, Christmas Day is probably the day we’re subjected to the year’s very worst religion journalism.

That, I'm guessing, is because of the self-created newsroom belief that something -- anything may be the better word -- relating to the holiday, or religion in general, must be published that day. Or who knows what will happen?

Will people not have received the “news” that it was Christmas? Will people drop their subscriptions and advertisers withhold their Christmas-related sales going forward? Don't really think so.

Oh, the things we do to ourselves out of misguided beliefs and our professional ruts.

OK, now onto the piece itself. (Take note: The Times website requires registration, though it will allow you to read a couple of pieces monthly for free. Also, the newspaper’s website is one of the more inefficient ones I've come across in some time.)

Here’s the top of it:

Politics and religion should not mix, according to the British public, who want politicians to keep their personal faith to themselves.

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Washington Post skips key questions in covering doctor's transgender surgery dissent

Washington Post skips key questions in covering doctor's transgender surgery dissent

Pullman, Washington, doesn't get much attention: Trivia buffs might know the city was named for railroad industrialist George Pullman, in the hope that he'd run a rail line through the city. (It went to Spokane instead.) Those deep in the weeds of President Donald Trump's cabinet might know that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was born in Pullman. Apart from those who know that Washington State University is there, Pullman is pretty much under the radar.

Comes now The Washington Post to help change that. Pullman, you see, has jumped into the vanguard of sex-change surgery, technically known as "Vaginoplasty," in which a male's genitals (and nerve endings thereof) are rearranged into a, well, you know.

I'll cut to the journalistic chase: The Washington Post has effectively decided who's right and who's wrong in this story. We can tell from the headline: "A small-town doctor wanted to perform surgeries for transgender women. He faced an uphill battle." Read the opening paragraphs, and the "angle" should be clear:

The surgeon had spent several years preparing -- reading medical journals, finding someone to train him, practicing on cadavers -- until only one hurdle remained: getting permission for the medical procedure he wanted to bring to this small community on the Washington-Idaho border.
“Vaginoplasties,” Geoff Stiller remembered telling the CEO of Pullman Regional Hospital, referring to the surgical construction of vaginas for transgender women. “I want to do them at your hospital.”
Nine months later, Stiller looks back on that conversation as a final moment when his request still seemed like an easy one. Nobody yet had cited Bible verses or argued that culture was blurring the line between men and women. Another doctor at Pullman hadn’t yet sent an email to eight co-workers, who forwarded it around the hospital, with the subject line “Opposition to Transgender Surgery at PRH.” The hospital hadn’t yet received hundreds of letters from the community. Stiller hadn’t yet lost 20 pounds from the stress, nor had he yet anticipated that his request might turn for him into something more -- a fight not just over a surgery, but over what he’d later call a “moral issue.”

This is a long article, even by Post standards.

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Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

The New York Times ran a fascinating story out of rural India over the weekend that to my mind underscored -- with one big caveat -- some of the complicated mechanics and very best qualities of foreign reporting.

Headlined, “How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India,” the piece, written in the first person by a veteran correspondent, showed — without explicitly explaining — the powerful connection between religion and everyday cultural expression. The writer was Ellen Barry, who shared a staff Pulitzer Prize while previously working in the paper’s Moscow bureau.

Conveying the daily experiences of ordinary people living in a distant and different culture requires a level of empathetic insight and writing skill greater than that of the average newspaper reporter. Barry’s that kind of journalist; she’s able to turn the travails of ordinary individuals into highly readable copy

This story focuses on how a man got away with murdering his wife -- a circumstance that unfortunately happens far too often in rural India.

For that he can thank corrupt local officials and ingrained male disrespect for women -- particularly poor women -- rooted in South Asia’s Vedic-origin caste system. The Vedas are Hinduism earliest scriptural writings and are estimated to be between 2,500 to 3,500 years old.

This, despite Indian laws making caste discrimination illegal.

(Before any non-Hindu readers dismiss this as solely a Hindu problem, note that the Wikipedia link in the previous paragraph, repeated here, makes clear that in India and neighboring (and primarily Hindu) Nepal, some Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews also have adhered to caste system protocols over the years.)

Barry’s story is long, around 3,500 words, but it stays interesting to its conclusion and it's worth reading in full.

I like how Barry documented her dogged reporting technique, returning time and again to re-interview people, often asking the same reworded questions over and over. That kind of intensive reporting becomes more rare with each passing news cycle.

