Last week, I went to Kiev to speak to a group of Ukrainian journalists — both secular and religious — about the challenges of covering religion news in mainstream press. My chapter in the Oxford Centre book, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” had been translated into Ukrainian and it was a great chance to get some feedback from scribes in a very different context — a post-Soviet culture.
To tell you the truth, the professional challenges described by journalists there sounded very familiar to my American ears.
Also, when I arrived I picked up a copy of the English-language Kiev Post and, right there on page one, spotted a religion ghost. It was a story about a memorial service — led, in part, by President Victor Yushchenko — at the mass grave in Bykivnya forest northeast of Kiev, a grave containing 100,000-plus victims of Joseph Stalin and his regime.
The photos that ran with this story included some strong religious images, which is not surprising in a nation with such a rich Eastern Orthodox heritage. But the story itself was completely religion free.
As you would expect, I decided that I had to discuss this with the Ukrainian journalists and then write about it in my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week. Here’s a big slice of that, including some rather complicated material about the politics of Orthodoxy in Ukraine:
The mourners wept, while processing through the site behind Orthodox clergy who carried liturgical banners containing iconic images of Jesus and Mary.
“Because of the national symbolism of this ceremony, the priests there may not be important,” said Victor Yelensky, a sociologist of religion associated with the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences. “But the priests have to be there because this is Ukraine and this is a ceremony that is about a great tragedy in the history of Ukraine.
“So the priests are there. It is part … of a civil religion.”
This is where the story gets complicated. In the Ukrainian media, photographs and video images showed the clergy, with their dramatic banners and colorful vestments. However, in their reporting, journalists never mentioned what the clergy said or did.
Mainstream media reports also failed to mention which Orthodoxy body or bodies were represented. This is an important gap, because of the tense and complicated nature of the religious marketplace in this historically Eastern Orthodox culture.
It would have been big news, for example, if clergy from the giant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — with direct ties to Moscow — had taken part in a ceremony that featured Yushchenko, who, as usual, aimed angry words to the north.
But what if the clergy were exclusively from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), born after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and linked to declarations of Ukrainian independence? What if there were also clergy from a third body, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century?
You see, right now almost anything can create tensions between Ukraine and Russia. A ceremony with clergy linked to Moscow would create tensions in some circles. A ceremony without clergy linked to Moscow would create tensions in others. The symbolism has political content either way.
So why not cover the religious content of this event?
The journalists said that most Ukrainian reporters and editors are highly secular and think that politics is the only subject that matters. It was also hard to forget all of those unwritten Soviet-era press rules that said that religion was bad, irrelevant or, at best, merely private.
Then again, the journalists agreed that religion news is highly complex and packed with historic details and symbols. Many Ukrainian journalists are terrified of making mistakes, because of their lack of knowledge. It is also hard to dig past the surface details and the layers of ecclesiastical armor to get at the subjects that truly touch the lives of readers. That requires sensitivity and insight, as well as technical skills.
So why not hire professionals trained to cover the beat? That would mean admitting that religion is a subject is worthy of that step.
Consider this quote fro one of the nation’s top journalists:
“Many would say that, if we do not play the violin, we really should not attempt to comment on how others play the violin,” said Yuri Makarov, editor in chief of Ukrainian Week, speaking through a translator.
Hey, religion-beat veterans: Does any of this sound familiar?
Photo: Canadian embassy photo from a 2008 memorial service in Bykivnya Forest.