Just the facts

fingerprintsElizabeth already discussed Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s five-part series on the science of spirituality. That ran on National Public Radio where she’s a reporter. The series came out of a book Hagerty wrote called Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.

A reader pointed us to a review of that book in the San Francisco Chronicle, written by Don Lattin, the paper’s former religion reporter. Check out this bit:

According to the old rules of journalism, those of us who write about religion for the secular news media are not supposed to tell our own stories or offer up our own opinions about the meaning of life. We are not supposed to question the basic tenets of other people’s faith.

That is why the work of a religion writer is different than that of a science reporter or a sportswriter. Most journalists – or at least most good journalists – are supposed to question everything. They are supposed to write about facts.

Religion writers, on the other hand, could care less about the facts – or at least about the basic facts. They write about faith, not facts.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the premise that every reporter save religion reporters should question the basic tenets of other people’s views. Still, it’s certainly true that religion writing is a different beast than much other reporting. Namely, religion reporters are dealing with revealed truth and observable truth where most other reporters are only dealing with the latter.

But it’s that last line that I just don’t get. And not just because the phrase “could care less” got through the copy editing process when “couldn’t care less” is clearly intended. If religion writers don’t care about facts, basic or otherwise, that’s nothing to defend! There’s no conflict between writing about faith and facts, per se.

And the review of Hagerty’s book shows that. I think he might be trying to criticize her here but he shows why she’s one of the very best religion writers out there:

And that is why Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who covers the religion beat for National Public Radio, walks into a religion writer’s minefield with her book “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.” Using the basic tools of professional journalism – interviewing lots of people and checking to see if what they say is really true – Hagerty sets out to see if God really exists.

Hagerty has certainly expanded my view of what’s possible in religion reporting and I think it might be because she understands the difference between revealed and observed truth and how those can and should be reported. And she cares about facts, basic and otherwise!

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  • michael

    Oh, Mollie.

    I’ve already said my piece about Bradley Hagerty, no need to rehash that here. Needless to say I don’t agree with your assessment of her reporting.

    But this dichotomy between revealed and observed truth… All I have time and energy to say is ….arrgh. I would venture that accepting this dichotomy at face value results in more bad religion reporting than good, Bradley Hagerty’s NPR series on religion and the brain being a case in point.

  • Martha

    I had no idea the sports departments of newspapers were filled with the fierce battles of religion between the golf correspondents and the tennis writers, the football (whether the American or the Association variety) reporters and the baseball/cricket/other ball-and-stick game writers at one another’s throats, the horse-racing and the greyhound-racing factions locked in bitter combat – all down to rigorous journalistic questioning of the basic tenets of the opposite faith! ;-)

  • Jerry

    understands the difference between revealed and observed truth and how those can and should be reported. And she cares about facts, basic and otherwise!

    I think those are foundation requirements for good religious reporting.

  • michael

    Mollie,

    In retrospect, I realize that the second pararaph may be a little snarky, and this is not my intent. So sorry about that.

    Let me just say briefly that this dichotomy begs enormous questions about the nature of truth and the relation between faith and reason. It is way too simple and has (at least) two negative, interrelated consequences that bear upon the journalism.

    First, it denatures faith. By pushing matters of faith beyond the bounds of rationality, the dichotomy ultimately makes religion a private, merely affective matter and prevents its truth claims from even being recognized as such, much less entering public depbate and discussion.

    Second, it denatures reason and truth by reducing the latter to a matter of empirical ‘fact’ and disguising the way that irreducibly philosophical judgments are always latent in the former, including in the very notion of ‘fact’ or ‘observable truth’. With faith made irrational and otherworldly and reason reduced to an impossible empiricism, the possibility of philosophical mediation disappears and all the important philosophical questions provoked by a story like Hagerty’s ‘religion and the brain’ series go unacknowledged. So I would argue that the distinction you say Bradley-Hagerty understands so well actually produces banal and sometimes even pernicious results.

    This really points beyond Bradley-Hagerty though to the philosophical assumptions inherent in the craft of journalism as such and its notion of ‘fact’, whose sacredness prevents this notion and the craft of journalism from ever coming under skeptical treatment…at least among journalists. I suspect this is part of its utility. So long as all relevant truth is merely a matter of empirical ‘fact’ transparent in principle to any observer without need of philosophical self-awareness, then there is no aspect of reality that is impervious to journalistic treatment as a matter of principle. If on the other hand, truth is more complicated and philosophy is unavoidable, then journalism is de-throned from its role as mediator and arbiter of public truth.

  • http://2natures.blogspot.com/ Roland

    Most journalists – or at least most good journalists – are supposed to question everything. They are supposed to write about facts.

    Religion writers, on the other hand, could care less about the facts – or at least about the basic facts. They write about faith, not facts.

    Now let’s apply these principles to the media’s treatment of President Obama. Rather than question him, they write from the standpoint of faith in their messiah. When it comes to Obama, most reporters appear to be following the “religion writer” model rather than the “most good journalists” model.

  • stoo

    michael

    Second, it denatures reason and truth by reducing the latter to a matter of empirical ‘fact’ and disguising the way that irreducibly philosophical judgments are always latent in the former, including in the very notion of ‘fact’ or ‘observable truth’.

    I rather like Stephen J Gould’s definition of the facts that you’re quotemarking – “confirmed to the extent that it would be perverse to withold provisional assent”.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    1) “Could care less” is an idiom. English is ca-rrazzzy. (See: flammable and inflammable…)

    2) With all due respect to Lattin, I think his description of religion in that review is flawed at its core. He writes that “Religion is a collection of stories.”

    Well, no. It’s not. A collection of stories is an anthology. Religion is the set of beliefs that accompany those stories. But that isn’t even the flaw I think he’s got about religion reporting and facts.

    What exactly people say they believe is a collection of facts. The official doctrine of any particular religion is a collection of facts. How religion manifests in the world is a matter of empirical reality — facts that do not depend on theology.

    Much of my work as a religion reporter has been about how to discern and explain those worldly manifestations of faith. Religious belief, properly understood and explained, helps to explain human behavior. And those behaviors — from mission trips to social gospel politics to jihaddi murders — are all amenable to fact-based reporting.

    It is not my job, as I see it, to either endorse or dismiss a tenet of faith in my reporting. I am generally respectful of the believer. But I am as hardline about the facts as any other kind of reporter.

  • http://2natures.blogspot.com/ Roland

    “Could care less” is an idiom.

    It’s not really an idiom. It’s sarcasm. Unfortunately, most of the people who use it are ignorant of this fact and don’t pronounce it with the right sarcastic tone.

  • Julia

    Could care less means that I must care somewhat because my interest could go lower.

    Couldn’t care less means that my interest is so low that it can’t get any lower.


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