Can journalists cover “normal” religion?

1932792066 01 LZZZZZZZOur friends over in the Christianity Today kingdom often wait, for a few weeks, before some of the pieces in their publications make their way from dead tree pulp into cyberspace. Thus, I have held off a bit posting a note about the recent Books & Culture essay by historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University entitled “Religion and the Media: Do they get it?”

This is, on one level, a book review by Jenkins of “Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion And Culture,” a Baylor University Press volume edited by Claire H. Badaracco. But Jenkins, who is best known among Godbeat writers for his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” opens with some comments about the state of the Godbeat (or godsbeat) that would be interesting to all. (Click here for his famous Atlantic Monthly cover story called “The Next Christianity.”)

While MSM journalists do muck up religion news quite a bit, Jenkins has high praise for many beat professionals. He does name names and newspapers. The key, however, is not so much in the stories that the press covers as in the stories that newsrooms do not cover. In particular, he says that the press has trouble handling the day-after-day, century-after-century, power of faith in normal life. “Normality” gets bad press or no press.

Given conventional priorities, the customary and unsensational is not news, so that media stories about Islam are likely to expose terrorism and subversion rather than everyday piety, while according to most media accounts, the Roman Catholic church is either engaging in moral crusades or picking up the pieces after the latest sex scandal. If all an observer knew of Roman Catholicism was drawn from mainstream reporting over the past forty years — or indeed, from the Hollywood productions of that period — what would that person know of the central fact in the church’s life, the Eucharist, or how radically the lived realities of the Catholic faith have changed following the liturgical reforms of those years? And the same might be asked of any other tradition. How many media professionals have the slightest idea of the distinctive theological beliefs that characterize evangelicals or Pentecostals, as opposed to knowing the political and sexual prejudices such groups are presumed to share?

In some ways, this sounds a bit like the people who always complain that the press spends more time covering the “bad news” rather than the “good news.” Whenever you hear this, it is good to remind them of that C.S. Lewis quote — it goes something like this — about the “Good News” starting off as the “bad news” about humanity, before if becomes the eternal Good News.

Jenkins, however, hones in on another issue that is crucial on this beat (and in this blog). It is hard to cover religion news in a serious manner unless you have some idea what all the words mean and, thus, can cover complex topics (even in the lives of ordinary people) in an accurate manner.

And then there are those words that turn into straw-man stereotypes, complete with the “sneer quotes” that so irk the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc. Lo and behold, Jenkins veers — he is a historian, remember — straight into familiar GetReligion territory.

One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics. (Sorry, African American evangelicals don’t exist, and as everyone knows, all Latinos are traditionalist Catholics. Right?) Most pernicious of all, perhaps, is the benevolent-sounding word “moderate,” which equates to “the side that we (the media) agree with in any religious controversy, no matter how bizarre their ideas, or how bloodcurdlingly confrontational their rhetoric.” In this lexicon, likewise, theological is an educated synonym for nitpicking triviality.

Read it all (as the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon likes to say).

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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.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The trouble with most mainstream journalism-print and electronic– is that they don’t let their reporters become genuine experts in a field they are expected to cover. A few years ago I talked to the religion reporter at the NY Times. He had written a horrendously biased piece about a Vatican document quoting expert after expert–all on the far, far Left wing of the Catholic Church. But he didn’t know then of the conservative-liberal or orthodox-heterodox) friction in the Church. He was chosen to write about all religions because he had graduated from a Jewish Yeshiva with a specialty in Judaism. He admitted (with real honest integrity) that he knew next to nothing about Catholics or the Catholic Church.
    Yet his writings became the prism through which huge numbers of influential Americans (but not religious junkies who would see the ignorance or bias) viewed Vatican documents and pronouncements.
    I must say this reporter improved with time, but how much ignorance was spread around in the meantime.
    It reminds me of a doctor who once was quoted as saying he cried most of the time when he read medical stories in the mainstream media because of their frequent gross inaccuracies.
    It seems the only part of the news media in which experts in their field reign supreme is the Sports section. I have read of sports writers transferred to political coverage but never a state house beat reporter entrusted with regular sports reportorial duties.

  • Avram

    I’ll second that, John. I can’t count the number of times in the ’90s (or even just last year) I read bizarre uninformed news articles about the Internet. And as a comics fan, I’m well used to stories that start out “Bam! Pow!” and then talk about some decades-old trend in comics writing as if it were brand new.

  • Jody Bilyeu

    Is it fair to assume that better reporters would produce more favorable depictions of the church? It’s been my experience, at any rate, that church administration is best admired from a distance, which is to say, through its press releases.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jody–It is not a case of “favorable” or “unfavorable” treatment of a religous story, but “accurate” or “inaccurate.” I would be satisfied with the truth and let chips fall where they may. I am confident -as a Catholic– that Truth is the best ally the Church has especially if the WHOLE Truth were covered. Phil Jenkins not a Catholic- of the U. of Penn. wrote an excellent book on the so-called “pedophile” crisis in the Church. Some of his observations never make it past the anti-Catholic- and inaccurate spin by omission- media hit machine. For example, he did in depth analysis of how many other institutions in our society -like the public schools- have a far more serious-especially considering the numbers involved–problem with sexual abuse. Even the NY Times admitted this once on its front page–then dropped the issue. He also ridiculed the media’s passion for calling it a “pedophile” crisis when in reality it is a “homosexual” crisis in the Church. And I agree that most Church Administration is like most other bureaucracies at work–best to not look too closely: like the making of sausage. The best to hope for in a Church is that it protects its traditional teachings and becomes a breeding ground for saints like a Mother Teresa, a Dorothy Day, a St. Francis of Assisi or a St. Maximillian Kolbe (the priest Auschwitz martyr).

