Journalism 101

Yes, there's a religion 'ghost' haunting news coverage of Kate Steinle's family and faith

Yes, there's a religion 'ghost' haunting news coverage of Kate Steinle's family and faith

The tragic shooting death of Kathryn "Kate" Steinle on a San Francisco pier some 30 months ago stunned the nation and help inspire some of the rhetoric in Donald Trump's 2016 White House campaign. At the end of November, a San Francisco jury failed to convict Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who was in the United States illegally, of either murder or manslaughter, setting off another firestorm.

That's the public story. But what of the personal story, the family story? Steinle's family has been vocal about their loss in 2015 and, to an extent, the verdict in Zarate's trial. But, both in 2015 and now, there's what we at GetReligion call a "ghost" -- a missing religion angle -- hovering around the edges of coverage discussing how the family is making sense of the senseless.

The journalism issue: For a profession so keen on detail, I've found multiple instances of reporters not asking the kind of "who, what, when, where, why" questions normally answered in such reporting. It's downright puzzling.

Most recently, the San Francisco Chronicle, via editorial page editor John Diaz, gave us some insights. Even though the piece appeared on the opinion pages, it reads very much like a news feature, since no "opinion" from Diaz or the paper is expressed there.

So here is my question: Where is the hard-news coverage of this angle of the story in the mainstream press, especially in papers out West?

The Chronicle headline stated: "Exclusive: Kate Steinle’s family talks about the anguish and frustration." The passage relevant to this discussion appears more than 20 paragraphs into the story:

Now and then an acquaintance would angrily suggest that Kate’s killer should be executed and ask: “What do you think, Jim?”

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Klanner-turned-Catholic priest story raises question about (wait for it) repentance

Klanner-turned-Catholic priest story raises question about (wait for it) repentance

Just when you thought things couldn't get any more exciting in the aftermath of the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., where a protester was mowed down and killed by a white-supremacist, there comes a story that I can't imagine anyone anticipated.

An active, currently serving Roman Catholic priest admitted he had been a leader in the Ku Klux Klan and burned crosses on people's lawns, before entering the priesthood. The priest, Father William Aitcheson, has now taken a leave of absence from his role as an associate pastor at a parish in the Arlington, Va., archdiocese.

While it didn't make front page news in The Washington Post -- of which more here shortly -- it was the lead item on the local NBC-TV station, WRC. Their story, buttressed by an online version, was a very basic account:

A Virginia priest took a leave of absence on Monday after he admitted that he was previously a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Father William Aitcheson, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, burned a cross on an African-American couple's lawn in College Park, Maryland, in the 1970s. 
Aitcheson, 62, wrote about his past Klan affiliation Monday in The Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocese's newspaper. He currently is an associate pastor at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax, Virginia.

The WRC-TV story offers an intriguing insight into the genesis of this disclosure, but then tapers off:

Aitcheson wrote in the essay that images from violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, inspired him to speak out. But a reporter's inquiry may have played a role. 
The diocese said in a statement issued Wednesday that a "freelance reporter, who introduced herself as a parishioner" contacted the diocese and said she knew that Aitcheson's name matched that of the man convicted of cross-burnings. 

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Crikey! Top Aussie journalists insert obvious errors into serious spousal abuse story

Crikey! Top Aussie journalists insert obvious errors into serious spousal abuse story

I've never been to Australia, but I've had a large enough circle of antipodean friends to know that "Crikey!" is an exasperation often used in conversation. What does the term mean? Click here.

It fits, in some respects, to the remarkable story the Australian Broadcasting Corp., known as "ABC," has put together -- on its website and on air -- about the links between spousal abuse and religion, specifically, in this case, Christianity.

Let me assert, up front and in the strongest possible terms, that anyone who abuses a spouse or domestic partner or boyfriend/girlfriend -- anyone -- deserves to be fully investigated and if circumstances warrant, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no excuse, whatsoever, for any violence in the home. For reporting on faith-based connections to domestic violence, ABC deserves to be praised.

Praise isn't all the web version of story deserves, however. It also merits some scrutiny, especially when paired with a video interview with reporter Julia Baird (see clip above).

The web story, with the click-attracting headline "'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God," begins with a suitably dramatic (and long) retelling of a harrowing incident:

The culprits were obvious: it was the menopause or the devil.
Who else could be blamed, Peter screamed at his wife in nightly tirades, for her alleged insubordination, for her stupidity, her lack of sexual pliability, her refusal to join him on the 'Tornado' ride at a Queensland waterpark, her annoying friendship with a woman he called "Ratface"? For her sheer, complete failure as a woman?

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Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

If ever there was a crime for which the word "bizarre" was coined, the recent tragic events in Coolbaugh Township, Pennsylvania would likely be "Exhibit A."

Local police allege Barbara Rogers shot and killed her boyfriend, Steven Mineo, whose body was found on July 15 after Rogers called police to report the shooting. According to police, Rogers claims she shot Mineo at his request, over issues involving a religious cult to which both adults apparently belonged.

The Associated Press picks up the barest essence of the story from there, presenting us with a key journalistic issue:

Rogers told officers Mineo, 32, was having “online issues” with a cult and asked her to kill him, said Lt. Steven Williams, of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police. She said her boyfriend believed the cult’s leader to be a “reptilian” pretending to be a human, according to an affidavit.
Rogers, 42, told police the group centers on “aliens and raptures.” Online postings associated with the cult detail a theory that a group of alien reptiles is subverting the human race through mind control.

