Great moments in journalism: “Sikhism originated in Italy” and other stupid things TV says about religion

This eye-roll-inducing item comes from my blog neighbor Joanne McPortland, who is much more charitable and forgiving than I am:

“Sikhism is a religion that originated about 500 years ago in Italy [sic].”
~ CBS This Morning reporter on the shootings at a Wisconsin Sikh temple

I’ve been bemoaning the media’s inability to get Catholicism right for a very long time, but it struck me this morning that maybe there really isn’t a specifically anti-Catholic bias out there in journalism land. The media’s talent for being tone-deaf on religion appears to be wide-ranging and indiscriminate.

The reporting on the tragic shootings at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin yesterday make this tone-deafness very clear. Most news outlets managed to insult two religious traditions at once in their ham-handed attempts to describe the event. Few were as far off base as the CBS reporter who placed Sikhism’s origins in Italy instead of India (one of them-there I-countries being pretty much the same as any other when you’re talking about religion, I guess), but most provided no insight into the faith of the victims beyond the details that Sikh men wear colorful turbans and do not shave their beards, while many Sikh women wear head coverings—like, well, the YouKnowWhoiban. Wading into their mouths with both feet, nearly every reporter or writer quickly went on to make the point that Sikhs practice a peaceful religion. They’re not, in other words (or even in these exact words, which many reports used), “Muslims or other terrorists.”

You’ll want to read more, and some of the other examples (all just from CBS, my old stomping grounds) are truly stupefying.  Joanne wraps it up adroitly:

We are a diverse nation—under God—and a very big part of that diversity is religious. It’s just tiresome to have so vital and inextricable a part of the national conversation be moderated by people who are tone-deaf to its notes and harmonies and even its deliberate dissonances. I’m not saying journalists should be forcibly converted. But is it too much to ask that they be required to pass courses in Religion as a Second Language?

Good question. A very good one.

Back in the days when we got the news from TV sets with rabbit ears and read newspapers with smudgy ink (some even had afternoon editions!), I attended a fairly respectable journalism school where we were required to take courses in economics, politics, history and a foreign language —ostensibly, so that we would be Well-Rounded. Upon graduation, we could then be (hopefully) utility players; we could cover almost anything and we could thus fit into any position needed, writing about everything from local school board meetings to international politics.  We could pitch, catch or bunt.

Well, times have changed. And so has the game, and the skills needed to compete in the field.  It seems to me that people who study journalism nowadays (or its bastard sibling, “communications”) would do well to be required to study world religions.  The great dividing issues of our time are more and more falling along fault lines fractured by faith.  A passing knowledge of what people believe and practice, and why, and how these beliefs and practices are shaping the world —and costing both lives and fortunes —would seem a no-brainer.

But instead:  the no-brainers, evidently, are the ones reporting the news.

And so, the Sikhs are Italians. Which is evident from the above picture which, of course, must have been taken in Venice. (Spoiler alert: it’s Pakistan.)   

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