Are reporters too stupid to get religion?

IDDONchurchteresamikeWhen Mother Teresa comes to town for an ecumenical prayer service, all kinds of people are going to show up. That’s what happened in Denver back in 1989, when the tiny nun came to town to pray for peace and for the poor in that city.

The list of local clergy taking part was very long, drawing a Judeo-Christian all-star team that included rabbis, Eastern Orthodox priests, Anglicans and Protestant clergy of every kind, from nationally known evangelicals to the mainline left. Of course, Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford — now a cardinal at the Vatican — was at her side to preside.

Before the event, Mother Teresa and some of the top clergy held a press conference. It was, for me, a memorable event because I asked her if she was considering opening a Missionaries of Charity convent in Denver. When I talked with her again an hour later she reminded me of that question and, in the prayer service itself, she stunned the archbishop and the crowd by announcing that she would do precisely that — creating an AIDS hospice in urban Denver.

However, there is another reason I remember that press conference. The throng of reporters who attended included a number of local television reporters, several of whom seemed to have been assigned to the story at the last minute. One asked a simple question: Would this prayer rite include a Mass?

Mother Teresa was confused for a minute. How could they celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass with an ecumenical flock, one that included Protestants, Jews and others who were, obviously, not in communion with Rome? For starters, I thought, had the reporter not heard of the Protestant Reformation?

I thought of this story this week when several GetReligion readers posted comments about Father Richard John Neuhaus’ bitting remarks at the First Things blog about the stupidity of journalists. He was inspired to write by early coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “God Is Love.”

Here is how his post opens:

As you might imagine, I spend a good deal of time talking with reporters. I usually don’t mind it. It comes with the territory. With notable exceptions, reporters are people of good will working hard to write a story that will please their editors. It is true that they are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. These days most of them have gone to journalism school, or j-school, as it is called. In intellectual rankings at universities, journalism is just a notch above education, which is, unfortunately, at the bottom.

An eager young thing with a national paper was interviewing me about yet another instance of political corruption. “Is this something new?” she asked. “No,” I said, “it’s been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.” There was a long pause and then she asked, “What garden was that?” It was touching.

And so it goes. I will pass by his undocumented claim that student journalists are, as a rule, stupid. I have found, in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, that my journalism students are almost always drawn from the honor rolls. Frankly, I have no idea what Father Neuhaus is talking about and I wish he had added a hyperlink to the source of his opinion. But I will move on.

Father Neuhaus is a very witty man and you can read his remarks for yourself, if you have not already. It is interesting that he ends up, in a strange way, affirming the stance of thinkers — most in the news industry or on the left — who argue that bias is not at the root of the news media’s struggles to “get religion.” Instead of bias, he argues that journalists are simply ignorant. (I argue that clashing “worldviews” are the key.)

Neuhaus concludes:

… (Over) the years of dealing with reporters — and, again, there are notable exceptions — I have been led to embrace something like an Occam’s razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice.

It is hard to tell if his “notable exceptions” are reporters who are biased or reporters who are not stupid.

Anyway, my story about the Mother Teresa press conference would slip nicely into the First Things commentary. Believe me, I have heard waves of similar stories through the years, and some of them will make you laugh to keep from crying. Click here to read some classics.

042803neuhausrichardjohnIf Father Neuhaus had been at the 1989 press conference, I am sure he would have rolled his eyes at the ecumenical Mass question and tucked it away in his mental humor files for future use (as I did).

However, there is a problem. That press conference included a number of reporters who were rolling their eyes, reporters who had years and years of experience on the beat and had, in a few cases, even done graduate degrees in various types of religious studies to be able to do a professional job covering complicated religion-news stories. Where do these reporters fit into Father Neuhaus’ rather snarky scenario?

You see, I have met some brilliant journalists in my day. I have also met some journalists who are so dedicated that they can keep working and working on a topic until they get most of the questions answered and they get the key facts right. I have also met plenty of journalists who fit all of the good father’s stereotypes. But what is his solution to this problem? Ignore reporters? Just write off the press?

