Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

How I lost my professional cool and succumbed to gossamer social media satisfaction

How I lost my professional cool and succumbed to gossamer social media satisfaction

GetReligion readers: Allow me to offer my own mea culpa. It’s not for something as juicy -- or as damaging to our  national conversation -- as anything said by Roseanne Barr or Samantha Bee. But given what I do here at GetReligion, it's worth noting.

Before you start reading all my past "Global Wire" posts -- go ahead; I dare you -- it’s not for anything I've posted on this website. Though I’m sure more than a few of you think I should be apologizing for just about everything I’ve posted here over the past three-plus years.

Rather, it's for a story on anti-Semitism in Western Europe produced by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service that I reposted on my personal Facebook page. It violated whatever advice I repeat here ad infinitum.

Some respected Facebook friends called me out on the post, and rightly so. Hence, my mea culpa. (More on this below.)

What advice do I refer to: Approach the journalism you consume from a place of media literacy.

Consider what’s missing from a story. Is it meant to play to your fears and biases? Was important context left out? How about alternative viewpoints? Do not let emotions overwhelm your intellect.

Above all, perhaps, don’t further circulate a story that fails the smell test by impulsively reposting it on social media, where the echo chamber is sure to run with it as if it was unquestionable gospel.

I’m a presumed expert on all this -- or so I've convinced my GR bosses. So if only for the sake of this post, please accept that I actually am I, despite this mea culpa.

So just what am I apologizing for?


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New Pew survey notes line between religious identity and religious faith in Central and Eastern Europe

New Pew survey notes line between religious identity and religious faith in Central and Eastern Europe

Does anyone recall the 1991 comedy classic "What About Bob?", in which Bill Murray plays an obnoxiously self-absorbed client who cluelessly and unrelentingly pesters his psychotherapist (Richard Dreyfuss) during his annual summer vacation until the therapist suffers a breakdown?

Alright. So maybe it's not a classic. But I thoroughly enjoyed it -- perhaps not the least because I'm married to a psychotherapist who, if you ask me, has had more than her share of clients with professional boundary problems.

Which is to say that it was easy for me to relate to this movie because the situation it satirized is of more than passing interest to me.

That I have this personal bias because of my particular circumstance, should surprise no one. Likewise, it should come as no surprise to GetReligion readers that journalism functions similarly.

The greater the potential impact of a story on a news outlet's core audience, the greater the attention the outlet will lavish on the story. In short, if all politics is ultimately local, so is all news.

Which is why, I'm surmising, the media coverage of the Pew Research Center's survey report on the explosive growth of religious identity -- if not actual religious practice -- in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Central and Eastern Europe has played out as it has so far.

Mainstream media attention was relatively scant. While The Economist provided a well-rounded report, this Newsweek story is more representative of the thin coverage overall that I found.

In truth, to anyone who's been paying attention, the survey's findings are far from surprising.

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Pew Research survey on global religious gender gap deserves far more coverage

Pew Research survey on global religious gender gap deserves far more coverage

Years ago while living in northern Virginia, I was a mentor to a Muslim family that had been forced out of Iraqi Kurdistan. One of the things I noticed about them is they were rarely at the mosque. The women (and there were four daughters in this family) never went, except when they needed a marriage contract signed. The father occasionally attended.

Now, I’ve sat in the women’s sections of certain mosques and it’s not a great experience. You can’t see or hear a thing, it’s unbelievably crowded and there are small children racing around. No wonder my Kurdish female friends never went. Compare that to most churches I’ve visited where the majority of worshipers were women.

There's a story there.

So I was not surprised to read about this gender difference in a Religion News Service piece chronicling Pew survey data on the phenomenon. Here’s what it said:

(RNS) Fewer men than women show up in U.S. churches, and women are markedly more likely to pray and to hold up religion as important.
But in Muslim nations, it’s the women who are missing in action at the mosque -- and yet they’re on par with men in upholding almost all the Muslim pillars of faith.
Those are among the top findings in a new Pew Research study of the gender gap in religion, drawn from data in 192 nations, released Tuesday (March 22).
The overall conclusion: Women, particularly Christian, are generally more religious than men worldwide. An estimated 83 percent of women around the world identify with a faith group, compared with 80 percent of men, according to the report.

Now that 3.5 percent percentage point gap may not seem like much, but it means that 97 million more women than men worldwide identify with a faith group.

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Flawed Pew survey question produces flawed answer on how many Israeli Jews want Arabs kicked out

Flawed Pew survey question produces flawed answer on how many Israeli Jews want Arabs kicked out

A Pew survey released last week had all the ingredients for another damning story about Israel and its Jewish citizens. Nearly half of Israeli Jews surveyed, Pew reported, said they favored the expulsion or transfer of Arabs out of Israel.

Given the superficial manner in which most news media, American and otherwise, cover the extraordinarily complicated, and sadly dehumanizing and deadly, Middle East -- and its long-running Israel-Palestinian subplot in particular -- the Pew story seemed a natural headline-grabber.

It turned out to be otherwise. Nonetheless, it did underscore the importance of raising journalistic red flags when reporting on dumbed-down, highly generalized and potentially inflammatory survey questions that purport to accurately measure real-world complexities.

Let's start with these telling New York Times stories about the survey. Click here to read the first one. Then click here to read the second.

Why are they telling?

