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Apel Mjausson - Religion News Service and Paganism
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Religion News Service and Paganism
This conversation started with a quote of the Religion News Service on the Wild Hunt. The subject was the Unitarian Universalist Association and an article by Daniel Burke about the denomination. The headline asked "Can a creedless religion make it another 50 years?". Despite the provocative headline, the article was billed as a news story. (In most news organizations it's not the author who writes the headline, so let's not blame Daniel Burke for that.)

Just like Jason Pitzl-Waters, I was pleased that the article highlighted the Pagan involvement in UUA. But what surprised me was that the religion wasn't capitalized. Laurel Mendes was called "neo-pagan" in an article that capitalized other religions: "Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish" and "God". This kind of selective capitalization is usually employed when a writer wants to convey that Paganism, or Neo-Paganism, isn't a Real Religion™.

So I commented on the Wild Hunt article.
"From the History page on religionnews.com:
"RNS does not endorse or promote any particular religion, creed or set of beliefs or non-beliefs. We are a secular organization committed to an ongoing conversation about the role of religion in public life." ...
"For nearly 78 years, the Religion News Service has been an authoritative source of news about religion, spirituality and ideas."

Capitalization according to RNS (in order of appearance in linked article):
neo-pagan
God
humanists
Christian
Buddhist
Islamic
Jewish
Unitarian Universalism
pagans

If RNS aims to be neutral, they need to fix the capitalization rules in their style guide. Otherwise it's hard not to assume that only "valid" religions and spiritual paths get capitalized."

Assuming that Daniel Burke and the Religion News Service wouldn't find and reply to a comment buried in a blog, I tweeted @ReligionNewsNow and asked for a reply:
@Mjausson: Hi , can you respond to capitalization issue I'm raising on ?

I was pleasantly surprised that I got a reply the next day:
@ReligionNewsNow: Like many news outlets, we follow AP style when it comes to capitalization. They lowercase "neo-pagan." Link

I was surprised again for several reasons:
1. The reply came in the form of a Direct Message. DMs can only be seen by the sender and recipient. They're used for conversations that you want to keep private. Why would a news organization send me a private message about their capitalization style guide when I had asked them about it in two very public places? Is their style a secret? My guess would be that they're not aware of Twitter etiquette regarding @-replies and DMs.

2. A news organization that only reports on religious news cites the AP style guide for how it capitalizes religions. I would expect a skateboarding news venue to have its own capitalization and spelling style guide for anything to do with skateboarding, too. In fact, the online version of the AP Stylebook has functionality so that specialty news outlets can add terminology within their field to the stylebook.

Some more surprising finds:
Daniel Burke wrote a news roundup on March 15 in which the Theodism  is capitalized. Full text of the RNS item:
"Two Nebraska inmates have succeeded in getting a pagan religion recognized by state prison officials. The religion, called Theodish Belief, uses for its ceremonies drinking horns, a boar's tusk, a hobby horse and organic food.

The cynic in me suspects that some of these inmate First Amendment claims are desparate attempts to avoid prison food. The hobby horse? Who knows."


Burke is following the capitalization in the AP piece that is quoted by the First Amendment Center. But the snark in the second paragraph is not present in the AP article, it's Daniel Burke's alone.

On the other hand, the lack of respect for some religions is apparently not new to Religion News Service. In a brief article from June 2 about RNS' move from for-profit to non-profit, a charity law blog quotes the RNS mission statement:
"RNS' mission statement is "RNS' first priority is to provide intelligent, objective coverage of all religions-Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Asian religions and private spirituality. RNS also provides commentary from a diverse array of all points of the political and theological spectrum."

Notice anything missing there? Truthfully, I don't know where the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog got their quote from. I left a comment on the blog. Maybe there will be an answer next week or so. I'll update here when/if I find out.

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