I think it would help if the people who run newsrooms had the option — as they seek intellectual diversity — of hiring more reporters from excellent reporting and writing programs in religious colleges and universities.

Might Father Neuhaus lobby for at least a few Catholic schools in this nation to stress journalism? He could offer his praise and support for postgraduate projects — such as those at the Poynter Instituteand the Pew Forum — that help journalists learn more about religion and improve their reporting skills.

Does Father Neuhaus think this line of work is too shallow or too gritty for serious study and even theological reflection? And speaking of that “garden,” is this conservative Catholic theologian arguing that some parts of God’s creation are simply too fallen to be taken seriously? Is his theology putting a newsy twist on Orwell? All of God’s creation is both glorious and fallen, but some parts of it — newsrooms — are more fallen than others? I assume not, since that would be, well, heresy.

But it is so, so easy to blast away at the press — especially in a week in which the Western world’s newspaper of record serves up headlines such as this one: “Benedict’s First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy.”

Say what? Wait, there was more. Here is the opening of reporter Ian Fisher’s New York Times story on the new papal encyclical:

Pope Benedict XVI issued an erudite meditation on love and charity on Wednesday in a long-awaited first encyclical that presented Roman Catholicism’s potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive rules for orthodoxy.

The encyclical, titled “God Is Love,” did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics. But in gentle, often poetic language, Benedict nonetheless portrayed a tough-minded church that is “duty bound,” he wrote, to intervene at times in secular politics for “the attainment for what is just.”

You could spend a week in the Catholic blogosphere reading about reactions to “God Is Love” and the news coverage of its contents. I will not linger on this, since this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say, many of the reports would have put a smile on the face of Father Neuhaus, for all of the usual reasons. I will end with one comment from an email by my friend, the Catholic pop-culture scribe Roberto Rivera y Carlo:

Talk about your ideological slip showing! The lede draws not one, but, two, idiotic juxtapositions: “erudite” versus “firm” and “love and charity” versus “orthodoxy.” These people really don’t and can’t get it, can they?

Actually, I believe that most reporters are smart enough to get it and it would be good if they tried to do so. I also think if would help if more religious leaders — especially brilliant people like Father Neuhaus — helped promote education and diversity in journalism, rather than merely firing shots from the sidelines.

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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.

  • andy chamberlain

    I would guess that trained journalists are intelligent people. I would even speculate that most of them have the necessary skills to put together a good story; for example, the ability to write good English, an instinct for identifying the ‘real issue’ in a story, an inquisitive nature, a determination to ferret out the facts.

    The challenge for the media might be to treat the religion beat as a sphere requiring an expert, not just whoever is available. Covering religion is like covering a convention for rocket scientists; you really need to know your stuff or you will get confused and/or make an idiot of yourself.

    The challenge for religion is more emotional, and even bigger. We must stop fearing and hating the media. Some of you will know I have a view on journalistic integrity; and the fear of the media in the church is not without foundation. However, that’s not good enough as a position for the church; we need to understand the media and try to meet it where it is, imperfect though it is.

  • Peter T. Chattaway

    FWIW, Terry, my own experience as a former campus reporter-editor, a former journalism instructor, and a freelance writer, has been that a number of journalists (e.g. Robert Fulford) question the value of journalism school, and indeed scorn a number of the students who elect to “learn” journalism in class instead of by actually reading newspapers and earning their stripes the hard way (via student newspapers, campus radio, and the like). I have certainly come across, and had to edit, a few writers who were simply unaware of basic journalistic writing principles, and who seemed to think that they were doing a good-enough job and didn’t need my constructive criticism simply because they had been to j-school.

  • tmatt

    I have heard that too. It was certainly not my experience at the MS program at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, however.

    I teach in liberal arts settings, however. I don’t think I would fit in a true j-school environment at the undergraduate level.