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Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

If there's a nation on this planet harder to understand than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, I don't know it -- and you probably don't, either.

More commonly known as North Korea, it's been a family-led Communist dynasty for longer than any other. It's secretive, wracked by poverty and the government keeps trying to launch a missile that is capable of hitting Japan, or Guam or even Hawaii.

There have been (and are) all sorts of religion-angle "ghosts" in news surrounding the DPRK. Our our own Ira Rifkin last year noted the missing elements when The New York Times examined the country's "Juche" philosophy.

Now, the Times's correspondent who skipped the spiritual "ghosts" in the Juche piece has, er, passed over some key faith-related questions in another story. Choe Sang-Hun tells us about a Christian-led university in the officially atheist DPRK, with only a passing glance at the religion angle. Read this multi-paragraph introduction to see what I mean:

Set on 250 sprawling acres in North Korea’s capital, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology abides by the cult of the Kim family.
Atop its main building, large red characters praise “General Kim Jong-un,” the country’s provocative young leader. At the front of lecture halls hang smiling portraits of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him.
Yet the school is different in one striking way. In a country that bans religion, it is run by evangelical Christians.

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Asking The Forward: Why is this story (not very) different from all other 'Christian' Passover stories?

Asking The Forward: Why is this story (not very) different from all other 'Christian' Passover stories?

If you know nothing else about Passover, the Jewish festival that began on the evening of April 10, you might well know of the Seder dinner, its liturgy called a "Haggadah" and the "Four Questions" the youngest participant gets to ask during the meal.

The first question is perhaps the most famous: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The brief answer is that the eight-day feast commemorates the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery and bondage in Egypt.

Zoom ahead to 2017 and The Forward. This is a New York City-based Jewish news and commentary publication that, in the past year or so, has had a particular interest in evangelical Christians who appropriate Jewish themes and who endorsed then-candidate, now POTUS, Donald J. Trump.

Asks the paper, "Evangelicals Are Falling In Love With Passover -- Is There Anything Wrong With That?" Let's jump in:

In March, Florida televangelist Paula White gave her followers a special holiday message. Not for Easter, which falls in mid-April, but for the Jewish holiday of Passover.
“We are entering into one of the most supranational and miraculous seasons,” White, who is also a spiritual adviser to President Trump, said in a special video. “The season of Passover.” ...
In the traditional Passover story, God commands the Israelites to sacrifice lambs and to spread blood on their doorways so that they may be spared God’s wrath. Christians view the sacrificial lamb as an analogy for Jesus’ death, and the Israelites’ salvation as their own as believers in Jesus.
“The lamb’s blood became their salvation or their deliverance,” White said, referring to the Israelites. “Our Passover lamb, Jesus, is for your deliverance today.”

Many evangelical Christians, and more than a few Protestant mainliners, wouldn't find much to argue with in White's assertion.

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Context-free zone: New York Times disses Christians using Pew survey; RNS does better

Context-free zone: New York Times disses Christians using Pew survey; RNS does better

Just about a week after New York Times top editor Dean Baquet concedes many of his reporters “don't quite get religion,” a Times-man (as they used to be called) does his level best to prove Baquet correct.

Sigh: “Christians in U.S. Are Less Educated Than Religious Minorities, Report Says,” the Times trumpets online

With that we’re off to the (same old, same old) races:

Religious minorities in the United States are far more likely to have attended college or a vocational school than members of the Christian majority, according to a review of census and survey data from 151 countries released on Tuesday that found wide gaps in education among followers of the world’s major religions.
The review was based on data from 2010 and was conducted by the Pew Research Center, which also found an education gap between men and women within religious groups. The researchers said the educational differences among the faiths were rooted in immigration policies that favor the educated, as well as in political, economic and historical factors.
There were 267 million Christians in the United States when the data was collected, but only 36 percent of them had a postsecondary education, including college or a vocational school, the researchers said. That made them the least-educated religious group in the country.
Jews in the United States were more than twice as likely as Christians to have a postsecondary degree, and Hindus were almost three times as likely, Pew said. Buddhists, Muslims and those who said they were religiously unaffiliated were also more likely to have a college degree than those who identified themselves as Christians.

Note the words “Christian majority,” if you will.

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Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

It's an increasingly common habit -- a bad one -- to mix news with commentary. But the Tampa Bay Times yesterday was especially blatant, starting with the headline: "What about the coaches?"

