Religion Newswriters Association

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

For those in Godbeat circles, many of the bylines splashed across today's front pages are extremely familiar.

I'm talking about names such as William Lobdell and Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today.

All of those veteran religion writers — just to name a few — wrote their respective papers' major obituaries marking Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

But here's what might surprise many ordinary readers: None of them has worked for those papers in years. 

"I must have written and updated a whole suite of advance obit stories on Graham at least three times over 15 years," Grossman said. "I last polished up the package in 2013, in the week before I left the paper on a buyout. However, I stayed in touch with USAT editors (and) emailed them where fixes/changes might be needed over the years."

Welcome to the concept of the "prepared obit."

Here's what that means: News organizations put together obits in advance for certain prominent people, such as presidents, movie stars and — in the case of Graham — world-famous preachers. That way, they're prepared (at least somewhat) if the person dies 10 minutes before deadline.

A New York Times obituary writer explained it this way in a 2014 piece:

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On the day after Fourth of July, four Godbeat developments you'll want to know about

On the day after Fourth of July, four Godbeat developments you'll want to know about

Welp. It was quite a Fourth of July here in Oklahoma City.

Perhaps you heard the news about Thunder superstar Kevin Durant's Independence Day.

Yes, there's a religion angle. But we'll save that for a post later this week from our own tmatt, GetReligion's resident expert on faith and the NBA.

As I join my fellow Oklahomans in mourning Durant's departure, the day after the Fourth of July (that would make it July 5, right?) seems like an opportune time to update readers on four key developments on the Godbeat:

1. The Religion Newswriters Association is no more.

No, the professional organization for Godbeat pros has not disbanded. It's thriving, in fact. But it has a new name: Religion News Association.

Here's how a news release from RNA (yes, that acronym is still correct) explains the change:

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Whoa, prepare to be surprised by this media treatment of home schooling and religion — with a twist

Whoa, prepare to be surprised by this media treatment of home schooling and religion — with a twist

Here at GetReligion, we love tips and feedback from readers.

So when Kevin McClain tweeted us a link, we checked it out.

Now, that sound you heard when I read the headline — "Homeschooling Without God" — was fear, trembling and gnashing of teeth. Before I clicked the link, I called my friend Linus of "Peanuts" fame and asked to borrow his blue security blanket.

Seriously, I braced myself for the kind of snarky putdowns of faith-driven home-schoolers that I've seen in some past narratives. In case you missed them, see my January 2014 post "Wait, not all home schooling is stupid and harmful!?" and my August 2013 post "WPost: Virginia law highlights stupidity of home schooling."

But against my better judgment, I went ahead and opened The Atlantic story. Then I saw the byline. That next sound you heard was me whooping and pumping my fist. Suddenly, I was in a much better mood. 

When I saw the name of the writer — Jaweed Kaleem — I knew I was in for an insightful, respectful treatment of the subject matter. 

In case you're not familiar with Kaleem, he is the vice president of the Religion Newswriters Association and spent the last several years as an award-winning national religion writer for the Huffington Post. In 2014, I did a 5Q+1 interview with him on reporting inside Pakistan.

Kaleem recently announced that he's joining the Los Angeles Times as its national race and justice correspondent — but he plans to keep tackling religion issues, too:

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After 'Spotlight' Oscar euphoria, the hangover: Worry about the future of religion journalism

After 'Spotlight' Oscar euphoria, the hangover: Worry about the future of religion journalism

If Bob Smietana is worried about the future of religion journalism in America, then we all should be.

Just the other night, Smietana — immediate past president of the Religion Newswriters Association — joined his Godbeat colleagues in celebrating the best picture Oscar for "Spotlight.

"Spotlight" is, of course, a "based on a true story" movie about Boston Globe journalists who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for their investigation into the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal.

But after celebrating Sunday night, Smietana has a must-read piece today on the Washington Post's Acts of Faith blog that asks this timely and important question:

‘Spotlight’ just won an Oscar. So why am I so worried about the future of religion journalism?