    Is Father Neuhaus only complaining about undergrad j-schools? That would be a good issue to clarify.

  • Will

    Is it possible that the reporter simply did not know what a “mass” is?
    I remember the appearance of Alan Dershowitz (and I think law schools are usually regarded more high ly than “j-schools”) in a PBS debate with Neuhaus, Buckley and others, where he claimed that his grandmother was forced to memorize “the Catholic mass” in a Brooklyn PUBLIC school. I can only say that I simply do not believe this…. especially considering the history of New York schools.

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I agree with those who believe it is not (or not solely) ignorance -in the sense of native intellectual ability- or a “clash of world views” which causes much of the inept coverage of religious matters (especially, from my point of view, Catholic matters). It is lack of education in religion. As one commenter put it, you really need someone versed in science to cover a convention of rocket scientists and not look like a blithering idiot.
    Religion adds another dimension which is akin to “clash of world views.”–it is that many in the media have developed an antipathy toward the religion of their youth, though some still claim to be attached to it. Thus they believe their Catholic or Evangelical roots gives them license to say anything negative or nasty about their religion-especially when they are given the boon of a column or movie/book reviews to write. The Boston Globe’s only regular columnist who writes regularly on religious topics is an ex-Catholic priest who is grinding a huge, sharp ax against the Church. And, although I don’t know the man’s background- a movie reviewer I just read in a column on a movie with a religious theme sneeringly referred to “Body of Christ Chompin’ Catholics” I don’t think I’ve ever read such type nastiness directed at scientists as a group in media columns (although I’ve read such nastiness directed at lawyers).

  • John Parman

    As a professional journalist currently working in religion, I would say that you might have had the upper hand on many of the fellow journos at the Mother Teresa conference. The reason is that religion is not a beat generally covered by many newspapers, they prefer to take it off AP or use the Religion News Service from Newhouse.
    I don’t think that you need to be an expert to cover religion. In fact, having some expertise may even skew coverage and give priority to groups that are the most understood by the author. The great thing about religion journalism is the opportunity for a journalist to challenge their assumptions and expectations about a community of faith.
    Also, I think journalism school is very important. But what is really needed are fewer talks with seasoned journalists about how these young people are the future and more talks with seasoned journalists about how to get jobs and keep them.

  • Scott E

    “Covering religion is like covering a convention for rocket scientists; you really need to know your stuff or you will get confused and/or make an idiot of yourself.”Since when is religion anything like rocket science? I thought religion was supposed to be a part of people’s everyday lives. Getting jokey references to the original sin, and knowing that mass is only for Catholics hardly qualifies as esoteric knowledge. A few dumb reporters are just a few dumb reporters. I just read a business article that said “half of the homes sold for above the median price, the other half below.” Blunders happen.

  • matt

    I’m sorry. I just can’t agree with you, tmatt. I think that reporters, especially TV reporters are some of the most poorly informed people I’ve ever seen. And this isn’t just in religion. In other areas, as well. I don’t know how many times I have been watching a news report from Iraq and have hear the reporter talking about being imbedded with 2nd Brigade, without the reporter telling us if it was 2nd Bde. of the 101st Airborne, or 2nd Bde of the 1st Infantry, or 2nd Bde of the 7th Cavalry, or 2nd Bde of the 3rd Armored.

    Do editors just assign stories to anyone with a pencil and a notebook in hand, assuming they have teh knowledge to ask the right questions and make a good report?

  • andy chamberlain

    Hi Scott,

    In response to my ‘rocket science’comment you said:

    “Since when is religion anything like rocket science? I thought religion was supposed to be a part of people’s everyday lives.”

    And you are right, what we believe is part of everyday life; but whilst faith can be a simple thing (thank God) religion is fiendishly complicated; and this matters with news coverage because no one wants to read a story where the reporter doesn’t know there stuff. It is distracting and stops the reader from engaging with the material.

