Shameless plug for … religion news

As you know, the basic idea behind this weblog is that it is, as a rule, impossible to do an informed, accurate and balanced job of covering real news in the real world without taking the power of religious faith seriously.

Thus we were, to say the least, happy to hear that the principalities and powers at CNN were wise (dare we say foxy) enough to back producer Eric Marrapodi in his efforts to create a serious weblog about religion news, an online hub that would tie together the work that many of the network’s professionals were already doing linked to stories about religion.

That’s job one.

Only then is it possible to talk about professionals working together to do new projects that build on CNN’s video, audio and print resources. As I keep telling my Washington Journalism Center students, it’s time for journalism people to start studying ESPN.com and applying some of its breakthroughs to other forms of news. This especially important in television news.

Stop and think about this for a minute: List all of the intelligent efforts to cover religion in broadcast and cable news? OK, Kim Lawton and the Religion & Ethics crew at PBS leap to mind. That’s one. Who is number two? OK, take your time. Keep trying.

Anyway, Marrapodi and I have dialogued about this project a bit over in recent months and, soon after the site went online, I wrote a post here at GetReligion about the new CNN Belief Blog (it helped, of course, that CNN founder Ted Turner started hearing the voice of God, all of a sudden).

Now, the folks at the unofficial water cooler of American journalism — that would be Poynter.org — have published a think piece by Angie Chuang about the CNN effort, under this pushy headline: “CNN Producer: Audiences Want Religion News, but Journalists Reluctant to Cover it.” I should mention, right up front, that Chuang heard about GetReligion’s role in the discussions and called me up, in addition to talking to Marrapodi. Here’s a big chunk of the report:

The CNN Belief Blog highlights angles of faith in the news, such as the religious makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and the spiritual messages in the final episode of TV show “Lost.” It has some user-generated content as well, including the iReport “Your Church Sign Photos” (with snapshots of marquee messages such as, “Do not give up; Moses was once a basket case”). …

Marrapodi maintains that audiences have always wanted more religion news, but mainstream journalists are sometimes reluctant to cover it as an issue in and of itself.

“It’s the conversation people are having outside of the newsroom, outside of the office, with their families and friends,” Marrapodi said. “Sometimes that’s difficult as a reporter to cover. You don’t want to appear biased.”

Journalism has often been stereotyped as an “unchurched” and even anti-religious profession. But I’ve had conversations with many religious journalists over the years who have told me they felt pressure to be “in the closet” about their faith or religious practices for fear that they might not appear objective enough to cover stories that address moral issues. Some say they had to bite their tongues as their colleagues made jokes about “Jesus freaks” or Muslim stereotypes in the newsroom.

So are we facing a lack of resources, or a lack of understanding?

Both, Mattingly said in a phone interview. Though dwindling resources are a very real obstacle, the growing amount of content online is not a replacement for truly knowledgeable beat reporters.

“We’re running out of sites that actually report new information,” he said, echoing thoughts he expressed in a column, “State of the Godbeat 2010.” “And we have this tsunami of opinion-based writing coming along. The Internet does opinion really well. It does tiny niche audiences. What it doesn’t do is create broad-based neutral information.”

Read it all and let us know what you think. I think it’s fair, at this point, for readers to offer updated impressions of the first weeks of the Belief Blog. Focus on journalism issues and be specific. This is a pro-journalism blog and the new CNN effort is an important development and, perhaps, a template for others. So be constructive.

Graphic: Let’s see. What word seems to be missing in this look at journalism values and products?

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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.

  • Jerry

    I find quite a bit to like on the blog site but I do wonder about it being a “blog” given the usual standards of journalism that apply. Still, perhaps I need to re-evaluate what I think about blogs since I find that the stories on the blog appear much better to me than many I read as regular news stories.