  • francis

    In fact, to say Philip Jenkins is not a Catholic misses an important point. He is an Episcopalian of the Anglo-Catholic type, and has converted from Roman Catholicism. So, since he’s an ex-Catholic that makes his accuracy stance even more laudable.

  • Jody Bilyeu

    Point taken, John, and I’d be happy to join you in sitting down for a big bowl of truth chips. I need to point out, however, the remarkable extent to which, in every age, Our St. Francises seem to emerge despite certain official traditions and administrations, and often explicitly to oppose them. No, “oppose” isn’t right; “ignore.”

    Maybe one advantage of having journalists who are fresh to religion is that to them the hypocrisies we religiosos have become inured to seem precisely as outrageous as they ought. And why shouldn’t those be what they cover, specifically the one about preaching compassion and practicing control? All there’d be to stopping that from being a story, Catholic and Southern Baptist administrations alike, would be to reread Matthew 23 and cut it out. We should hope for the church to draw more fire than other institutions in that regard, and hopefully be purified thereby.

    The people hereabouts who insist that those administrative initiatives aren’t about hate, but about doctrinal whip-cracking, are mostly right, I guess, except they seem to be implying that’s a good thing.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Francis–I recently went to see Professor Jenkins give two talks at Gordon (Evangelical) College in Wenham, Mass. At both talks (an evening talk and then a talk in their huge chapel for all their students)he was astoundingly sympathetic (for an ex-Catholic) toward the Catholic Church especially in that venue which can sometimes be slightly-even strongly- anti-Catholic.(In fact, I bet some, maybe many, were shocked by some of his pro-Catholic statements and defense of the Church). After his talk I asked him about why he was now Episcopalian and he said it was a long story–too long to go into.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jody–From the Biblical point of view the Catholic Church scandal is the purifying work of God. How much behind the scenes influence have homosexuals -as well as abusers of the young- had on the weak defense of Christian sexual morality in the Catholic Church?? It is no secret that the Church’s strongest enemies (like the NY Times and the Boston Globe) have ferreted out and carried the stories to extreme limits. They are doing the purifying work that probably could never have come from inside the Church–just like Israel’s enemies in the Old Testament were frequently God’s agents to purify Israel. As for the saints–it is a complicated situation. St. Francis was protected by his bishop for apparently spiritual reasons and the pope on his side for apparently reasons of Church politics. In Dorothy Day’s case, Cardinal Spellman apparently had no use for her radicalism but was willing to protect her (possibly) prophetic witness.

  • http://BILL Patty Sarver

    If i don’t get this code right am gonna give it up.(Hate those code things-can seldom read them).
    That said,the question is:can journalists cover ‘normal’ religion? Simple answer.NOPE. You can’t give what you don’t have.

  • Patty Sarver

    Knew something would go wrong.Copy and pasted(by accident)the code word for the website URL.No,i do not have a url called BILL.
    This has the correct URL.

  • Jason Kranzusch


    I do not remember seeing much (if any) material on getreligion about your ecclesial community, the Orthodox. As an anglo-catholic, i am very interested in news from C’bury, Rome and Constantinople. I have visited all 3 Orthodox churches in the Jackson, MS area and developed an interest in writers like Kallistos Ware and Alex. Schmemman while in seminary. Why the seeming omission? Any hope of hearing more about Orthodoxy in the news?


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jason–Although I am a Catholic Deacon I am a big fan of Easter Christian spirituality and go on my annual week’s retreat to a Maronite Catholic monastery in Petersham, Mass which is semi-eremetical. There is a great series of books on Eastern Orthodox (mostly Greek) spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides, a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. His books are not the typical worldly sociological academic tracts. They are deep looks at the Eastern Christian spiritual world by a man who is a good blend of believer and seeker. His most recent book–in most bookstores now– is “Gifts of the Desert” published by Doubleday. Other great books of his are “The Mountain of Silence” (Mt. Athos) and “Riding With the Lion.” St. Herman of Alaska Press also has a great series of books called “The Optina [Monastery] Elder Series.” These books may not be “news” as the world coinsiders news, but are gems for those interested in the “Good News” of Jesus Christ in its many and varied aspects.

  • Dan Berger

    Deacon John,

    For the record, not every ex-RC is down on the RCC. I obviously can’t speak for Prof. Jenkins, but I left without rancor for a complex of reasons, and am now (apropos of nothing) also an Anglo-Catholic, in a broad-church parish that just hired a kinda medium-low-church rector.

    These days I often find myself defending RCC positions to my wife (raised Baptist).

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  • Skeptic99

    As someone who’s been part of the media, and who has studied it, it seems to me that the comments above about reporters covering religion are both accurate, and perhaps somewhat pointless.

    They’re accurate, in that few reporters have in-depth knowledge of all religions they cover, and few are able to develop in-depth knowledge.

    The comments are pointless for a number of reasons:

    1. All media organizations (like all commercial organizations of every sort) have limited budgets for people. Is it reasonable to expect one reporter to be able to have, or to develop, in-depth knowledge of *all* aspects of Catholicism, and *all* aspects of Judaism, and *all* aspects of the Orthodox church, and so on?

    2. All *mass* media like the Times are by definition *mass* media, writing for a very wide audience. It’s probably not possible for even a reporter who is an expert in denomination Z, to write in-depth material about that denomination–few readers would be interested.

    3. In any case all print media have a limited amount of space to devote to a story–and correspondingly, a limited amount of reporters’ time.

    All this said…I recall, years ago, when ? Richard? Niebuhr was covering Religion for the Wall Street Journal. I always found his stories quite interesting. Then he moved to the Times, and his stories seemed to me to have much less depth.