Newsweek: Avoid stereotyping

Ned Flanders2Newsweek‘s Lisa Miller has some advice for journalists covering people who “were taught that homosexuality is an abomination and that Adam and Eve cavorted with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden”: Be compassionate and avoid stereotyping.

I don’t know about the compassionate part, because I’m not sure what that means to a journalist (be kind and civil?), but avoiding stereotypes is Journalism 101.

For example, in writing about the common conversion code some evangelical groups recently signed onto, The Associated Press avoided the use of words like “some” and “generally.” In my view, the AP also avoided stereotyping the groups it wrote about. Good for the AP. But that story was about large groups, not individuals. Individuals are harder to write about.

Miller’s journalistic advice comes from her review of journalist Hanna Rosin’s recently released book God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America. Miller praises Rosin for achieving this balancing act:

The challenge for any responsible journalist approaching this subject, then, is twofold. She must approach with compassion, avoiding the stereotyping that so often characterizes books and articles about religious groups. This tendency among reporters to see people of strong faith as freaks or oddities (whether Mormons or Muslims or Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians) only exacerbates misunderstandings between Red and Blue Staters and fans the flames of the culture war. At the same time, she must retain her skepticism, wrestling with the fact that what liberal intellectuals fear most about evangelical Christians is in this case partially true: the students at Patrick Henry College do want to take over the world and they do think that anyone without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is going to hell.

From what I’ve read, seen and heard of Rosin, I believe she is an excellent reporter who strives to tell the truth in her reporting. That’s a more general way of saying “don’t stereotype.” Miller seems to suggest that Rosin should go a step further and moralize about the subjects she is covering:

Because this book preys so heavily on liberal anxieties, one wishes Rosin had grappled more deeply with this question: does Patrick Henry College actually pose a threat to American values of pluralism, equality and democracy? Certainly, its students are culture warriors in the extreme — committed to breaking down church-state separation and debunking evolution, as well as to overturning Roe and banning gay marriage.

Now before you hit that comment button, remember that we are a blog about journalists and how they cover religion. This isn’t a place to debate Roe v. Wade or separation of church and state. The question is: Should journalists insert their view on what American values are?

In Miller’s view they amount to pluralism, equality and democracy, whatever that means. And how do religious beliefs play into how a reporter covers a story? As Miller notes, Rosin is a “former Washington Post reporter, a member of the educated East Coast elite, and a Jew.” Who gets to decide the values on which journalists stand?

Is it even possible to eliminate a journalist’s personal opinions and religious values from religion coverage? Or is avoiding them the Holy Grail?

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  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    I was surprised to learn that pluralism is an American value. I thought toleration was a value but only in order to avoid civil war. Miller seems to be using the words as synonyms. Also, she said “Certainly, its students are culture warriors in the extreme — committed to breaking down church-state separation…” I don’t think this is likely, and would love to know how she arrived at this conclusion. These are Christian Fundamentalists (for the most part) who attend Patrick Henry, not White Russians who view the Czar as the annointed monarch and protector of the Church..

  • Jerry

    In Miller’s view they amount to pluralism, equality and democracy, whatever that means.

    I suppose this is an era where the meaning of all words get questioned. But to me, pluralism, equality and democracy are words with definite meaning. Of course, at the very detailed level there are specific issues with those words as with others such as religion, life, happiness, justice, evangelical, Christian etc, but that is another matter.

    who gets to decide the values on which journalists stand?

    I’m not even sure why you’re asking that question. Who gets to decide the values on which doctors/lawyers stand? It’s the same question. There’s a commonly accepted set of values for journalists that are taught and reinforced.

  • Gary McClellan

    I don’t think it’s ever possible to remove a Journalist’s personal opinions and views from much of anything, especially when the reporter is covering something that isn’t a simple “just the facts” story.

    For instance, a crime story can be “just the facts.” A simple recitation of the known facts of the crime, about the victim, and (if known) about the accused.

    However, as soon as you go beyond that “just the facts”, you start getting into realms where the views of the journalist will shape their writing, regardless of any effort to avoid that. Who do you go to for quotes? What bits of the quotes do you choose to stress? What angles in the story do you discuss?

    The reporter’s own sense of “what is important” will lead him to gravitate to those aspects of the story that are compelling to him.

  • Dcn. Michael D. Harmon

    Maybe it’s just me, but I get the impression from the story that what “liberals fear most” is that some of their fellow Americans disagree with them on some social issues, and actually are active in the public square to support their point of view.