I should note that I found the AP story at the website of the Wilkes-Barre, Penna., Times Leader, a newspaper whose offices are a mere 45 minutes away, by car, from the crime scene. (I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) 

American author Mark Twain once declared, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” In reporting this cult case, I believe the AP got a head start on that total eclipse of the sun due in mid-August.

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Hey, kids! What's missing from Los Angeles news reports about Buddha statue's vandalism?

 Hey, kids! What's missing from Los Angeles news reports about Buddha statue's vandalism?

Not to encourage the mistreatment of any animal, but from time to time the phrase, "It's like shooting fish in a barrel" pops up when the GetReligion team discusses (via email) a given story.

The news this week about an apparently very misguided individual vandalizing a statue of the Buddha that was placed in a Los Angeles traffic median is, I believe, very much one of those kinds of stories. Spotting the key journalistic issue here is just like taking aim at the proverbial barrel-dwelling fish.

Some background first, however. There is a little piece of pavement (some call it a traffic "island," others call it a "median") in the Palms neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles, not far from where your correspondent spent seven very happy years living in Marina del Rey. (I miss that neighborhood, and the adjacent Venice Beach, greatly.)

The traffic island triangle became a dumping ground for sofas and other debris until -- as both the Los Angeles Times and the local CBS Los Angeles TV affiliate report (video above) -- someone placed a concrete statue of the Buddha there. Take it away, LA Times:

The stone statue, raised on a large planter, prevented people from dumping bulky items at the traffic island. It’s unknown whether that was the intent, but neighbors embraced the Buddha, dropping off roses, daisies and other types of flowers.
“It really rallied the community, and people started taking care of the Buddha,” [Motor Ave. Improvement Association director Lee] Wallach said.

The neighborhood Nirvana didn't last long, however:

All was peaceful in the Los Angeles neighborhood until one evening last month, when a man in a white sedan pulled over, got out and used a sledgehammer to decapitate the statue. Wallach said two people witnessed the incident but were unable to write down a license plate number.
“He was heard yelling about Al Qaeda and Muslim extremism and things of that nature,” he said. “I think this gentleman is a little confused and obviously a little violent. It's important we find him, educate him and help him.”
The crime left residents stunned.

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When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an amalgamation of three other Lutheran denominations, formed 29 years ago. When mainstream American journalists talk about "Lutherans," this is usually the crowd they are talking about.

The ELCA is also, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a church confronting changing times. In other words, this body is part of the ever-evolving world of liberal Protestantism, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline.

The paper's story begins with a typical journalistic scene-setter, at least the kind that is used when journalists are fond of the group that is being profiled:

Redeemer Lutheran Church is not your typical Lutheran outpost. Summer means the bike store and coffee shop are humming, kids camp and Zumba classes are in gear, and the young adults renting its apartments are mentoring children in this north Minneapolis neighborhood.
It represents a new model for the Lutheran Church, which is transforming itself to attract younger and diverse members, be more relevant to neighbors below its steeples and shake its image as a Scandinavian bastion best known for hot dish, Jell-O and Ole and Lena.

Anyone who regularly listened to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" stemwinders about life in and around Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, will recognize the stereotype, even if Keillor was actually raised in a Plymouth Brethren congregation.

The Minneapolis paper continues explaining, however, There is a dark cloud on the horizon:

Minnesota, with the largest number of Lutherans in the nation, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the faith. Time is of the essence: 37 percent of the churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest denomination in Minnesota and the U.S. -- now have fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers. ...
Membership at the ELCA plunged from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million today. In Minnesota, numbers fell from 782,000 to about 679,000.

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Painful group memories and the news media's (potentially) curative powers

Painful group memories and the news media's (potentially) curative powers

I've been semi-detached from the dread, anger, loss, and pain that have dominated American and international headlines the past two weeks while my wife and traveled across the Iberian Peninsula's north.

But only semi.

Full detachment is impossible for me (a) because of the electronic communication devices I take with me on vacation, and obviously (b) because of my obsessive newshound personality. The former allows me and the latter impels me to keep up -- at least to some degree -- with humanity's daily dose of self-inflicted trauma.

Spain and Portugal make it even easier for me to stay connected to this irrational state of affairs thanks to their particular histories. They abound with reminders of past injustices heaped upon the region's Jews, with which I fully identity. (Click here: I posted on this at the start of my trip.)

Human history seems a litany of communal hurts we never fully overcome. Not to mention that these hurts are continually updated.

In one Portuguese town -- Viana do Castello, just south of the Spanish border -- I parked next to a stone wall defaced by graffiti. The only parts of the scrawl I could decipher were the swastikas and the word "Sion," or Zion. I doubt the full message was complementary toward Jews or Israel.

Then there was this despicable anti-American, anti-Semitic and blatantly racist cartoon circulated by Spain's United Left political party, which holds eight seats in the nation's 360-member bicameral parliament (Click here for New York Times backgrounder). It was timed to coincide with President Barak Obama's brief visit to Spain last weekend. (Spain and Portugal now offer citizenship to foreign Jews of Sephardic ancestry, meaning those who can prove their families were forced out of Iberia during the Inquisition.)

I mention my experience as a prelude to commenting on a story published by The New York Times that reported international Muslim anger at perceived insufficient Western outrage and compassion toward terror attack victims in Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey during the just completed Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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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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When Bible Belt atheists go to church

Here in my home own state of Oklahoma, that’s the basis for a religion story in today’s Tulsa World. The headline grabs readers’ attention this way:

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