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Poynter takes on Fox News' 'repurposing' of other publications' religion stories without proper credit

Poynter takes on Fox News' 'repurposing' of other publications' religion stories without proper credit

The reporter has become the reported-on.

I complained on social media recently after Fox News’ Caleb Parke rewrote one of my Christian Chronicle stories without doing any of his own reporting. I never could get a response from Parke, whose verified Twitter profile says he covers “faith & values but my favorite stories are #GoodNews.”

After my first complaint, Fox attributed a second quote to my Chronicle story but didn’t deal with the bigger issue of passing off our original piece as its own. And Parke and Fox felt no need to reply to me directly.

That might have been the end of it, except that Kelly McBride, a leading media ethics expert who serves as senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, took an interest in my case.

Today, Poynter published McBride’s lengthy piece calling out Fox News’ “repurposing” of other publications’ religion stories without proper credit.

Spoiler alert: She says a lot of really cool things about me that my mom will really enjoy, such as calling me a “nice-guy church newspaper editor based in Oklahoma City.” My boss particularly relished that line, given the grumpiness that I occasionally display on deadline.

But for those interested in religion reporting in the news media (that would be you, dear GetReligion reader), McBride’s comments on Fox’s practice of relying on other publications’ hard work will be particularly relevant.

Such as this:

It’s clear that this is about return on investment. Fox could easily have religion reporters out there turning up original stories the way Ross and his team do. But that would mean they would only get one story a day or even a week out of a reporter, not three or four. But fewer stories means a smaller audience.

Alternatively, Fox could subscribe to the Religion News Service, a wire service devoted to creating original stories about religion, as well as sharing content generated by other publications, including The Christian Chronicle. “We do not subscribe to this service,” a Fox spokesperson said by email. “We monitor them like we would any reliable news outlet and aggregate content when we find it compelling and worthy of our standards.”

When you look closely at what news organizations invest resources  in — original reporting vs. simply repeating the work of others — you can get a window into what the company values. 

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That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

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That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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Yes, John Earnest put 'Christian' label into play: That's half of an equation reporters need to cover

Yes, John Earnest put 'Christian' label into play: That's half of an equation reporters need to cover

The following headline at the Progressive Secular Humanist weblog at Patheos was meant to be a grabber and it certainly achieved its goal.

Check this out: “Christian Terrorist John Earnest Issued Manifesto Before California Synagogue Shooting.”

That manifesto included some stunning pull quotes that were totally valid material for mainstream news reporters. Try to get through this Earnest passage without wanting to spew your morning beverage:

My God does not take kindly to the destruction of His creation. Especially one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and innovative races that He has created. Least of all at the hands of one of the most ugly, sinful, deceitful, cursed, and corrupt. My God understands why I did what I did. …

To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews—remember that you are secure in Christ.

Patheos blogger Michael Stone added, with justifiable snark: “Can you feel the Christian love?”

Yes, reporters also need to note that Earnest said, in that same manifesto, that he didn’t soak up this twisted version of Christianity while frequenting church pews with his family. His hateful, deadly heresies grew out of a private, secret life online, listening to true radicals. Church members tried to talk to him, but he turned away.

Nevertheless, there is no question that reporters will have to deal with two clashing versions of Christianity when covering this story — that white supremacist brand proclaimed in this digital testimony and the Orthodox Presbyterian — uppercase “O” is part of the name — faith taught in his family’s congregation. In this case, the accused gunman did everything that he could to put the word “Christian” into play.

It helps that leaders of the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church decided to let journalists sit in on part of the confession and healing process. Here’s the top of a key USA Today report:

SAN DIEGO — Before Saturday, John T. Earnest was known only as a quiet, successful student and an accomplished pianist.

On Sunday, his church reeled, calling a special session to address the news: Earnest had been detained in connection with Saturday’s deadly synagogue shooting near San Diego. His name had also been linked to a racist online posting that praised mass shooters, spoke of a plan to "kill Jews," and extensively cited scripture. …

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Journalists have to ask familiar questions, when 'religious' people turn to violence

Journalists have to ask familiar questions, when 'religious' people turn to violence

There are so many questions to ask, and all of them need asking as journalists probe the "why" question in the "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" of the Austin bombings.

