Poynter appeals — again — for better Godbeat coverage

poynter courtyard2A few days after 11/2, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel did some local enterprise reporting, trying to find out if there was a common theme among African-American voters who went against decades of conventional wisdom and voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry.

It didn’t take reporters Gregory Lewis, Alva James-Johnson and John Maines long to spot the pattern. The headline was blunt: “Bush makes inroads with black Christian voters.” Once again, those old words kept showing up in familiar combinations — like “family values.” The president’s vote totals in the black community didn’t rise much, but in the tight Florida race every little bit helped. What was the news hook?

“Even though [Caribbean-Americans] tend to be Democrats, when it comes down to moral and cultural values they may lean more toward the Republican party or independents,” said Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-American who led a Soca D’Vote campaign to register new Caribbean voters and educate them on political issues.

“Not that any one particular party has an exclusivity on faith, but it’s clear to me that this election was a testimony as to the moral and cultural compass of the country,” said Hill, a Democrat.

Does this mean that these African-Americans have become “conservatives” on other issues? Of course not. Does this mean that, all of a sudden, their priorities are aligned with the Rev. Pat Robertson? Of course not. Might this mean that they do not see a contradiction between cultural conservatism and being politically progressive on other issues?

Did the Democrats need these votes? Yes. And, to switch to a related topic, do journalists need these people to continue buying newspapers and watching the evening news? Yes. Might journalists do a better job of covering people in pews — before, during and after elections — if newsrooms contained more people who “get religion” or want to learn how to cover these issues?

I’m happy to report that the journalists over at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. (pictured), have used the surge in “values gap” reporting as a hook for another yet effort to appeal to newsroom managers to get their act together on faith issues. Aly Colon, leader of the think tank’s ethics and diversity programs, wrote the lead article in the package and, I am happy to report, urged journalists to take advantage of the information and opinions expressed at websites such as The Revealer, ReligionLink and, yes, GetReligion.

“Moral values,” he noted, is a term that gets

. . . (Pinned) on people who oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. Reporters use such terms as evangelical, religious, Christian and conservative to describe them. And often, journalists use these terms interchangeably. But what do they know about the topic? And what do they need to know?

We need to look behind the “moral values” label to address such questions. When we do, we will come across a host of descriptions. They show a spectrum of differences that get overlooked when we lump them under just one term. . . .

Cover the full spectrum of people who see values as a critical component of their lives. Look beyond the labels. Visit their places of worship. Look into the programs they say reflect their values. Offer fuller profiles showing how they live them out.

And all the people said, “Amen.” There is much more to quote from this piece, but we will stop at this point. The Poynter package also includes an article by Steve Buttry, who was raised among Baptist progressives — yes, that left-of-center evangelical crowd again — and thinks it is time for journalists to start listening to the stories of evangelical believers. Buttry, by the way, is now a Roman Catholic who says that he has become rather uncomfortable in that flock, as well.

The bottom line: If journalists cannot understand the faith stories of evangelicals, and report them accurately, then journalists are going to struggle to understand these people. In the most fascinating essay in this collection, Dr. Roy Peter Clark hauls off and admits that he is struggling — big time — to do precisely that. You need to read it all. But here is a taste.

I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. “Different” is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens. Maybe it’s worse than that because we usually see and suspect the alien in our midst. The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible.

I see the cheering crowds at the Springsteen concerts. I tap my feet while celebrities rock the vote. I imagine pro-Kerry college students heading for the polls, getting hernias from lifting Michael Moore on their shoulders. But there’s stuff I can’t see. . . .

• I don’t know the difference between evangelical and charismatic, but I can argue about who has sluttier videos, Britney or Christina.

• I know little about the “born again” experience but can celebrate the narrative structure of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

• I’ve never listened to a religious radio program or attended a church supper, but I can tell you whatever you want to know about Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge.

It’s clear, writes Clark, that going to Sunday Mass is not helping him understand this other America. It’s also clear that he needs to understand the other side of the values divide, or it is going to hurt his work as a leader in the industry that is supposed to help Americans make sense out of the news about their lives and the lives of other people.

Honest. That is what he says. You don’t believe me? Here is the final kicker:

This is starting to sound like a confession. Maybe it is. I once was blind — and still can’t see. My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist.

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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.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com/ Dwight

    I wonder if this isn’t a blindness which heads both directions.

