Tone-Deaf on Religion–UPDATED

“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.”

It is true, and tragic, that Sikhs in the United States have been the victims of prejudice and even violent attack in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as have Hindu men who may also wear turbans, Arabic Christians, and anyone else who looks “Other” in the way Americans have chosen to define it. The alleged shooter in the Oak Creek attack, who was killed in a shootout with law enforcement, has been said to have associations with white supremacist groups, as well as to be a military veteran with a less than honorable discharge. (The Crazy Vet meme is another card the media likes to play, to the detriment of the thousands of veterans struggling with psychological war wounds, but that’s another post.) He may have nourished a hatred for those he saw as enemies of America.

What the shooter’s motives were may never be determined. But the media is quick to remind us that the tragedy of Oak Creek is that these people weren’t Muslims—as if it would have been less tragic, more understandable, less criminal to shoot up a mosque than a temple, to kill Muslims than Sikhs. As if Islam is not also a religion of salaam, of peace. As if the actions of a small group of real terrorists—who did not, on the day they blew planes out of the sky, wear turbans or long beards or “look like Muslims”—justify distrust of or violence against all who fit a caricature associated with a particular faith tradition.

It’s understandable, sadly, that this kind of unnuanced ignorance gets perpetuated. The media is a religion-free zone far more than it is a spin-free zone, and American reporters—like most Americans—are uncomfortable speaking any language with which they are unfamiliar. I’m not talking here about deliberately anti-religious opinion like the outrageously offensive piece in Salon this weekend mocking Olympic gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas for her spontaneous expressions of faith. (The piece was by Mary Elizabeth Williams, who identifies herself as a Christian–”albeit one of those really freaky papist kinds.” Shame, Mary Elizabeth, shame. This freaky papist is appalled.) It’s more the awkwardness, the kind of news equivalent of a non-native speaker’s poor pronunciation and syntactical errors, with which reporters and writers talk of believers and beliefs. If it can be so (and it is) with the majority Judeo-Christian traditions that permeate US culture even though though go mostly unrecognized by secular eyes, how much more tone-deaf is the media toward the s0-called “minority religions”!

Once I started thinking about the subject of the media’s inability to speak clearly or informatively or naturally about religion and people’s religious views, I started seeing examples everywhere. These are just from CBS This Morning (which had been taking the high ground morning newswise, or higher ground anyway, until the recent inexcusable dumping of co-anchor Erica Hill, who had kept loose cannons Charlie Rose and Gayle King on task), this morning:

—During a discussion of US hurdler Lolo Jones’s very effective use of social media for self-promotion, Gayle King seemed absolutely bewildered by Jones’s public profession that she’s a virgin and intends on remaining one until marriage. “I guess that makes all the guys want her even more,” King said, shaking her head. No mention was made of Jones’s also-public profession of her Evangelical Christian faith, which is the ground of her vow of virginity. For King, apparently, no one “that beautiful” could possibly choose to  reserve sexual activity for marriage unless it were a PR tease.

—In a conversation with correspondent and historian Douglas Brinkley about recent news stories concerning the Kennedy family, Charlie Rose asked why the Kennedys continue to have such strong appeal for Americans. Brinkley replied with the usual “They’re American royalty,” but then added, “You have to remember that 1 out 4 Americans are Catholic,” implying that Catholics worship the Kennedys. Oh, please. Yes, that’s in the Catechism: You must worship the Kennedys. Not. “In Catholic countries like Italy [Italy again!] and Argentina,” he added, “when the Kennedys show up, people fall all over them.” Sort of like they do the Jersey Shore crowd, I guess. Oh, wait, they’re Catholic, too!

—Finishing a HealthWatch segment on the value of yoga for reducing inflammation, Dr Holly Phillips closed with a breezy “Namaste!—as they say in yoga classes,” as though Namaste were the fitness equivalent of Ciao or Bye-bye. And while this may be true in practice, in secular America as throughout the Indian subcontinent where it originated, the spoken greeting—and more properly the mudra, or gesture, to which the word is an occasional accompaniment—is a religious ritual. Namaste is translated variously as “I worship you (as a spark of the Divine)” or “I salute God within you.” Yoga itself, of course, originated as a Hindu devotional practice, but we can’t go dragging all that into a 60-second health bite.