  • carl

    Judging by the comments, it would seem to be a weblog for people who don’t like religion very much. This could be nothing more than self-selection. News sources have become ideologically polarized as people migrate to coverage more agreeable to their own worldview. I personally never watch CNN, and so would never have heard of this weblog except for this post. If I had heard of it, I wouldn’t have bothered to even visit the site. Only this referral from a trusted source allowed me to overcome that barrier.

    I don’t think it’s true that people don’t want coverage of religious stories. What they want are religious stories that tend to confirm their presuppositions. Stories about Haggard the Hypocrite, and Priest molestations are agreeable to those who want to see religion as hypocritical and dangerous and fundamentally devoid of exclusive Truth. That is CNN’s market, and it’s hard for me to see how the website can escape the demands of its own market.

    carl

  • DebnAZ

    What Carl said…Amen!

  • Passing By

    Have to agree about the comments: ignorance combined with an attitude too superior to even justify its claims is a toxic mix.

    Still, it’s a different set of stories than I usually encounter:

    Racism in seminary hiring
    A Congressman who violates church and state separation by tweeting scripture verses
    A pyramid sect in Utah
    Does Fido have a soul
    Corpus Christi in Brazil
    The pope and child abuse

    Wait a minute: racism, church/state, sects and cults, and Catholic stuff (especially sex abuse). Aren’t those pretty much the staples of religion news these days? Ok, maybe not Fido’s eternal destiny, but I quit being interested in that 30-40 years ago.

    The Corpus Christi story was nice, but contained one really weird statement: a picture of a chalice and host “represents the Holy Grail”. Technically correct, perhaps, but I’ve never heard it put like that.

  • Ben

    I don’t think it’s true that people don’t want coverage of religious stories. What they want are religious stories that tend to confirm their presuppositions.

    So, it sounds like from some of the above comments that this is true among GR readers too. Isn’t this a bad trend?

  • Passing By

    Actually, Ben, I would like some religion news that’s, you know, something besides a re-hash of 30-40 year old themes; it’s nice if the stories are told accurately and with good will. I thought the pyramid/mummification story was interesting, but those of us old enough to remember Jonestown never read a cult story without some caution.

    And are you rebuffing complaints about comments such as:

    Christianity: The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree….THIS is what we’re supposed to BELIEVE???

    Or perhaps this bit of juvenalia:

    Abstinence makes the Church grow fondlers.

  • carl

    [5] Ben :

    So, it sounds like from some of the above comments that this is true among GR readers too. Isn’t this a bad trend?

    I don’t think it is bad so much as it is inevitable. What is called the “Culture War” in the US is really a struggle over which worldview will provide the required framework for the public square. Every society requires a definition of the Good, the Right, the True to function. These concepts don’t spring out of the ground on their own. They proceed from the presuppositions of a worldview – faith systems, as it were. They are not the inevitable objective result of Objective Reason for the simple fact that Objective Reason does not exist. Every man informs Reason with his own worldview. Assume a different worldview, and Reason will suddenly reach diametrically opposite conclusions. Reason is really a transfer function where the worldview shapes determines the response.

    As the shaping presuppositions of Christianity have been increasingly displaced by the alternative Agnostic Faith System, we see conflict over the basic definitions of Good, Right, and True. People want to see their own presuppositions reflected in the public square – whether in the law, or in the media, or any other public venue. It is naive to assume that journalism is neutral ground in this conflict. There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. A man can never escape his worldview. So even here people want to see their presuppositions acting as the standard by which the Good, the Right, and the True are defined.

    It’s not about being willing to have one’s opinions challenged. This issue is much deeper than simple point of view. What people resist with strenuous effort is having their presuppositions challenged. They will not tolerate being told (even by implication) “Your presuppositions are wrong. What you call good is evil, and what you call right is wrong, and what you call true is false.” Liberals hear no such message from CNN because CNN presents the news from a foundation of fundamental liberal presupposition. I hear that message all the time, and that is why I call CNN my spiritual enemy.

