When visions clash with reporting

BC 0743299426My latest column for the ethics and diversity team at Poynter.org is online, if GetReligion readers want to check it out. You may, however, hear a bit of an echo since this piece called “Articles of Faith” grew out of a July post on this blog titled “Visions of another Magdalene bestseller.”

That earlier blog item focused on a USA Today feature story about journalist-turned-novelist Kathleen McGowan and her post-Da Vinci Code novel called The Expected One. I was somewhat amazed that the newspaper didn’t ask more probing questions about the spiritual visions that led to McGowan’s claims that she is part of the bloodline of Jesus of Nazareth and St. Mary Magdalene.

For my friends at Poynter, this raised a larger question: How are journalists supposed to gather “facts” when they write about these kinds of highly personal faith experiences? I decided to start the column on a personal note:

Growing up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I didn’t think about visions and patron saints very much.

So it felt strange when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and my morning prayers began including an appeal to my patron — St. Brendan of Ireland — to pray with me. I asked my spiritual father about this. He laughed and said, “Just say your prayers. But if your patron saint ever talks back, that’s when you need to go ask a priest for help!”

Yes, I have a journalistic reason for bringing this up.

If priests are supposed to ask questions that challenge a person’s claim to have had visions, then certainly journalists are allowed to do that.

When in doubt, ask questions. Like I keep saying, that is what journalists are supposed to do. However, this clash between “facts” and “faith” is an important issue for many people in newsrooms, including many who simple do not get religion.

So here is how I ended the Poynter piece.

I have, through the years, heard many journalists say that one of the main reasons they struggle with religion news is that journalists are supposed to write about facts, while many religious issues are rooted in personal beliefs. In other words, it’s hard to do journalism about all that mushy spiritual stuff.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that millions of people have religious beliefs that, in some way, shape their lives in the real world. That’s a fact. We can ask these believers lots of detailed questions. We can ask them to describe their spiritual experiences and to explain how these experiences affect their lives. Then we quote the answers.

I thought it was strange that the USA Today story never really did that, and that bothered me. When it comes to people making claims about visions and revelations, I think it’s OK for a journalist to be at least as skeptical as a good priest.

Hey, if Oliver Stone can handle this stuff with some degree of respect, journalists ought to be able to do it.

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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://www.exceptionalmarriages.com Greg Popcak

    I’m not sure why a reporter would make a distinction between a religion interview and any other interview. In either case, the interviewer isn’t reporting what actually happened. He or she is merely finding out what the person says happened. In either case (i.e., a religion interview or a regular interview), the reporter isn’t dealing with facts, per se, merely the interviewee’s interpretation (personal beliefs) of the facts. That doesn’t change based upon the topic of the interview.

    I think the objection that it is more difficult to do an interview about religious topics suggests a basic prejudice that religion is merely a collection of vague emotional-spiritual impulses that can’t or shouldn’t be articulated.

  • Charlie

    I doubt they’re asking her the deep questions because she’s a notoriouas prevaricator and they don’t want to set her off- she’s notorious for atacking critics. In any case, her cover story is that she can’t reveal her ‘family ties’ because she’d be in horrible danger from unseen forces if she did. Blechh.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Perhaps the best way for the journalist to cover these sorts of things is to simply look to the self interest of the people having these “visons”.

    If you look, for example, at the children involved in Fatima, the experience was not one that was in their self interest. They were pressured to recant, threatened, and even told by the police that they would be boiled in oil if they did not recant. By continuing to hold to their story, even in the face of such pressure, they gain credibility.

    On the other hand here we have an author, coming out with a book on the heels of the Di Vinci Code, that stands to make a good deal of money should her visions, (which underly the book and hence her publishing contract and advance) be true.

    It reminds me of the “Bed and Breakfast Ghosts” I see on the Travel Channel. You know the type. Quaint old B&B’s that are pretty much indistinguishable from all the other quaint old B&B’s in their area; but somehow they develop mysterious, often romantic, (and certianly non-threatening) ghosts when the Travel Channel camera crews come around. Often these ghosts are 19th century women and/or children. More like something out of a Harlequin Romance than The Exorcist. Lots of mysterious “cold spots” but no plagues of flies. Coincidentaly you can always stay in the “haunted” room for a slight extra fee.

    Surely a journalist worth their salt should be able to figure THAT out!