Religion reporting as public therapy?

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Stephen Prothero
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Once again, we need to flash back in time to look at that amazing and increasingly relevant memo that New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote to his staff in response to an in-house study of his news operation. You may recall that the study was called “Preserving our Readers’ Trust (pdf)“.

The headline on the Keller response was “Assuring Our Credibility (pdf)” and one of the most important passages linked to religion coverage (there were several) said this:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

In other words, when mainstream journalists use the word “moderate” (as in “moderate” Muslims) it usually means, “People that we like.” GetReligion readers already know that the word “fundamentalist” has turned into an slur that usually means, “Dangerous, uninformed, simplistic people that we don’t like.” Who cares what the Associated Press Stylebook says, anyway?

But let’s back up to the word “moderate” for a moment. Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher has a provocative post up (make sure that you check out the comments) that points toward an important PressThink essay by Jay Rosen of the journalism faculty at New York University.

As always, Rosen’s views are witty and rather nuanced. The heart of the matter is that he believes it is hard to pin simplistic political labels on most journalists — like “liberal” and “conservative.” If anything fits, especially in elite newsrooms, it would be the word “cosmopolitan.” I would add that many people try to call journalists “secular,” but that rarely works, either. Journalists were “spiritual,” but not “religious” before it was hip.

As Rosen noted in his famous essay “Journalism Is Itself a Religion,” it is crucial that many journalists are absolutely convinced that there are no moral absolutes, no absolute truths that transcend time and culture. Thus, journalists have a natural distrust of traditional forms of religion, while looking with favor on modern, evolving, nonthreatening forms of faith. Where have I heard that before? Hello, Dr. James Davison Hunter.

In this new essay, Rosen connects some of the same dots. One of his central points is that most journalists hold in contempt people they consider “true believers.” Thus, most reporters and editors believe that they are seeking out “moderate” voices or, I would argue, they are seeking to amplify voices that they consider “moderate.”

And the impact on religion coverage? I cannot tell you how many times I have heard journalists make statements that sound something like this: “Oh, I didn’t interview (insert name of relevant religious leader), because my editor said that we don’t need to give extremists like that a platform.” But what, I add, if this priest, or imam, or rabbi, or preacher is actually a key figure in the story? What if many of their claims are accurate, in terms of the history and doctrine of their faith?” At this point, journalists often shrug their shoulders or roll their eyes.

Now, back to the Dreher post, which focuses on a quotation from a blog post by Nicole Neroulias of Beliefnet about the new book by Stephen Prothero entitled “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.”

The bottom line is that the book’s central thesis — that irresolvable theological conflicts exist between the world’s great religions — makes Neroulias nervous. Thus, she writes:

… I’m not sure how I feel about Prothero’s message. I haven’t seen the book yet, but as a religion reporter, I’m generally more interested in probing what different faiths have in common (especially when you get strange bedfellows), as opposed to stoking conflicts (which make plenty of news anyway). Perhaps this also has something to do with being in an interfaith marriage, but if that’s the case, more than a third of Americans may be inclined to feel this way, too.

In response, Dreher has this to say:

Note the loaded language: “stoking conflicts” is the opposite of “probing what different faiths have in common.” The idea that to explore genuine conflicts both between and among faiths is an act of provocation is to turn religion journalism into an act of therapy. Is there a political journalist who would openly admit to approaching her beat that way? What political journalist would say that political journalists who routinely explore conflicts between the parties and their worldviews are provocateurs who just want to stir up trouble? To believe this is true is to commit yourself to providing your readers not with an understanding of the world as it is, but the world as you would like it to be. It means you aren’t writing stories, but a Story. It’s also an approach that automatically puts religious believers of whatever tradition who argue that on this or that issue, faiths are not ultimately reconcilable, automatically on the defense. …

I have absolutely no doubt that many US religion journalists approach their beats in the same irenic, bridge-building spirit — which is one reason why religion journalism in this religiously dynamic and complicated country tends to be so bland. …

In other words, traditional (sorry, that would be “fundamentalist”) forms of religion are uniquely dangerous and, thus, it is a public service to spotlight safe, progressive, evolving, “moderate” forms of faith — in order to make the world a better place. It means avoiding some newsy subjects (like that whole messy Sunni v. Shiite thing), but journalists need to ignore some of the dangerous facts in order to promote progress.

