Poynter and the faith factor

The whole subject of religion and the mainstream news media is getting more attention at several locations on the web, in addition to this blog. Doug and I will be doing what we can to point readers toward these other resources as they come along, each with its own emphasis and point of view.

There is plenty of material out there. Believe me.

Each of us can only scratch the surface. Note the links printed on the left side of the page, for starters.

But early on, I want to point to the important role played by Aly Colon at the Poynter Institute, one of journalism’s most respected think tanks.

As the director of ethics and diversity studies, he wrote a column about the faith-shaped hole that haunts (there’s that ghost thing again) many stories in mainstream media. It opened with Colon describing an interview with a Korean businessman affected by the Los Angeles riots, and lingering rifts between Asian businesses and their black customers.

Was there anything else? Here is how I introduced his column when I wrote about a Poynter seminar on the subject:

“I want you to know that I’ve been telling you the truth,” the man said, back in 1996. “But there is one thing I haven’t told you.”

He hadn’t talked about his faith. He hadn’t confessed his own racial prejudices. And after the riots he was haunted by St. Paul’s words to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male for female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This Korean businessman prayed to see that truth at his shopping mall.

After opening up, he said the dreaded words: “Don’t print that.” If he failed, it would just inspire more news about hypocritical Christians.

Colon pled with the man, arguing that the faith element was essential to this story.

That experience made him think about his craft in new ways. In a breakthrough Poynter essay, Colon summed it all up. When his profile of the Korean man appeared:

. . . I didn’t include his faith in the lead. In fact, it didn’t appear until the middle of the jump page. The reason? A variety of elements played a role in the image the mini-mall had and the steps involved in his attempts to change it.

His faith represented just one of them. But it reflected a pivotal one. And it needed to be understood in the context of the whole story.

This reporting experience provided several lessons:

It reminded me not only of the importance of paying attention to what I was hearing, but also to what I wasn’t hearing.

It reaffirmed my inclination to take more time to seek out the truth.

It warned me about how easy it would be for me to tell an accurate story, but not an authentic one.

It also indicated that matters of faith manifest themselves in all kinds of places, among all kinds of people. And to ignore that meant that I could still tell the story, just not the whole story.

Aly has continued to return to this faith-gap issue, raising crucial questions about foundational issue of language, accuracy and worldview. Here’s on on “Preying Presbyterians” and another on the complex issues facing those who cover Islam.

Check out his work. It’s crucial that respected journalistic institutions — such as Poynter — take the religion beat seriously.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.