Internet

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

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Pope Francis gently tiptoes into the dangerous territory of those digital trolls

Pope Francis gently tiptoes into the dangerous territory of those digital trolls

Long ago, during one of the Key West, Fla., "Faith Angle" conferences run by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (click here for amazing transcripts), journalist and digital maven Steven Waldman made an interesting comment about online trolls. The goal of those gatherings was to inspire dialogues between scholars and mainstream reporters about religion and the news. Needless to say, changes caused by the Internet were a big part of that.

Waldman is best known for his work as senior advisor to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission and, before that, as the co-founder and CEO of Beliefnet.com. Especially in its early years, Beliefnet was precisely the kind of place where journalists were, for better or for worse, banging their heads on the emerging realities of Internet life.

Everyone learned pretty fast that things could get really hairy (troll image, of course) when you threw open the comments pages on sites focusing on religion, media, politics, social issues, etc. Clearly there had to be some rules. One of the rules Waldman described to me that night in Key West came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast chat with host Todd Wilken. Click here to check that out.

Anyway, Waldman said that one of the key rules Beliefnet staffers used when encountering fierce opinions in the comments pages went something like this. You could leave a comment that said something like: "According to the beliefs of my faith, I think that what you are saying is wrong and, thus, you could end up going to hell." That was strong stuff, but acceptable. Otherwise, the site's editors would have been saying that believers in traditional forms of some major religions -- Islam and Christianity, for starters -- would be banned from talking about core elements of their faith.

But here is what believers were NOT allowed to say in the comments pages:

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Meet The Guardian's 'Protest' section -- a sign that the times, they are a-changin'

Meet The Guardian's 'Protest' section -- a sign that the times, they are a-changin'

Go to the Website of The Guardian, the left-leaning British newspaper, and you'll find an array of stories grouped by subject, just as you will at other online news sites. It's the usual line up. There's world news, science, business, fashion, travel, tech, sports, opinion and others.

But, lo and behold, there appears to be something new under the sun in the news gathering business on display at The Guardian, one of the most-accessed news sites around. Or at least something new when it comes to organizing that which has been gathered.

Click "All Topics" on the The Guardian's home page and you can find a category intriguingly named, "Protest." You can also find it via the world section, or, easiest of all, just plug "protest" into the site's internal search engine.

Protest? Sounds like some '60s underground paper out of Berkeley. Or more to the point, a finger on the pulse of the current level of global discontent.

I don't see The Guardian print edition so I'm in the dark as to whether it, too, has a Protest section. But I doubt it does.

That's because on some level, most news stories have an element of protest at their core -- natural disasters, NFL playoff games, obituaries, freak accidents and similar stories not withstanding. Protest stories are scattering across all sections in deadwood products. It's easy to cross-post on line, but you can't run the same story in multiple sections in print.

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Is European-style, opinion-marbled journalism playing a bigger role in American news?

Is European-style, opinion-marbled journalism playing a bigger role in American news?

I'm often frustrated by one of American journalism's most cherished, but abused, conceits. 

I'm referring, broadly, to "he-said she-said" journalism (HSSS, from here on), the standard news format of contrasting statements meant to convey a sense of fair-mindedness no matter how much stronger, by which I mean believable, one statement is compared to another. It's just so easy to cheat and hide bias and a lack of fairness, even while appearing to do the opposite.

I'm sure you've read an HSSS story with some quote that had you mumbling to yourself, "That's utter crap." Or perhaps you've worded it more strongly? I sure have.

We're taught HSSS in college Journalism 101. It's the mark of "objectivity" (yes, those are scare quotes meant to convey skepticism), the promised redemption of American journalism that never really was and never will be.

Of course, we are talking about a mythical objectivity that represents a kind of blank-slate mental state, as opposed to "objectivity" defined (classic work here, "The Elements of Journalism") in terms of professional standards of accuracy, fairness and respect for the many voices involved in public debates. Those kinds of professional standards are exactly what GetReligion keeps trying to defend.

I struggle with poorly executed HSSS journalism just as "omniscient anonymous voice" journalism bugs GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly. Click here if you need a refresher on his views. He is primarily opposed to hard news newspaper and wire-service journalists -- as opposed to the authors of magazine essays and opinion pieces -- using massive amounts of information and opinion without giving readers any clear indication of where all that material is coming from.

i do not disagree with Terry on that. The raw material leading to journalistic conclusions should be spelled out. Think of it as connecting the dots. Think of it as simple honesty.

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There's plenty of global religious freedom news beyond the Kim Davis case

There's plenty of global religious freedom news beyond the Kim Davis case

If you read GetReligion even sporadically, you must know that mainstream news coverage of religious freedom issues receives a great deal of attention on this blog, for many reasons.

Perhaps the prime reason is that they play a leading role in the societal and political conflicts marking this era of rapid social change. That keeps them constantly in the news, and that can't be ignored when you're a blog devoted to media coverage of religion issues. Plus, issues of freedom of conscience are often linked -- globally -- to freedom of the press.

For Americans, the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who cites religious belief for refusing to issue marriage licenses -- containing the endorsement of her name and/or signature -- to same-sex couples, has been the latest U.S. religious freedom headline hog.

What is her church? Here's a link to an interesting Reuters piece about her Apostolic Christian faith, via Yahoo.

 What comes next? Will the Muslim flight attendant for an American airline who says she was suspended from her job for refusing to serve alcoholic drinks be the next religious freedom cause célèbre? It will be interesting to see what sort of religious community support she, a Muslim, receives.

