Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion

Back in my days of full-time reporting on daily newspapers, the religion beat was considered the bottom of the barrel, where editors stuck someone they wanted to get rid of but couldn’t fire because of the union. After reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, I can see little has changed.

Edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Roberta Green Ahmanson, the book is a collection of essays that illustrate the scant attention American newspapers and broadcasts pay to covering religion, and the danger of that neglect.

“A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time,” writes Michael J. Gerson in the Foreword. The danger, he writes, is that “a journalist with secular blinders will not be able to see some of the most important historical trends of our time. Many of those trends, of course, concern Islam -- its nature and future. . . . High quality journalism on Islam is not an option but a requirement in the modern world.”

Blind Spot considers a variety of ways religion and journalism intersect -- from Islam, to human rights, to Mel Gibson. “Taken together, these essays make an important case: The more sophisticated our knowledge of religion, the more sophisticated our knowledge of the world,” Gerson says.

Yet most newspapers tend to keep a hands-off approach to religion, as if it were a private matter and not a subject to be covered objectively.

“We need journalists who can treat religion with empathy and also skepticism, quote people accurately, show respect for the lives of their sources, and stop mangling the technical, yet often poetic, language of religious life,” writes Terry Mattingly in the essay “Getting Religion in the Newsroom.” “Part of the problem is that many senior editors reach their posts by excelling as political reporters. They see church disputes and try to turn them into political stories. They see stories about the growth of new congregations and movements and turn them into stories about polls, statistics and trends.”

Mattingly says many newsroom managers, afraid that reporters for whom religion is important in their personal lives will try to proselytize for their beliefs, want reporters who are not only not religious, but who know little about the subject. He gives a shocking example about The Washington Post when it posted a notice for a religion reporter, seeking applicants from within the newsroom. It said the “ideal candidate” is “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

“It’s hard to imagine Post editors seeking a Supreme Court reporter and posting a notice saying the ‘ideal candidate’ is one who is ‘not necessarily an expert on legal issues,’ or similar notices seeking reporters to cover professional sports. opera, science, film and politics,” Mattingly writes.

It would be wonderful if news managers would take these essays to heart and start treating religion as seriously as other beats. As John J. DiIulio Jr. writes in the Afterward, “Every one of America’s Founding Fathers understood about religion what too many educated elites, both secular and religious, in our day do not: religion, whether organized or not, whether old time or New Age, is a powerful and persistent force in moving people and nations, and is uniquely important when it comes to producing individual beneficence and individual brutality, social cooperation and social strife, civil harmony and civil war.”


Matthew da Silva said...

Ya know, journalists are often educated and have a professional attachment to facts and ideas that have contributed toward the establishment of a pluralistic society where all people can strive for happiness on the grounds of merit, rather than some top-down moral leet.

We see religion in many countries today - mainly third-world countries - causing pain and anguish bec it infringes on basic human rights. Many journalists remember - bec they've read history - that it used to be the same in the developed world.

So a lot of journalists naturally deeply distrust religion and its motives. They also understand that the vast majority of religions in the developed world continue to deny basic human rights to minorities, such as homosexuals.

And they know that if religion again got a hold of government in the developed world, basic human rights would once again be infringed in the name of God's honour.

So until religions start to behave themselves better - in the developed and the developing worlds - you're gonna find journalists casting jaundiced glances in its direction.

Retta Blaney said...

Hi Matt -- Thanks for writing. I agree with you on the abuses of some people in the name of religion, but religion as a subject is well worth covering. I say that as an award-winning journalist and liberal Episcopalian.


Matthew da Silva said...

Hi Retta - It's not "some people" that abuse others in the name of religion, it's the aggregate factor that predisposes all people to behave in often abominable ways. If only it were "some people"! And religion often prescribes modes of behaviour that cause manifest harm, at the same time as it proscribes against other modes of behaviour that cause harm.

The fact is that, given temporal power, a religion WILL infringe on human rights. It WILL enter into peoples' private homes and attempt to thwart natural proclivities that humans have. It WILL seek to regiment and train youth so that they grow up with narrow prejudices. It WILL cover the immoralities of the supposedly observant. It WILL distort debate and impinge on democratic proceesses.

Religion HAS BEEN a force for good, in the past. But its days are over in the developed world. It ended slavery. It helped establish self-government in England, the world's first democracy. It assisted the scientific revolution in its infancy. But the tipping point has passed. Journalists of any persuasion have an obligation to activaly question religion's motivations - or, at least, the motivations of those who profess religion.