    Presupposition always proceeds discourse. If there is not sufficient overlap in presupposition between the parties, then conversation is impossible. Nothing remains but raw power, and the desire to impose one’s definitions despite the resistance. It is a conflict that is impossible to avoid. We require definitions of Good, Right, and True, and we aren’t particularly interested in objections from competing worldviews. An unfortunate corollary is that Democracy only works when there is broad agreement on the underlying worldview. And, yes, that does bode very ill for the future of the Republic.

    carl

  • Ben

    Carl,

    Thanks for the note. That’s a bleak view. I guess my read on the cultural tensions is that it’s not so much a fundamental disagreement over what is good and what is evil. Rather we have a lot of disagreements over which good to prioritize when a decision has to be made.That sort of disagreement feels like something that can be sorted out by letting all sides make their most persuasive case, through appeals to religion or appeals to other symbols and narratives that resonate — or both. It therefore helps to be able to appeal on different levels to your fellow citizens.

    Regarding journalism and objectivity, I see you have a William Blake view of the world: “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” While the writer in me would like to think I’m penning poetry, the truth is my job as a journalist is grounded in relaying facts. Have you given up on the idea of objective facts? True, there is a certain amount of framing that must be done in writing the story, but I refuse the notion that I’m too dim to see beyond my own opinions to do that objectively. How do lawyers argue cases they personally wouldn’t support?

  • carl

    [8] Ben

    That’s a bleak view.

    Yeah, well … I’m a Calvinist. :) We pretty much think in bleak.

    Have you given up on the idea of objective facts?

    Not at all. But not all objective facts are established by the same authority. It is for example an objective fact that men are created beings held morally accountable to the requirements and boundaries established by their Creator. And yet how many readers just rolled their eyes and mentally put scare quotes around ‘objective fact’ in my previous sentence. We don’t agree on the authorities by which facts are established. We presume and therefore submit to vastly different (and mutually exclusive) authorities. That’s the source of the conflict.

    Journalists do not reveal their biases by reporting the content of a Presidential speech, or informing the public that Councilman Jim was arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution. They reveal their biases through the authorities they presume, and the authorities they dismiss. The authorities are used to define that which is Good, Right, and True. The framing that you admit reporters must do will reveal the definitions of Good, and Right, and Truth that governs how the reporter interprets the world. He might be able to fairly represent both sides, but if he thinks one side is advocating that which is bad, or wrong, or false, he will inevitably communicate that judgment through the words he writes. Readers are instinctively looking for the ‘right’ authorities to be validated and the ‘wrong’ authorities to be discredited. That is ultimately how each reader judges a journalist. He doesn’t care about the raw facts. He cares about the intrinsic context presented in the story that governs how the reader is supposed to understand the facts.

    I think many journalists see their profession as a calling. They see it as a way to make a difference and change the world for the better. These are the tasks of an advocate. Even so journalists want to be seen as neutral and objective for the very practical reason that it is far easier to ‘make a difference’ and ‘change the world for the better’ when one is seen as neutral or objective. Yet both outcomes presume the moral standard – the often unstated moral standard – of an advocate. That moral standard proceeds from a worldview. A reader has only to determine the difference the reporter is trying to make and the change he is trying to effect, and then work backwards to the worldview that drives him. He can’t hide that content in his writing. It would counter-act the result he is trying to bring about. That is why he must reveal himself.

    carl

  • Ben

    Carl,

    It’s my experience of my journalist colleagues that most got into the profession because they are relentlessly curious people. It basically allows you to constantly be learning new things, meeting interesting people, and get paid for it.

    Your view of journalism presupposes that nothing ever surprises anybody anymore, that every new thing that appears under the sun can easily be placed within a political ideology.

    If that’s how I viewed my job I would be so bored I would have left it years ago. I’m constantly surprised by things I learn in my reporting and it constantly changes my opinions about various things.

    The “worldview” of journalist and journalism is not so monolithic and inflexible as people would believe.


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