Valentine's Day

What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

The primarily role of journalism is to inform. How that is done has dramatically changed over the past two decades. That time encompasses most of my adult life, where I worked as a reporter and later editor.

“Information overload” and “fake news” are both seen as major impediments to an educated population that can make sound decisions. Long gone are the days of my childhood when getting the morning paper and catching up on the day’s events by watching one of the evening network newscasts. We live in a frenetic 24-hour news cycle with a seemingly never-ending scroll of social media posts and constant chatter by “expert panels” on cable TV.

This takes me to my main point regarding journalism (specifically religion coverage) and how major news organizations can, and have, done a good job explaining faith. The journalistic form — commonly referred to in newsrooms as “the explainer” — has been one of the positives to come out of the digital age. It’s one that I increasingly have come to rely on when trying to make sense of a topic or ever-changing news developments that span days or even weeks.

Complex issues and topics have always been boiled down for ordinary readers to understand. After all, that’s what journalism is really all about. The same goes for understanding religion — and this is where journalism can be a wonderful tool to help people understands different belief systems, traditions, how they intersect with politics and how it impacts our culture and society. How journalists can create better explainers by using newspapers archives, social media, video — and yes, original reporting — is vital to the storytelling of the 21st century.

In explaining the Catholic church, for example, as it is repeatedly thrust into the media spotlight due to the clergy sex scandal, the abortion debate or any other topic means news websites have the vital responsibility of both informing and educating readers. Many of these readers are Roman Catholics, but most are not. Here’s where journalism is vital and a great way for reporters to delve into complex issues in addition to their news coverage of a given topic.

Take St. Valentine’s Day as an example.

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Ban my Valentine: Bible verses on homemade cards at center of free speech lawsuit vs. college

Ban my Valentine: Bible verses on homemade cards at center of free speech lawsuit vs. college

While shopping at Wal-Mart on the day after Labor Day, I noticed workers putting together candy and costume displays for Halloween.

Yes, it will be time for trick-or-treating in just eight short weeks. Or something like that.

Speaking of retail holidays, readers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel might have been surprised to wake up this morning and find a front-page centerpiece on ... Valentine's Day!?

It's not exactly the time of year when newspapers typically do Valentine's Day features. But this isn't a feature. It's a meaty free speech story involving a federal lawsuit filed this week. And yes, there's a strong religion angle:

All Polly Olsen wanted to do was carry on a family tradition of handing out homemade Valentines with Bible verses on Valentine's Day.

So, as she had done in previous years, the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College student went to campus in a red dress this past Valentine's Day and began delivering heart-shaped religious Valentines made out of construction paper to fellow students and college staffers.

This time, a security officer stopped her for "suspicious activity" and told her she was violating school policy by sharing unwanted, potentially offensive messages.

Among the messages:  "You are special! 1 John 4:11," "God is love! 1 John 4:11," “Jesus Loves you! Romans 5:8;" and "You are loved and cared for! 1 Peter 5:7." 

The 29-year-old Green Bay woman filed a federal lawsuit late Tuesday against the college where she is studying to become a paralegal, claiming campus security officials and others there violated her free speech rights by blocking a custom she described to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as "caring for others."

The Journal Sentinel — which I had forgotten was bought by Gannett two years ago — does an excellent job of simply presenting the facts of the story, relying on both the lawsuit petition and an interview with Olsen.

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'Ghost' in South Florida school shootings? 'Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return'

'Ghost' in South Florida school shootings? 'Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return'

You turned on the television.

Within minutes you saw the images, you saw the religion "ghost." Clearly, the journalists behind the cameras knew what they were seeing.

It would be hard to imagine a more powerful image -- in terms of ancient traditions clashing with Life. Right. Now. -- than ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of people caught up in yet another mass shooting of students and teachers.

The images, of course, called up words that would be familiar to any reporter who has worked, or is working, on the religion-news beat. We are talking about words that -- especially in South Florida's large Catholic community -- many people, including students, had heard that morning as a priest marked their foreheads with the sign of the cross, during Ash Wednesday rites.

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The prayer that many worshipers would have whispered during the rite are even more haunting:

Jesus, you place on my forehead the sign of my sister Death:
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

So did this symbolic detail make it into many stories about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? To my surprise, it did not. To see the context, let's look at the main story in The Washington Post. Did the national desk see the religion ghost?

PARKLAND, Fla. -- A heavily armed 19-year-old who had been expelled from a South Florida high school opened fire on campus shortly before classes let out Wednesday, killing 17 people while terrified students barricaded themselves inside classrooms, police said.

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