The ultimate question: Does this help readers (and public leaders, even) understand the role that religion plays in the real world?

So, read the pieces by Rosen, Dreher and Neroulias and tell us what you think. If you have read the Prothero book (mine is on order), you can address that, too.

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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.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Thanks for posting about this. I wanted to respond to Rod Dreher’s blog, but I thought it would be inappropriate to join the comments over there, and I’m waiting for my copy of “God Is Not One” before blogging about it further at Belief Beat.

    In the meantime, to clarify: I have no problem covering religious conflict (or any conflict – I covered crime for years), including points of view that could hardly be considered “moderate.” What I was trying to convey, in that quick aside on my Belief Beat post, is that the concept that different religions have fundamental differences isn’t news to me, or presumably anyone else who reads a newspaper, lives in a diverse community, has an interfaith family, etc.

    In my experience, it’s often the interfaith stories that reveal the complexities of this beat, beyond the usual conflicts (which, as I noted in the original post, do get plenty of coverage), while also providing some good old-fashioned man-bites-dog news appeal. Furthermore, if the concern is whether this point of view contributes to media bias/blandness, keep in mind that “conflict” stories are frequently framed as us-vs.-them scenarios: an inaccurate generalization at best, a dangerous mistake at worst, on the religion beat.

    But, your mileage may vary, especially for journalists who work in different forms of media or for religious vs. secular press.

  • Jerry

    Of course a reporter should be neutral, that goes without saying. But there can be errors from both sides. One problem is, as you pointed out, ignoring real differences. This involves not reporting on or artificially minimizing the real conflicts that exist.

    The error from the other side is assuming that differences must exist and be important. So if we have a reporter who thinks the differences are important writing a story about an event where people celebrated the common elements in their religions, that reporter might look for or complain about the lack of coverage of the differences.

    I had recommended Prince Charles’ speech on Islam on the Environment for your review but it fits in here quite neatly. He’s clearly referring to elements that he, as a Christian, shares with Islam to further a cause he cares deeply about. So reporting on his speech should address those common elements since they are at the heart of the event.

    The trick, as always, is insight into the situation and balance in reporting.

  • tmatt


    The problem, as I mentioned, is that the religious clashes receive coverage — as in Iraq — but the role that religion plays in the conflicts often or usually do not, out of a fear of talking to the voices who could detail the differences.

    Have you seen a mainstream story on the essential doctrinal and faith differences between Shia and Sunni? The differences at the heart (with other factors, of course) of the Iraq bloodshed?

    Have you seen mainstream coverage of, oh, the actual doctrinal clashes between traditional and “emergent” evangelicals? I could go on and on.

    I’ll stand by my own points in the post, while backing Rosen and, thus, Dreher.


    Here is that link to the Ammon story that you mentioned.

    You are assuming, of course, that Charles is being accurate and that the majority of Christians and Muslims — there is no ONE Islam, remember, and the faiths have key differences on the very nature of God — would agree with him.

    But attaching the actual speech text was ESSENTIAL and more newspapers need to do that in their online products. Bravo.

  • Maureen

    The annoying thing about the Charles story was that nobody ever got around to saying what his rationale was, for saying that Islam was pro-environment. Plenty of blogs covered the anti-environmental, anti-nature, anti-animal, tree genocide side of Islam (of which there is plenty), but nobody seems to have found what Charles was thinking about.

  • Jerry

    Maureen, “nobody…found”? Clearly those who said they did not find did not search because they have an agenda in which truth pays no part since I found the following in one minute by searching for islam environment

    Terry: Anyone making a faith-based claim is subject to a test about how many agree with him, including the Pope, so yes, I share your point about the test.