The article is the third in less than a week on Christian clubs like Young Life, First Priority and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and their activities in public schools. The Times pretty agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaint to Hillsborough County Public Schools: Adults were evangelizing on campus through the clubs, thus breaching the constitutional separation of church and state; and school officials, including coaches, were letting them. Also, a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had two misdemeanor convictions on his record.

All of that is more than fair game for a newspaper to check out. And in fairness, it talked to David Gaskill of FCA, in a story on Thursday. That’s an improvement over January, when the Times talked to the accusers but none of the defenders.  

But it's hard to read yesterday's story as anything more than a j'accuse, when it starts with:

A complaint alleging illegal activities on the part of a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes did not just point the finger at self-styled campus minister David Gaskill.
It also named -- sometimes with photographic evidence -- coaches who either invited Gaskill to lead the students in prayer or participated with them. Those named in the complaint include Freedom High School football coaches Todd Donahoe and Cedric Smith; Tampa Bay Technical High School wrestling coach Edward Bayonet, Freedom girls basketball coach Laura Pacholke, Wharton High School wrestling coach David Mitchell and Middleton High School baseball coach Jim Macaluso.
Will the district investigate these coaches too?

The article gives the answer immediately: "They will not." Instead, they and other school employees who work with volunteers will get training on adherence to the First Amendment. A school board member adds that FFRF is "very happy with the district's response."  So why were the coaches the focus of the lede? Is this something like gospel shaming? (And why didn’t the Times ask FFRF if they really are satisfied?)

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Alabama Muslims: Feature on converts doesn't ask many (or any) follow-up questions

Alabama Muslims: Feature on converts doesn't ask many (or any) follow-up questions

Confession time: I used to write stories almost as wide-eyed as yesterday's feature on Muslim converts in Alabama.

I wrote up Muslim criticisms of Christianity. I retold their feelings about baleful attitudes from other Americans. I did, however, try to look critically at their claims of up to seven million believers in the U.S.

But see, it's two decades later, and mainstream media should have moved on. And I suggest that the Alabama Media Group, with seven regional editions, carries a heavy responsibility for perceptive reporting, not just writing up notes.

This particular article starts as a sensitive, detail-rich feature of the Alabaman Muslims: how they live, how they view presidential candidates, how they think other Americans view them. Al.com even finds a counter-intuitive lede:

Allie Larbi sounds like a Donald Trump supporter.
The Mobile resident supports building a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and scrapping birthright citizenship. Syrian refugees, in her own words, should either be blocked from entering the United States or let in only to be housed in isolated refugee camps.
"I have what I like to turn around and call American views," said Larbi. "This is a great country and it needs to stay that way."

Larbi naturally takes offense at some of Trump's other statements, like "mandatory registration for Muslims, a ban on Muslim travel to the United States, or shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig's blood."  We'll get back to her in a moment.

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In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

Another day, another gunman, another mass shooting. Once again, when government authorities consistently declined to discuss possible motives, it was hard not to assume that the religion shoe was going to drop, sooner or later.

By this morning, journalists have had quite a bit of time to look for witnesses and to sift through social-media looking for clues and quotes. At this point, it's almost like journalists in key newsrooms were not covering the same tragedy. 

Let's look in New York City, for example. That did The New York Times have to say about the religion angle? The world's most powerful newspaper opened with the basic facts and then, five paragraphs in, added:

Law enforcement officials identified the gunman Thursday night as Chris Harper Mercer, and said he had three weapons, at least one of them a long gun and the other ones handguns. It was not clear whether he fired them all. The officials said the man lived in the Roseburg area.
They said one witness had told them that Mr. Mercer had asked about people’s religions before he began firing. “He appears to be an angry young man who was very filled with hate,” one law enforcement official said. Investigators are poring over what one official described as “hateful” writings by Mr. Mercer.

Did he ask anything specific, when it came to religion? Were members of one faith, or no faith, more at risk than others? And those "hateful" writings -- on social media, perhaps -- were about what?

Writing for a radically different audience than the TimesThe New York Post went straight to the point with the religion angle bannered on its website a few hours after the massacre. The most recent version of that story now states, drawing on material from news and social media:

A gunman singled out Christians, telling them they would see God in “one second,” during a rampage at an Oregon college Thursday that left at least nine innocent people dead and several more wounded, survivors and authorities said.

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