    I work with a UCC/Disciples campus ministry and doing the basic outreach had a chance to talk with a Southern Baptist campus minister. Now here’s two ministries which are on different ends of the spectrum. One of the wierdest aspects of this conversation was this:

    He kept on assuming values that I do not hold to such as relativism. Why? Because our campus ministry is open to gay and lesbians. But it seemed beyond the imagination to believe that such a stance was not based on the refusal to make moral judgments…rather they were in fact expressions of moral evaluation. He was shocked to learn that college students actually attend our ministry, because he believed that no college student could be liberal and still go to church. He wasn’t aware of our doctrine per se, but homosexuality was enough of a divide to insure that he would never want to work with us in any future joint endeavors.

    I learned some things, and certainly learning needs to go happen for those of us on the left end of things, but I suppose because we lost the election all the articles (and confessions) are about *our* lack of understanding. But in my experience it cuts both ways. Many evangelicals do not understand liberal protestants, don’t particularily care to actually. Don’t understand gay and lesbians. If this was a call for mutual understanding, great. But one sided calls are not likely to get the same reception.

  • http://jackblogs.typepad.com/integrity/ JACK

    The Steve Buttry piece seems typical to me of how journalists misunderstand how religious faith motivates people when it comes to choosing political candidates. Steve seems to propogate the idea that it is “identity”-based — in other words, the religious conservative is looking for a politician who is also a religious person. That’s why he makes light of “hypocrisy” seen amongst candidates. (Of course, he offers no nuance on the difference between true hypocrisy and a Christian understanding of the fallen nature of man means one should expect even a good man to fall short of the ideal.) Maybe some are motivated by this, but I know I am not. I don’t give a darn if the President say Jesus is his personal Lord and Savior or that he attends Church. I care about what he says he is going to do and what he ultimately does. And if his positions fit with how I see the issues (which is influenced by my faith and its commitments to a certain moral philosophy) than he rises on the list of candidates I might vote for.

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~lex.alexander/lexblog.htm Lex

    As both a Christian and a former religion writer, I’ve seen a lot of the phenomenon Dwight mentions above. Early in my tenure on the beat, I had lunch with one of the most prominent local Southern Baptist pastors, and the entire meal was one long string of questions from him about my (Presbyterian) church, accompanied by condescending responses to my answers.

    Also, the conservative people of faith need to be very, very cautious about attempting to use the power of government to impose their views on others. There is a direct connection between America’s largely secular government and the fact that the country’s religious culture is the world’s richest and most active. Establishmentarianism, as is common in Europe, is associated with the decline, even decadence, of the state religion.

    Finally, as a journalist, I find the term “moral values” so vague and misleading as to be useless. Who decides what’s moral and what’s a value? Is abortion, or banning it, a moral value? Is bombing civilians in Fallujah, or opposing the bombing, a moral value? For our debate and discussion to be more constructive and instructive, we need more specificity in our language.

  • http://jackblogs.typepad.com/integrity/ JACK

    Lex and Dwight raise fair points, but the reactions they complain about are not to be entirely unexpected. After all, there’s a difference between a journalist not trying to understand the viewpoint of those he writes about and the individual who doesn’t have a diplomatic reaction to the viewpoint of those who disagree with him on the definition of what Christianity requires. That’s not to say that a conservative Christian should be condescending to a liberal one with regard to their viewpoint. But the issue at hand is very different. For the journalist, it’s a question of professionalism. For the inter-denominational dispute it is about the nature of God and his creation.

    I think Lex’s second point, frankly, is bit of a canard and have long thought so. He raises a fair point about the success of religion within an environment having a “neutral” government position on religion versus an establishment one. (Although I think the argument tends to overstate the religiosity of Americans and over-associate the problems in countries with established religions to religious establishment versus other factors.) But I don’t think it is true that most conservative religious people in the United States want to use the government to impose their views (presumably meaning their religious views) on others. What we fail to understand is that the difference in our culture is as much a philosophical as it is a religious one. The problem is we have long lost any public vocabulary for philosophy and most of our institutions have given it up for dead. Only Christianity (and really, the Catholic Church) has held fast to the need for philosophy and defends views from a place rooted within philosophy. (But sadly, individual Christians seem to be as poorly trained in philosophy as the rest of the culture.) So I think a lot of things get identified as “religious viewpoints” not because they ultimately are but because only a religious institution is left defending them. (I intend to write more about this soon on my blog and in a forthcoming manuscript.)

  • Molly

    Jack,

    I don’t mean to throw dirt on your arguement because I think you are right, but how does one go about introducing philosophy to a general public that gets its moral cues watching Survivor?

  • http://jackblogs.typepad.com JACK

    Molly:

    Understand. Didn’t say I had any easy solution. :-( But diagnosing the problem accurately is the first step, I think.

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