    My point is that is argument about the common element that he stated and that needs to be reported. If there’s significant evidence as to a difference in how the two religions see the environment then that should of course be reported.

    I’m really arguing a principle that I know you share: reporters and editors should not allow their beliefs and preconceptions get in the way of telling the story. While agreeing with you about the current state of affairs, I wanted to raise a cautionary note that the knife can cut both ways. And that while there are people and situations where there are differences between religions and denominations matter, there are also people and situations where the similarities are critical.

  • Peter Smith

    Good discussion. I’ve seen some good coverage of the roots of the Shia-Sunni divide, such as NPR’s a few years ago. And I’ve been reading about the 7th century division over succession in every primer on Islam I’ve read since the 1980s.

    What I’ve wanted to see more of in the news is this: How do the two groups identify themselves and the other side TODAY? How does it work that the 7th century matters so much now? Do the two groups worship differently, and if so, why does that matter so much to them? Do they build mosques differently? Do they have different names? To put it bluntly, if they’re killing each other, how do they know whom to kill? If they’re cooperating, what are their grounds for agreement?

    The best journalistic account of this that I’ve seen is Nir Rosen’s real-time account of the breakdown in Iraq after the fall of Saddam (“In the Belly of the Green Bird”). He clearly demonstrative the distinctive characteristics of the combattants in scenes such as the dramatic pilgrimages to the Shia martyrs’ tombs. I’d still like to see how such things play out in other countries, such as Pakistan. When I’ve visited each kind of mosque, I haven’t been able to noticed major differences — other than the Shias’ use of images of Ali and Hussein (but not Muhammad) on wall tapestries, compared with the strictly aniconic Sunni mosques.

    Part of the challenge of religion coverage is figuring out what’s a big deal to the adherents, and then conveying that to the readership.

    (I sure wish my sources would call back, but it’s leaving me with enough downtime to post more comments than usual.)

  • Jettboy

    You should read stories about Mormons and Evangelicals, especially when Mitt Romney was at the center. It was all about the conflicts of theology; no common ground there. My point isn’t that journalists do cover conflicts. Rather, they cover them when it matches their agenda against particular groups. For that matter, look at Scientology stories for another example. Plenty of conflict stories there. The argument will be; but they aren’t understood by the majority of readers (even when Mormonism is the 4th largest religion in the U.S.) and therefore need some explaining.

    “is that the concept that different religions have fundamental differences isn’t news to me, or presumably anyone else who reads a newspaper . . . ”

    No wonder newspapers continue to fail. They decide what people do and don’t know by whims of what they do or don’t know (or believe for that matter). The truth is the average reader knows almost nothing about the conflicting beliefs between Catholics and Protestants, much less Baptists and Methodists. Now, add that tenfold between a generic Christianity and a generic Islam. The average reader knows nothing. At least reporters can boost their elitist egos by knowing the average reader doesn’t know much if anything. Of course I’m just an “average reader” who doesn’t know anything so don’t take my words seriously.

  • Chip Smith

    I hope people do go read Rosen’s essay and I’m glad you highlighted it, Terry. My only connection to journalism is as a reader, but his identification of the priorities of journalists match my observations. (And any criticism of Dana Milbank’s and especially David Broder’s approach to political issues is always welcome!)

    I’m curious about how folks here think the 6 terms he writes about translate to journalists on the Godbeat (I think it is pretty clear that he is primarily thinking about the political beat in this essay). It seems to me that GR routinely highlights stories that are weakened by “The Church of the Savvy” and “The sphere of deviance,” although all of them pop up from time to time.

  • Dave

    Terry, since you’re keeping track of interest in topics by counting comments, herewith my me-too that the Godbeat is not a form of public therapy. As Jerry says, reporters should not allow their beliefs and preconceptions to color their coverage — I would add “ignorances” — but I must point out that prejudice never knows itself, and reporters can fail to realize they are slanting their words.