A sermon on journalism: Let us attend

cpulpit4Please hang in there with me as I continue to do some post-Key West forum housekeeping.

GetReligion readers who are interested in debates about Associated Press style, the history of American religion and the future of newspapers may want to click here and head over to my latest column for the ethics and diversity team at that online newsroom water cooler operated by the Poynter Institute.

I admit that the style of this one is a bit strange and even preachy. Thus, the headline that they provided: “Literal Evangelism: A Sermon on Language, Usage and Religion in the News.”

Here’s how I started things off:

The readings for today’s sermon are from Billy Graham, Bill Keller and The Associated Press Stylebook.

Let us attend.

If you go to the Poynter.org site, you’ll find quite a few URLs in this column and themes that will sound familiar to frequent GetReligion readers.

Please remember that this column is written to an audience of professional journalists and I am trying to make a case for some fundamental values in the craft of newswriting. This is, to use Jay Rosen’s way of talking, an example of a journalist (that would be me) trying to preach the old-time religion to the journalism choir. I freely admit that, inside the modern tent, there are strong debates going on about some of these old doctrines. But it is still acceptable to preach about the basics.

I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here’s a summary statement that gives you a good idea of what I’m up to.

Words have great power in the world of religion. However, there is a problem: Many religious leaders do not agree on what many of the powerful words mean. As Graham noted, it may be impossible — in clear, historical terms — to define words that are used all the time in religious and mainstream media.

What does the word “church” mean to a Southern Baptist? What does the word “Church” mean to a Roman Catholic? A “bishop” in the United Methodist Church is not the same thing as an Episcopal bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop, or an AME Zion bishop, or a Catholic bishop, or a Pentecostal Holiness bishop or, come to think of it, a Mormon bishop.

I could go on and on. Define “marriage.” Define “sin.” Give three examples.

This is complicated stuff. … Many religious believers are convinced that journalists do not have well-developed vocabularies, when it comes to the rites and the wrongs of religious doctrines, rituals, history and traditions. It’s hard to do a good job, journalistically speaking, when you are not getting many of the words right.

Journalists also like to use certain words to describe people they respect, or with whom they agree. This works the other way around, too. One person’s “evangelical” is another person’s “fundamentalist.” One person’s “moderate” is another’s “liberal.” The public is convinced that our labels are clues to our biases.

We cannot avoid labels, in hard-news reporting. Thus, I suggest that we strive not to attempt to read people’s minds. We must strive to let people describe their own beliefs and do our best to report their words as accurately as possible. We must try to let people label themselves.

The goal is to report unto others as we would like them to report unto us.

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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.

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    As an evangelical, I direct non-evangelicals (especially those who use “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” interchangeably) to this web site to try to give a fuller explanation:


    This is the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Of course, a big part of the problem is that on one level the Episcopal bishop, the Roman Catholic bishop, and the Eastern Orthodox bishop are all intended to be the same thing. I don’t see how a secular newspaper can but use the secularly and commonly understood meanings of these words. For example, I do not think that a reporter need refrain from using the word “denomination”, as it has a clear, objective meaning that readers will understand without confusion.

    By the same token, a lot of the definitional argument (in my experience) revolves around attempts to deny other parties the language they need to outline their positions. To refer again to “denomination”, I’ve encountered Orthodox churchmen who don’t like the word because it implies that churches (er, churches and parasynagogues) are simply flavors of the same thing. Well, secularly, they are; I think in the newspaper we just have to live with that perception.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Denominational polity and titles are often not relevant to the story. Sometimes they are. When I write about the SBC, I often have a paragraph or two about the Southern Baptist traditional “rope of sand” connection and how it’s *not* like more herarchical denominations. But if I’m writing about a particular pastor at a particular Baptist church, not so much. The problem, if there is one, is that everyone wants their own nuanced parsed to a fine edge. And for most newspaper stories, most readers won’t understand — or need to.
    OTOH, words like “fundamentalism” that now carry connotative baggage — we need to avoid ‘em unless they’re in a quote or surrounded with a ton ‘o context.