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?

UPDATES: More questions as time passes, from Mollie Ziegler at Get Religion. And here’s an exception to the rule: a sensitive piece from my local Dayton NBC affiliate. Southern Ohio has a large South Asian population, and it was good to see the interfaith (including Catholic) support for local Sikhs at the memorial service.

  • Marc

    Great, great post. I don’t know who has it worse sometimes, the Muslims the media awkwardly calls terrorists in their very attempt to not call them terrorists, or the Catholics, whom the media cannot understand do not belong to a democratic institution.

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  • Leo Salazar

    You hit the nail on the head with this blog post. You’ve echoed my sentiments exactly. It seems as though with every news report about the tragic Wisconsin shooting, there’s an implied understanding between the reporter and the audience that if this was a Mosque, you could understand it. But a Sikh temple?!! God forbid!

    My daily read is “The New Yorker.” even this august, venerable and respected publication can’t seem to quite get it right when it comes to religion. For a magazine with an otherwise deserved reputation for accuracy, their handling of religious questions feels very much, as you so eloquently put it, as if they’re speaking an akward and unfamiliar language.

  • Jeff

    Does having a negative view of a religion necessarily indicate prejudice?

    • joannemcportland

      Of course not. I’m not talking point-of-view or opinion here. I’m talking ignorance of the language of a field of human endeavor that is a very big part of the conversation on and reportage of news. In point of fact, I think atheists, and others who might generally be said to hold a negative view of religion, are better informed about it and conversant with its language and nuances than many “spiritual but not religious” or secular journalists who don’t have an opinion one way or another. My blog colleague Deacon Greg Kandra, a former CBS news producer, tells me journalists used to be routinely schooled in the language of politics, finance, diplomacy, etc, so they wouldn’t look like total idiots when putting together features or even reading copy. The same should be done with the language of world religions, I think.

    • Thomas R

      I think you could have a negative view of Sikhism or Islam, for whatever reason, without making this level of error.

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  • WhiteBirch

    Bravo! You’ve expressed something perfectly that I’ve thought for a long time. Thank you. I’m not catholic and I belong to a minority religion and I assure you, it’s not an anti-catholic bias you’re seeing, just a frustrating ability to treat religion sensitively and with basic understanding. This is the first thing in a very long time that I’ve seen on the catholic channel that I agreed with wholeheartedly. Thanks again for the post!

  • Charles

    It is true that Sikh are generally peaceful and respectful of others but like all other religions they have an extremist element that is known to have carried out violence as well as terrorist attacks. One recent example was the “Air India Flight 182 was an Air India flight operating on the Montreal–London–Delhiroute. On 23 June 1985, the aircraft operating on the route—a Boeing 747-237B (c/n 21473/330, reg VT-EFO) named after Emperor Kanishka—was blown up by a bomb at an altitude of 31,000 feet (9,400 m), and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while in Irish airspace. A total of 329 people were killed, including 280 Canadians, 27 British citizens and 22 Indians.. The militant Sikh responsible for this bombing claimed grievances against policies of India for their attacks. India is a democratic society where Sikhs prosper as they do any where they go because they are hardworking, honest and industrial people. They may have had just provocation but terrorist attack on innocent was cowardly as much as the attack on them that is occurring in increasing numbers throughout the United States – most of the attacks are not so violent but are equally harmful to the Sikh community.
    Catholic Church itself has a long history of violence – Spanish inquisition and the crusades they carried out are legendary. Few religions if any can claim to be peaceful. By its very nature they all practice bigotry and intolerance to other religious and minority groups, sometimes overt but often in subtle ways.

    • joannemcportland

      Every religion (and unreligion) has its fanatical adherents, and violence is, as you say, inextricably bound up in the experience of being fallen humanity. The point was not to claim Sikhs are exempt from violence, but to criticize the media shorthand that says “Sikhs = Peaceful, Muslims = Violent, so don’t confuse them even if they sorta look alike.”