Look, I'm fully aware that Americans are most interested in issues that impact them as Americans.

But the rest of the world has its own melange of religious freedom issues  -- some a matter of life and death, literally.

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Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

For weeks, I have been hearing from readers asking me when GetReligion was going to address the Catholic News Agency report about the $120,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, which owns Religion News Service.

In one article, CNA noted that the grant listing said that its purpose was to "recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches." When announcing the grant, Arcus officials said this grant would help foster a "culture of LGBT understanding through the media” by funding news reports and blogging posts “about religion and LGBT peoples of color.”

RNS Editor Kevin Eckstrom defended his wire service's editorial independence, stressing that this public relations represented "Arcus’ description of their funding, not ours.” It is also crucial to note that the funding connections between RNS and the Religion Newswriters Foundation are complex, to the degree that CNA needed to correct some fine details. Please read that whole report carefully.

In that story, Eckstrom also noted that GetReligion frequently criticizes RNS because its work does not meet our blog's "standard of theological orthodoxy.”

I did not respond, although there is much to be said on these matters. First of all, please note that GetReligion frequently praises the work of RNS and we certainly recognize its crucial role as the only mainstream news operation dedicated to covering the religion beat. Second, let me acknowledge that -- over the past decade -- RNS frequently took interns from the Washington Journalism Center (which is now being rebooted in New York City). Eckstrom and his team, frankly, did a fantastic and gracious job working with my program's students and I will always be grateful for that.

So what can I say about the "theological" issues involved in this discussion? Let's start with some background on journalism "theology."

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Welcome to the Newsless Review, care of a post-newspaper New York Times?

 Welcome to the Newsless Review, care of a post-newspaper New York Times?

A page-one item in the March 15 New York Times “Sunday Review” section,  headlined “How Business Made Us Christian,” highlighted a couple notable fashions in daily newspapering.  Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse drew this article from his new book with the provocative title “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.”

In part, Kruse revisited the familiar theme of “piety on the Potomac” in the 1950s when President Eisenhower was baptized a Presbyterian, Billy Graham led a D.C. revival meeting, Catholic lobbyists got “under God” inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance and annual Presidential Prayer Breakfasts began.

Kruse’s new emphasis is how business interests promoted “capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.” It seems a 1930s Congregational pastor to the elite named James Fifield “paired Christianity and capitalism against the New Deal’s ‘pagan statism.’ ” Kruse fuses that with later businessmen backing Graham’s crusades and Abraham Vereide’s prayer breakfasts.

All rather interesting.

Nevertheless, old-fashioned journalism would immediately raise questions. Is the scenario skewed? What’s missing? Was this cynical service to mammon or authentic piety? Did such efforts have any actual  effect on America’s politics and policies?

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Concerning that RNS newsletter: 'Two steps forward ...' means what, precisely?

Concerning that RNS newsletter: 'Two steps forward ...' means what, precisely?

It doesn't take a doctorate in Mass Communications to grasp that the Internet and other forms of digital technology that have emerged in recent decades have changed many elements of "journalism" as we know it.

Your GetReligionistas have written about this many times during the past 11 years. I guess that's because -- as a guy with a mass-comm master's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- I am pretty obsessed with the whole "technology shapes content" idea.

What changes? You know what I'm talking about.

The WWW is great at narrow-casting information into niches, as opposed to offering broadly stated information for debates in one mass culture. Also, the Internet is open for business 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- yet a business model built on digital advertising cannot sustain the larger newsroom staffs of the past. Thus, there are fewer scribes doing more and more work as they try seize the attention of readers who are surfing past on waves of digital ink.

What to do? Many believe that it's crucial for these digital journalists to write with a sharp "edge" that helps to define their social-media "brands" in order to appeal to loyal readers who agree with their editorial worldview. Thus, the line between news and analysis and old-fashioned editorializing is becoming harder and harder to see.

Meanwhile, information is expensive (think old-school reporters) while opinion is much cheaper (think armies of bloggers, freelance columnists and think-tank public intellectuals). Thus, more opinion and less basic reporting, with on-the-record interviews with articulate voices on both sides of hot-button debates.

This leads me to the following headline, which stopped me dead in my tracks as I marched through my stack of morning emails.

Two steps forward ... then all this

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Your weekend think piece: Muslim readers offended by news-you-can-use info bites

Your weekend think piece: Muslim readers offended by news-you-can-use info bites

So you are the New York Times public editor. 

You receive the following in a communication from a reader named Rachel Hall, who is responding -- in part -- to a Times online feature built on a list of violent acts carried out by self-proclaimed Islamic believers, almost always people who go out of their way to link their actions to their faith. You have also received letters from other Muslims protesting the same feature.

Hall writes:

In the article, the author has cherry-picked select cases from across North America, Europe and Australia that have no common threads except that they were planned or perpetrated by a person claiming to be a member of a Muslim community. In today’s world where we are constantly bombarded with a negative narrative about Islam, this kind of reporting only serves to demonize a faith of 1.6 billion people and fuels hate and prejudice against all Muslims who abide not only in North America but around the globe.
The people who perpetrate these acts do not represent me or my faith. They do not represent everyday Muslims, but in reading your article it would be easy to see how someone could be confused and think that all Muslims are terrorists. These extremists have hijacked my faith and yet we don’t hear this reported from news outlets such as yours. Instead, the media perpetually fuels fires of hate by not taking care to differentiate between the actions of a small band of crazy people and billions of average everyday individuals who just want to live their lives in peace.

So you are Margaret Sullivan. Looking at this as a journalism issue, how do your respond? 

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