Because The Times'  initial Web offering was a standard wire service report that led -- predictably -- with the international red-meat angle, the more easily written expulsion aspect that, given the hostility to Israel in much of the world, was virtually assured of gaining wide play.

But also because the second piece, written by a Times' Jerusalem bureau staffer that ran in the dead wood edition the following day, buried the expulsion angle and led instead with the more complicated to report survey results dealing with the deep religious and political rifts within Israeli Jewish society.

The expulsion angle wasn't mentioned until the eighth paragraph.

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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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Perennial press perplexity: How many Muslims are there in the United States?

Perennial press perplexity: How many Muslims are there in the United States?

Let's hold the above question for a moment and start with statistics about Christians in the United States.

Religion writers should be uttering hallelujahs for an organization many may not know about, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. This  association has just agreed to replace the National Council of Churches and rescue the invaluable “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.” This statistical compilation, issued since 1916, had been moribund since 2012 due to NCC financial woes. (Future contacts: yearbook.asarb@gmail.com and www.asarb.org.)

The U.S. Census hasn’t asked about religious affiliations for decades, yet a writer often needs to report a denomination’s total adherents. Though the Yearbook’s data are self-reported without auditing and sometimes out of date, it’s the best resource journalists and religious leaders have had for comparisons and as a source in which to quickly find numbers, contacts, and basics.

The American Jewish Committee in 2009 likewise cut loose the 115-year-old “American Jewish Year Book,” taken over by the Springer book house. Jewish headcounts are complicated, but the 2014 annual  estimated a population of 6.6 million to 6.7 million. The 2015 edition (list price $299!) has yet to appear. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Pew Research Center figures the U.S. currently has 5.7 million “Jews by religion” as distinct from ethnic identity.

Moving to Islam’s U.S. followers, a number reporters would like to cite regularly, the following may not help much.

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Denver Post paints local religious scene with too broad a brush

Denver Post paints local religious scene with too broad a brush

This is that time of year when under-researched or over-generalized articles about religion sprout up around the country.

Usually, an editor has realized that Christmas is around the corner and someone needs to throw together a piece about religion. It helps if the story as good color art. Content and a strong news hook? Maybe. Maybe not.

This seems to be the case in a recent piece that ran in the Denver Post. It certainly has one of those broad, sweeping trend-story headlines: "Here's what's bringing millennials back to churches."

The newspaper's former religion writer seems to have moved to the health beat and there being no specialist currently on the beat, the assigning editor nabbed a writer who is the Post's travel and fitness editor. Her street cred is that she has collaborated with a Catholic priest on a book, which may be why she took on the story excerpted below: 

Five friends cluster for conversation among hundreds pouring out of a Sunday service at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette. The five are in their 20s and 30s. And at this church, they don't stand out for their age or their attire -- it's easy to come to church dressed casually when the pastor gives the sermon in jeans and a hoodie.

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Connecting dots between Santo Daime and blurring lines between religions

Connecting dots between Santo Daime and blurring lines between religions

I attended a Bob Dylan concert in Baltimore some years back where I fell into conversation about Mr. Robert Allen Zimmerman and his music with a high-schooler sitting next to me. Suddenly, it hits this kid: "Wow! You're from the '60s!" I smiled. But the kid had it right. I felt like an archeological artifact.

Yes, I lived as a college student and as a working journalist, when I wasn't just hanging out, in New York's East Village and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. I covered Jerry Rubin's Yippies and Berkeley's People's Park. And despite the cliche, I remember that period of my life quite clearly. I know what I did.

By which I mean that in addition to a lot of brown rice and mung beans, I consumed a fair quantity of psychedelic drugs, natural and synthetic, in, shall we say, non-clinical settings. I do not recommend that anyone follow my example. But I was fortunate and avoided trouble. Moreover, I experienced altered states of consciousness that provided my first hint that there was more to life than the every-day material world, and that spirituality and religious tradition would be profoundly real and important to me.

Why this confessional now? To grab your reading attention, of course. It's called a lede.

Now that I apparently have it, let's discuss a recent story in The New York Times about an experimental Brazilian prison program that provides select maximum-security convicts with a plant-based psychedelic brew in the hope it will mitigate their anti-social behaviors. In short, it's meant as psycho-spiritual therapy.

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What are the biggest Christian flocks in America these days?

What are the biggest Christian flocks in America these days?

RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

What are the major Christian denominations in the U.S.?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Numbers. Numbers. Numbers.

The Pew Research Center snagged some headlines April 2 with projections on world religions as of 2050 that are worth pondering. Among other things, we’re told high birth rates will make world Islam almost as large as Christianity, India will surpass Indonesia as the nation with the biggest Muslim population, Muslims will constitute 10 percent of Europeans, and will surpass the number of religious Jews in the U.S.

Rachael’s question brings us back to the present day, to just the United States, and to Christians only. This has long been an easy topic thanks to the National Council of Churches and its predecessor, the Federal Council, which since 1916 issued yearbooks stuffed with statistics and other information. These annuals became more vital after 1936 when the U.S. Census stopped gathering data from religious groups.  Unfortunately, the N.C.C. hasn’t managed to issue its “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches” since 2012 due to shrinking staff, budget, and program, and has no firm plans for any future editions. Any volunteers out there to produce this all-important reference work?

Some data were outdated or rough estimates, but it’s what we’ve had and, on the whole, reasonably representative. Here were  “inclusive” memberships for U.S. groups reporting at least 2 million members in that latest and perhaps last yearbook from 2012:

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