One of the reasons some editors and reporters shy away from reporting about religious issues is because their ignorance on the topic can cause outrage among readers. You get a businessman’s name wrong and you run a correction. Get a detail wrong about Mennonites and you field angry calls from Pennsylvania for weeks. Connie Coyne, the reader advocate for the Salt Lake Tribune, deals with an example of this in her column this week:
This e-mail is typical of one we receive about the use of religious titles in articles dealing with members of the clergy:
“I am writing in regard to the nice article you wrote titled ‘Orthodox Christians get ready for Easter.’
“It was an informative article and many of us of the Orthodox faith enjoyed it very much. In the article you mentioned [Father] Kouremetis with his proper title.
“This was fine. The second time you mentioned his name you referred to him as Kouremetis. Totally out of line.
“He should be referred to as Father at all times. Men of the cloth should be referred to with respect. In another one of your articles ‘St. Peter’s marks 500th anniversary,’ you referred to Pope Benedict XVI. Later you referred to him as Benedict at the start of the next paragraph. Please show a little more respect when referring to other religious leaders. This not nit-picking, it’s just respect of the cloth.”
The first time I wrote about a religious topic, I covered an extremely controversial issue. But one of the oddest things I got hate mail about was not keeping the honorific for the man about whom I wrote. It wasn’t my fault, actually. It was Wall Street Journal style. Coyne explains how it works:
We understand that certain religious traditions have unique ways of referring to their individual clergy.
To use all those titles in The Salt Lake Tribune regularly would confuse readers who did not understand the nuances of the individual religions.
We use The Associated Press Stylebook for guidance on the titles. . . .
The AP holds that the first reference to a clergy person should include a capitalized title, usually “the Rev.” before the person’s name. On second reference “to members of the clergy, use only a last name: the Rev. Billy Graham on first reference, Graham on second.” . . .
While many churches have special ways of referring to their clergy, all of them must be treated fairly. If we gave special treatment to, say, Catholics, then Baptists would be upset. By treating everyone with an even hand, we can deliver the news without favoring any one religion.
Coyne chose an excellent topic to cover in her column, one that explains how journalists handle religious issues differently than devout laity. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking of how newspapers are responding to requests and demands of certain Muslims about how to handle their religion in print. We had some Muslims threatening to kill editors for printing cartoon images of Muhammad — and most newspapers being scared into submission. And we had Comedy Central air a cartoon that blasphemes Jesus by showing him defecating on others while blacking out an image of Mohammed carrying a football helmet. But in the months since some Muslims took their battles to the newsprint, nothing has struck me so much as this BBC policy:
Peace Be Upon Him
Throughout the BBC’s section on Islam you will see Peace be upon Him or (pbuh) after the name Muhammad.
Muslims say Peace be upon Him after every mention of Muhammad’s name, as a mark of respect. Muslims do the same when they write the Prophet’s name, adding pbuh.
The Arabic transliteration of Peace be upon Him is sallallahu alayhi wa sallam which is usually abbreviated as saw.
Use of pbuh on bbc.co.uk/religion
The BBC uses the pbuh in the Islam section out of courtesy, and we would do the same for any other religion if they had a similar phrase that was universally used as a sign of respect.
What do you think? Is the BBC method — should it be expanded to other religions — the way to go? Should newspapers always refer to G-d in stories about the Jewish religion? Should Jesus’ name be fleshed out to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Or is the Associated Press method the way to go?