Why indeed?

Even before reading Smietana's op-ed, regular GetReligion readers probably have some inkling of his concerns.

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Mark Driscoll redux: Believe it or not, this Daily Beast feature is best of the lot

Mark Driscoll redux: Believe it or not, this Daily Beast feature is best of the lot

Stories about ousted Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll are surfacing again, now that the former Seattle mega-church leader has resurfaced in Phoenix with a new church plant and no repentance toward the carnage left behind in the Pacific Northwest. Mars Hill, his now former church, has had to sell $25 million worth of property to make ends meet. 

Of all the outlets I’ve scanned, the Daily Beast thus far has come up with the best reporting about the matter. I should mention that Joel Connelly’s blog atseattlepi.com was first out of the blocks in December with the story of Driscoll’s move to Phoenix.

Connelly has been following Driscoll for years. If you need to bone up on his clips and some of Driscoll’s history, click here. Here's a brief summation of the latest news, which appeared Feb. 1 in The Seattle Times:

Mark Driscoll finally made it official: He’s starting a new church in Phoenix. The culmination of a comeback that has been gaining steam over the past year, the former Mars Hill pastor announced the news of The Trinity Church on Monday by email, Twitter and a new website.
In a folksy video on the site, which begins with a “howdy” from Driscoll, the pastor said he and his wife, Grace, sitting by his side, were “hoping, trusting, praying, planning and also a little” -- he made a jokey grimace -- “worrying about planting a church here.”
Driscoll also noted that he was “healin’ up” in his new home. And his bio on the site refers to the Driscolls recently facing “the most challenging year of their lives,” one that prompted the pastor to take a year off.
But aside from those remarks, there’s no reference to Driscoll’s troubled and controversial history at Mars Hill. Indeed, there’s no direct mention at all of the megachurch he presided over for 18 years in Seattle, until snowballing allegations of plagiarism, emotional abusiveness and misogyny led him to resign in October 2014.

 It does seem weird that Driscoll seems to have taken up a southern accent in his new digs.

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Reuters offers strong take on ISIS fatwa on sex slaves (Daily Beast attempts to punt)

Reuters offers strong take on ISIS fatwa on sex slaves (Daily Beast attempts to punt)

If you were picking the top religion news story of 2015 and you were looking at the whole world -- as opposed to, let's say, culture wars in the United States -- then it was hard to avoid the mayhem unleashed by the Islamic State.

That was certainly my take, as I stressed in last week's "Crossroads" podcast.

That was, apparently, how the Associated Press saw 2015 as well. This was the year that ISIS touched lives and headlines all over the world.

NEW YORK (AP) -- The far-flung attacks claimed by Islamic State militants and the intensifying global effort to crush them added up to a grim, gripping yearlong saga that was voted the top news story of 2015, according to The Associated Press' annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.
The No. 2 story was the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that led to legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. But several of the other stories among the Top 10 reflected the impact of the Islamic State, while another group of major stories related to the series of mass shootings in the United States.

One of the big ISIS questions, frequently discussed here at GetReligion, is this: What drives this violent and radical movement? When ISIS leaders describe the "why" in the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of their story, what do they talk about? Are they driven by "ideology," "theology" or a theocratic ideology built on a foundation of their own twisted take on Islamic theology?

To understand ISIS journalists have to deal with the religion component in these stories. We have to understand what ISIS is saying about Islam and why many Muslims agree with them, while many more fiercely disagree.

This brings me to that Reuters exclusive again about ISIS and its -- literally -- theology shaping the treatment of sexual slaves. This was strong stuff and, once again, the key was that members of the Reuters team actually read what ISIS leaders were saying about their own work. The headline: "Exclusive -- Islamic State ruling aims to settle who can have sex with female slaves."

In addition to the word "theology" in the lede, the key word used in this piece -- multiple times -- is "fatwa."