  • mojwnun

    As a former broadcast journalist, now an Episcopal priest (a.k.a. “the liberal mainline”/”that church with the gay bishop,” per any FOX News anchor), back in the day we DID check our facts before going on air. Of course, without the rolling deadlines of the Web, we could. (But we didn’t have Google, either.) You can bet your yoga mat, however, that no major network anchor would ever in a million years make those kinds of mistakes about celebrities or major-league American sports. And now, I’ll return to worship using our wonderful Prayer Book (written by Henry VIII when he wanted a divorce)…/snark

  • juliedavis

    Sadly, this is more an indicator of general media incompetence instead of anything aimed at religion. They can’t get lots of stories right. There’s an old saying that all news stories can be trusted … unless you know anything about the subject being reported. That’s when all the holes show up. This is just more of the same.

    • joannemcportland

      It’s true, Julie. And I don’t think it’s an indication of bias so much as it is a low priority in the knowledge scale. As someone else noted, imagine the uproar if an announcer had said the Boston Yankees . . .

  • Andkaras

    Even if the “Newsies” do undergo a badly needed “Catholic sensitivity Course”,I have a feeling that they will still persist in finding a less than catholic source to point to.

    • WhiteBirch

      A Catholic sensitivity course wouldn’t help (much, I guess any little bit is an improvement) since Joanne’s point was that they’re equally dense about all religions, large and small. Unless you only care that they get Catholic news right and to heck with the the rest of us…?

  • Paul

    I think your characterization of the thoughtful Salon piece as “outrageously offensive” displays your own personal version of tone-deafness. Do you indeed believe in “The God of the Parking Spaces?”

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  • Roman R

    Great article! I loved the concluding statement, though one part of it caught my eye:

    “We are a diverse nation—under God…”

    Well, yes and no… dem’s fightin’ words in some quarters, and I’ve moderated some of the fightin’ myself! ;D

  • Lyman Kellstedt

    The problem is not simply a media problem but an educational one. The 1960 school prayer decision did NOT forbid the teaching of religion in public schools (see particularly Abington v Schempp) but, instead, acknowledged the importance of religion in our history and encouraged the teaching of that history. Courses like “Contemporary Religions,” “Religious History,” should be a part of the curricula of public schools. If they were, the widespread ignorance about religion would be reduced. School systems have been reluctant to teach such courses for fear of lawsuits and/or offending someone. It is easy to blame the media, but the problem is a deeper one.

  • LoneThinker

    Who was the famed professor who said that anti-Catholicism was the last accepted prejudice in the USA. Anyway, the culture-from churches, history books and total mis-understanding of the simplest Catholic teaching and practices is so rampant. Just see lots of candles burning in a Catholic church in film and TV programme scenes, and Latin being chanted eerily in any sort of programme involving church, convent or monastery. I saw a well-known UK TV detective series repeat recently featuring the Eucharist exposed on the altar every time they showed the interior of the church, with no one present there! Another one showed a bishop from a wealthy family in mufti/street clothes, in his family home, waiting to go to Rome to be elected to the College of Cardinals ! IGNORANCE I think fed by deep-rooted PREJUDICE are the main components. The pervasive anti-Catholic culture was always in the Protrestant – USA but it is now intensified by the counter-cultural stand on social mores – marriage and life in the womb, which is aggravated by the highly accepted popular “spin” that the RC Church has a monopoly on sexual perversion, fueled by the so-called “liberal” media, nothing liberal about one-sided prejudice and refusal to see any other side or facts.

  • DavidR

    Excellent post! I’ll confess to being a trifle hypersensitive on this issue, but I’ve noticed this thundering ignorance for a few years now. Occasionally it slops over into condescension or outright hostility. NPR seems to be a frequent offender (but maybe only because I mostly listen to them). I love the idea of Religion as a Second Language for journalists. In fact, the American Academy of Religion, a society for scholars of religion, has a Religion and Media Workshop at its annual meeting (in Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving this year). See Maybe we need to get up a scholarship fund to encourage more journalists to go!

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