    It appears that one of the potential unexplored subtexts (ghosts?) in this article is, “Why do liberals think political points of view based on orthodox views of religion are somehow illegitmate?” “Separation of church and state” is not, after all, “separation of (theologically orthodox) American citizens and state.”

  • http://proveritas.blogspot.com/ Rachel Horton

    Excellent and insightful commentary on a fascinating topic. As a former PHC student, I read the articles mentioned with avid interest and in light of those articles and media practices today, I think you ask a very important question:

    Should journalists insert their view on what American values are?

    I firmly believe that behind every great policy/action, there is a great value. That is to say, you will not act without some sort of value behind your action. With that said, a journalist will look at any given topic through a set of prioritized values that will inherently exist and come out in their writings.

    There is no such thing as an unbiased reporter; it just depends on what that reporter values more. The absolute truth with all facts on the table? A government sponsored healthcare system for the general public? Withdrawal of troops from Iraq?

    Ultimately, journalists should be able to write what they feel needs to be communicated; the public should be discerning enough to understand where the bias lies.

  • HTB

    Who gets to decide the values on which journalists stand?

    Who says that all journalists need to stand for the same values? Isn’t someone working for the Catholic News Service allowed to have different values than a stringer for The New Yorker?

    The practical answer, however, is that journalists ultimately have to square their individual consciences with their publisher’s desire to make money by selling news. If your values are pretty common compared to the customers in your sales market, you’ll be happy in mainstream media. If your values are radical, then you’ll need to work harder to find a good match. Oddball publications abound on both sides of the red/blue divide.

  • HTB

    I just wanted to add that this dilemma is not unique to journalism. For example, if you’re a nurse, you have to decide whether you want to work with kids, deal with elective abortions, take care of disabled people, work in a psych hospital, deal with cancer patients, work with a cosmetic surgeon, etc. Nobody says that every single nurse should value abortions or tummy tucks or managing chemotherapy regimens exactly the same as every other nurse. Why should it be any different for journalists?

  • Dennis Colby

    Is it even possible to eliminate a journalist’s personal opinions and religious values from religion coverage?

    Of course it is. I regularly read terrific coverage by reporters about whose religious beliefs I have no clue.

    Obviously, other things play a role in coverage, though. The most pervasive bias in journalism is the bias toward breaking news, or the “man bites dog” angle. That’s not always the best approach in religion coverage. At worst, it means important stories get ignored because they’re “not news.”

  • don

    I’m not sure why religion coverage needs to be different in this respect. Miller seems to be shocked that students at Patrick Henry want to “take over the world.” Assuming that she doesn’t actually believe that in an extreme sense, isn’t it evident that Miller would also love to have “liberal intellectual” values dominate in her world? Where’s the difference?

    Journalists need to learn how to reveal their own bias up front, and then let their sources speak for themselves. The readers can figure it out from there.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    The question is: Should journalists insert their view on what American values are? In Miller’s view they amount to pluralism, equality and democracy, whatever that means.

    Those are not controversial values, nor does Miller suggest that her list is exhaustive. It is quite easy to find canonical statements within modern American political and popular discourse that affirms all three of these. From William Herbert’s 1955 monograph “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” to Mario Cuomo’s famous 1984 speech on “Religious Belief and Public Morality,” these are common values. And they are ones likely to be espoused by journalists. American journalists by necessity and training are often inspired by a libertarian philosophy of the free flow of information and a genuine “marketplace of ideas,” neither of which are possible without pluralism, equality, and democracy.

    And how do religious beliefs play into how a reporter covers a story…Who gets to decide the values on which journalists stand?

    Superior journalistic training will teach that the prejudices of the individual reporter are a starting point for investigation, while a libertarian philosophy will ensure that multiple points of view are ultimately covered and correctly gauged and attributed. While we can often assume that openly confessional news and opinion outlets have staff of similar ideology–a good story in a secular newspaper will not give away the reporter’s own religious practice. I certainly have strong religious views myself, but as a teacher and scholar of American Religious Histories and Cultures, I would be doing a poor job as a professional if my students could easily divine my own stance. Professional training should be enough to ensure that competency and completeness are the overall guidelines of journalists working the religion beat.

  • Lowell

    I, for one, would like to see some true journalists instead of the FOX/MSNBC pimp-Christianity-at-all-costs conservative opinion mongers. Truth, please, well-done, with extra honesty, hold the biased rhetoric. And a side of fries, while you’re at it.

  • http://www.lcweekly.com Margaret

    Lowell,

    MSNBC is a “pimp-Christianity-at-all-costs conservative opinion monger?” Have you ever watched Keith Olbermann???