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Top 10 religion stories for 2015: How would Pope Francis have voted?

Top 10 religion stories for 2015: How would Pope Francis have voted?

No doubt about it, journalists really love Pope Francis. In many cases, they love the version of this pope that they have created through misquotes, partial quotes and by ignoring much of what he has to say. Hey, but who am I to judge?

Pope Francis had a lot to say during 2015 and, frankly, I thought that most of it was somewhat predictable, in terms of what we already knew about him. His sermons and addresses during the visit to Acela land in the media-rich American Northeast had lots of substance, but very few surprises.

So here is my question: Would Pope Francis think that he was the world's most important news story in 2015? I think not.

If you were looking for remarks by Francis that received little coverage, consider his steady stream of remarks about the persecution of religious minorities worldwide -- especially Christians in the Middle East. In the following quotes, drawn from a July sermon in a Mass with Eastern Catholics, he even comments on how the powerful have been ignoring this truly historic massacre:

“Dear brothers and sisters, there is no Christianity without persecution. Remember the last of the Beatitudes: when they bring you into the synagogues, and persecute you, revile you, this is the fate of a Christian. Today too, this happens before the whole world, with the complicit silence of many powerful leaders who could stop it. We are facing this Christian fate: go on the same path of Jesus.”
The Holy Father also remembered the broader persecution of Christians in the present day. “We now, in the newspapers, hear the horror of what some terrorist groups do, who slit the throats of people just because [their victims] are Christians. We think of the Egyptian martyrs, recently, on the Libyan coast, who were slaughtered while pronouncing the name of Jesus.”

During this week's "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I -- as is our end-of-the-year norm -- worked out way through the Religion Newswriters Association poll to pick the Top 10 religion-beat stories. Click here to tune that in.

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A major newspaper has hired a religion reporter: Why that is amazing news for everyone

A major newspaper has hired a religion reporter: Why that is amazing news for everyone

The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper, gave readers an early Christmas present.

The gift: the Gannett paper's decision to restore a full-time religion writer to its reporting staff.

Why is this amazing news for everyone? Because so much of what makes headlines, from debates over Syrian refugees to battles over the content of public school plays (looking at you, Charlie Brown!), has a religion angle. And more often than not, the best coverage of such stories comes from full-time religion beat specialists.

Tennessee readers, feel free to insert celebratory whooping and hollering here (and don't forget to hit the play arrow on the Kool and the Gang video above).

The prodigal Godbeat has come home to Music City!

Just two years ago, The Tennessean boasted one of the best religion writers on the planet in Bob Smietana. But then Smietana, the immediate past president of the Religion Newswriters Association, left to become senior writer for LifeWay Research's Facts & Trends magazine. He later joined Christianity Today as senior news editor (where he continues to crank out amazing journalism).

After Smietana's departure, The Tennessean became just the latest Bible Belt newspaper to eliminate the Godbeat (The Dallas Morning News is perhaps the most prominent paper to make this boneheaded move).

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5Q+1 interview: Ken Chitwood on teaching ‘Religion and the News’ at University of Florida

5Q+1 interview: Ken Chitwood on teaching ‘Religion and the News’ at University of Florida

Godbeat 101.

That’s not the name of the course Ken Chitwood will teach at the University of Florida next semester. But it’s close.

Chitwood is a religion scholar and Ph.D. student, studying Religion in the Americas and Global Islam (with the Center for Global Islamic Studies).

His writings — both academic and popular — cover topics such as religion in the U.S., Islam in the Americas, glocalization, transnationalism and Christian-Muslim relations (and many more).

“I am also fascinated by the intersection of religion and popular culture and write and speak on this topic as both an academic and a journalist covering 'the Godbeat,’” said Chitwood, who characterizes himself on his personal website as a “forward-thinking Lutheran theologian.”

In a 5Q+1 interview with GetReligion, he discussed his plans for the “Religion and the News” course that he’s developing.

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