First things first. As Bobby Ross Jr. noted earlier (please see that post), 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt grew up in an intensely Christian home and he has expressed views that can -- in some sense of this vague word -- be called "conservative." He was active in a small, racially diverse church and then in a popular megachurch.

Well, the prodigal Texan in me wants to note that quite a few people in Texas go to church, even in the Austin area. Lots of them go to megachurches, since many things in Texas -- as you may have heard -- tend to be big.

Also, lots of people in Texas are committed to home-schooling their children. As with any form of intense education, some children like that more than others.

I say all of this to make one point: Journalists need to investigate all of these religion angles because this young man's faith -- or his loss of faith --  may turn out to be crucial. Most of all, law officials seem to be focusing on finding the source of the pain, anger and "darkness" that seized Conditt's life in the days, weeks or months leading up to the bombings.

Where would you start, reading between the lines in this passage from the main Associated Press report?

Conditt’s family said in a statement they had “no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in.” ...

Jeff Reeb, a neighbor of Conditt’s parents in Pflugerville for about 17 years, said he watched Conditt grow up and that he always seemed “smart” and “polite.” Reeb, 75, said Conditt and his grandson played together into middle school and that Conditt regularly visited his parents, whom Reeb described as good neighbors.

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Reporters and the Supreme Court cake bake-off: Was religious freedom the guiding issue?

Reporters and the Supreme Court cake bake-off: Was religious freedom the guiding issue?

Although the opening arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (transcript .pdf here) included a plea for religious freedom, that point got lost in articles about Tuesday’s historic hearing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s true that the plaintiff’s attorney, Kristen Waggoner, barely got out one paragraph of her intro before justices began interrupting her with questions about cakes and compelled speech.

It’s also true that covering a Supreme Court hearing (I’ve done it two or three times) is like covering a knife fight between 10 participants (nine justices and the hapless attorney before them). It takes discipline for media scribes to remember the main thing is the main thing; in this case, whether a believer can be forced by the state to give a message that contradicts his or her religious convictions.

GLAAD, the gay-rights organization that monitors coverage of homosexuals by the media, saw that “main thing” as such a threat, it sent a note to major media outlets, urging them to dump terms like “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” for “religious exemptions.” Read about their directive on Poynter.org and see one New York Times opinion piece that obeyed this instruction to the letter.  

(Tell me: What if a conservative group had sent out a similar missive to mainstream journalists? The Poynter piece, by the way, didn’t include any quotes from media experts who find it problematic that an activist group feels it can tell journalists what to write.)

Fortunately, reporters generally ignored GLAAD's directive. We will start with the Denver Post, the hometown newspaper for both parties in this suit which had a headline that reflected how Kennedy asked “sharp questions” from both sides. It began with a very static lede: 

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a Colorado case about a same sex-wedding cake that ultimately could determine where the legal system draws the line between discrimination and religious freedom.

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Poynter think piece proclaims: No need for 'balance' in abortion news reporting

Poynter think piece proclaims: No need for 'balance' in abortion news reporting

I've been thinking about this weekend think piece for quite some time.

The key to this post, according to journalists with whom I have discussed the topic, is that the think piece in question -- "New study shows why it's so hard to get abortion coverage right" -- was:

(a) Published on the Poynter.org website (a crucial brand name in mainstream journalism).

(b) However, it was written by a professional from an advocacy think tank on the issue being discussed, a fact clearly noted in the author bio at the end of the essay.

Thus, readers face a crucial question: To what degree do the contents of the essay speak for Poynter.org and its team? Perhaps this is the first half of a debate, with another piece -- representing the other side -- coming in the future? Then again, perhaps this piece is an endorsed statement (thinking of the newsroom policy ethics and style guide at BuzzFeed) that abortion is now a public debate that, for journalists, has only one side that needs to be covered?

I do not know. Because of my respect for the Poynter Institute and its work, I have been rather puzzled. And cautious.