    For good or ill, religion is complicated; for example, you could look at the differences in trinitarian theology between the Catholic and Orthodox church. These things don’t matter at all to many people, but for others they are critical; and importantly, if you were going to write about them, you would need to know your stuff.

    Or if you don’t want to stray from the Get Religion website, I suggest you look at the discussion on the ‘American Pastor’post about Rick Warren; there are a number of complex and subtle issues being discussed there by the different contributors. I think most reporters would be hard pressed to give a very informed contribution to those debates.

    I think my rocket science observation stands, maybe that is a shame, but there you go…

  • Carl Vehse

    Whether on rocket (or nuclear) science, religion, or politics, clymer is as clymer does.

  • Brant

    Got a degree in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Illinois.

    There may have been one of my classmates reflective enough to thoughtfully cover a religion angle. Perhaps.

    Many *were* quite interested, though, in developing their Magnum poses for the evening news.

    I remember (a month before graduation!) assigning two soon-to-be-reporters to cover a story at the courthouse for a class newscast. They stared blankly. “Where’s the courthouse?” It was about five blocks down the street.

    We took “current events” quizzes each Monday. “Who’s the Secretary of Defense?” Cue looks of panic.

    In candid moments, the instructors admitted this: We, their students, weren’t idiots, but we weren’t on par with the students in many other disciplines at the same university.

    This may cost me my subscription to the alumni newsletter.

  • Nancy Reyes

    The NYTimes must have gotten complaints, because Peter Steinfels did a marvelous job explaining the encyclical today…

  • Herb

    Here is one journalist’s reply to this question.

  • Tom Breen

    To some degree, all journalists are generalists, because that’s how they start out. I have a cartoon above my desk showing a group of reporters blind-folded, throwing darts at a board marked, “Today I Am An Expert In…” and a list of topics like “taxes,” “religion,” “sports,” etc. If you can’t jump into a subject right away and prepare to make up for a lack of background in it, you probably aren’t going to be a very good reporter.

    That said, I think specialist beats require specialist reporters. Nobody’s going to hire as a statehouse reporter someone who doesn’t know what “veto” means. Likewise, someone who’s covering religion should know what a Mass is, although my guess is that the reporter with the gaffe at the Mother Theresa press conference wasn’t a religion reporter, just someone covering the big celeb in town.

    As far as cultural ignorance goes, I don’t think it’s unique to journalism. Fr. Neuhaus might be surprised at how few people would understand his reference to the garden, depending on who he talked to; basic religious literacy is disappearing in many sectors, just as basic instruction in “the classics” is vanishing. I don’t take that as a specific-to-reporters problem.

  • js

    As a journalist, I’d have to ask: Which garden? Eden or Gethsemane?

    (Or why being smug about your allusions may show them to be not nearly as profound as you might think).

  • Michael

    (Or why being smug about your allusions may show them to be not nearly as profound as you might think).

    LOL. Having interviewed my share of professors and academics, when you think you are the smartest person in the room (or the country), I doubt you are rarely satisfied with how you appear in interviews.

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  • brendan

    Those buxom blondes at Fox News, the stunning red-heads (with great legs) at CNN, the MSNBC newsreaders with cheerleader good looks and wonderous violet eyes, the dark eyed beauties on Headline News, and the Barbie and Ken pair that co-anchor World News Tonight didn’t get their jobs because the newsnets were recruiting at MENSA meetings.

    With the exception of CNBC (where all the women and the men are VERY intelligent and VERY informed) the newsnets hire for looks, and the ability to bluff through 60 seconds of talking about something you “lack background” in.

    In short if you are thin, pretty, and can regurgitate a press release- you’re in.

    So why are we suprised that these folks aren’t exactly intelectual titans?

  • Samuel J. Howard

    Fr. Neuhaus does run a journalist training program of sorts:

    He also runs a magazine that seems to tend to inform people on the issues.

    And he can’t do everything.