I will point readers to the new Poynter piece -- in a moment.

First, I want to mention a symbolic statement on this topic from an earlier era. I am referring to the much discussed 2003 memo to Los Angeles Times section editors by John Carroll, the newspaper's executive editor at that time. The memo's subject line was: "Subject: Credibility/abortion." Readers really need to click and see the whole memo (it isn't long) for context. However, here is how it ends.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it. 

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times. 

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same. 

So what does the article published by Poynter say?

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Associated Press repeats mantra: Gosh those 'evangelicals' are standing by their man Trump

Associated Press repeats mantra: Gosh those 'evangelicals' are standing by their man Trump

Pardon me for a moment while I (just back from eclipse gazing here in New York City) ponder mortality, as in my own.

If I was hit by a bus tomorrow, there are two or three things that I have done in the world of journalism that I think would be worth future discussion. Yes, there's young Bono talking about faith and Africa, Mother Teresa talking about AIDS in Denver and Carl Sagan saying that he no longer considered himself an atheist or even an agnostic.

But I also hope -- in this age in which the word "evangelical" has been turned into a political label -- that a few people remember what happened when I asked the Rev. Billy Graham, back in the mid-1980s, to define that problematic word. Here's a flashback:

"Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too," he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has "become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals."
Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn't know what "evangelical" means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist."

Graham said he defines "evangelical" in terms of doctrines, not politics or anything else. If a person believes all of the doctrines in the Apostles Creed, he said, their view of scripture is high enough to be called an evangelical. What about Pope John Paul II? Graham said the two men had discussed that. Yes, there is more to that story.

This brings me to, alas, Donald Trump, his house evangelicals and the Associated Press headline: "Trump’s evangelical advisers sticking with him amid fallout." The overture:

NEW YORK (AP) -- One of President Donald Trump’s most steadfast constituencies has been standing by him amid his defense of a white nationalist rally in Virginia, even as business leaders, artists and Republicans turn away.

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Question for journalists: Where does this hellish Charlottesville story go next (other than Trump)?

Question for journalists: Where does this hellish Charlottesville story go next (other than Trump)?

So you are a journalist and you think there is more to the Charlottesville tragedy than political word games. Where to you think this story will go next?

Oceans of ink will, of course, be spilled covering news linked to President Donald Trump and what he does, or does not, say about that alt-right and white supremacy. Political reporters will do that thing they do and, in this case, for totally valid reasons. Please allow me to ask this question: At what point will major television networks -- rather than sticking with a simplistic left vs. right strategy -- spotlight the cultural conservatives who have been knocking the Trump team on this topic from the beginning?

In terms of religion angles, our own Julia Duin wrote an omnibus piece that this this morning and I would urge readers to check it out. Lots of people in social media urged pastors to dig into issues of hate and race in their sermons. Now I'm looking for coverage of that angle. Has anyone seen anything? Just asking.

The latest report from The New York Times -- "Far-Right Groups Surge Into National View in Charlottesville" -- raises some very interesting issues about this event. I came away asking this question: Who were the marchers and where did they come from (and get their funds)? Once reporters have asked that question, they can then ask: Who were the counter-protestors and where did they come from (and get their funds)? I think both angles will be quite revealing, in terms of information about the seeds for the violence.

I thought the following was especially interesting:

George Hawley, a University of Alabama political science professor who studies white supremacists, said that many of the far-right members he had interviewed did not inherit their racism from their parents, but developed it online. Many of them had never heard of, say, David Duke, the former Louisiana politician and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. ...

The counterprotesters included members of the local Charlottesville clergy and mainstream figures like the Harvard professor Cornel West. As the rally erupted into violence Saturday morning, the First United Methodist Church on East Jefferson Street opened its doors to demonstrators, serving cold water and offering basic medical care.
Dr. Hawley said he believed the far-left activists, known as antifa, were welcomed by the white nationalists. “I think to an extent the alt-right loves the antifa because they see them as being the perfect foil,” he said.

That drew a response from one of the local organizers -- Laura Goldblatt, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia:

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