Flash! Journalists don’t get religion

This is, literally, a case of preaching to the choir and I know that.

However, one of the must-read stories of the weekend was the gigantic Deseret News feature story — backed by a lengthy editorial-page essay — about the mainstream media’s struggles to cover religion news. Yes, I am somewhat compromised in that I am quoted at length in the piece. However, I am merely one voice of many. Trust me on that. Reporters Allison Pond and Michael De Groote talked to a wide array of well-connected folks on this issue. It’s a long and solid list.

Dig in, folks. Read it all.

There is much I could say about the piece, but I will limit myself to making three points.

* I want to stress, as I have for decades, is that people who study this issue must hold two truths in tension.

Yes, it matters that journalists are, as a rule, more secular then ordinary Americans or that journalists tend to fall into the vaguely “spiritual” camp rather than doctrinally “religious” camp. But the key is whether the journalists grasp the importance of religion in shaping life in this culture and almost every other culture on earth, to one degree or another. I know believers on the beat who get that. I know totally secular journalists who get that and do fantastic jobs.

* Next, it is one thing to say that it is a FACT that God heals people. That’s an interesting subject that has been researched in settings as lofty as Harvard University. That’s a debate for journalists to cover in a fair and balanced manner. However, there is no way to deny that it is a FACT that millions and millions of people believe that God heals and that this belief affects their lives and health, in ways good and bad.

I bring that up because of the following section of the story:

E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post and long-time observer of the nexus between journalism and faith, says “there really is a fundamental conflict between the definition of truth used by journalists and the definition accepted by people of religious faith.”

Doubting Thomas, he said, could be the patron saint of the journalistic profession.

“Our rules say, ‘Prove it. Show it to me. Give me the evidence. Do you have two sources on the Virgin Birth? Why should we believe these guys who said they saw Jesus after he died?’?”

On the one hand, he said, the basic skepticism of the journalist can strike religious people as wrong and even ungodly. On the other hand, a certain skepticism is unavoidable and is, in most contexts, a healthy aspect of the journalistic craft. Dionne suggested that journalists should be willing to suspend disbelief and enter, even temporarily, into the world of the religious believer, giving as an example a story he wrote about a Catholic exorcist during his time in Italy covering the Vatican for the New York Times.

“He deeply believed he had encountered Satan,” Dionne said, “and while I’m not big on Satan myself, it was impossible to doubt that this man’s description of what he had encountered was entirely honest. I quoted him respectfully in my story. I couldn’t resist at the end of the story quoting from C.S. Lewis’s ‘Screwtape Letters’ in which Satan tells his nephew, and I quote roughly, ‘all we have to do is get them to believe we don’t exist and then we’ve won.’?”

I think Dionne is right, but this sort of beside the journalistic point. In a way, he is saying that journalists are drawn to materialistic concepts of fact, truth and life in general. That’s fine, in their personal life, but that will not help them cover, oh, events in Pakistan or Nigeria. It will not help them understand life in Amish communities or booming churches in Africa or South America. It will not help them cover the struggles of a rabbi, priest or imam who is fighting cancer.

If journalists want to cover life in the real world, they will have to accurately report the beliefs and experiences of those who are not — in an accurate sense of the word — secular (or materialists).

* Finally, De Groote took me up on a challenge linked to this passage:

Mattingly recalled a conversation with the late George Cornell, a long-time religion writer for the Associated Press. Cornell told him that the AP’s yearly list of top 10 news stories in the world always contains at least five topics with an obvious religion component.

In 2010, for example, seven of the top 10 AP stories of the year had a religion angle: the health care overhaul because it dealt with abortion, the U.S. elections, Iraq, Afghanistan, the tea party movement and even the rescue of the Chilean miners.

I challenged them to run a few of these lists and let readers see this phenomenon for themselves. They did so. In addition to the 2010 list, there are lists from ’09 and ’08. The asterisks mark the stories with obvious religious angles.

2009

1. U.S. economy*
2. Obama inauguration*
3. Health care*
4. Auto industry
5. Swine flu
6. Afghanistan*
7. Michael Jackson dies
8. Fort Hood shooting*
9. Edward Kennedy dies
10. Miracle on the Hudson

2008

1. U.S. Presidential Election*
2. Economic meltdown*
3. Oil prices
4. Iraq*
5. Beijing Olympics*
6. Chinese earthquake*
7. Sarah Palin *
8. Mumbai terrorism*
9. Hillary Clinton
10. Russia-Georgia war

See the problem? They missed some haunted stories! The death of Michael Jackson? Lots of ghosts there. And one of the hottest stories linked to the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy was the role that Catholic leaders would or would not play in his funeral Mass, due to his years of public opposition to several key moral teachings in the faith. Were there religion elements in the Miracle on the Hudson?

The year before that, the war between Russia and Georgia immediately raised religious issues as the clash of two Orthodox cultures — with the church hierarchies immediately opposing the conflict. And there were no ghosts in Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House? Etc., etc., etc.

I think that’s enough for now. It’s time for me to stop preaching and for GetReligion readers to go read the Deseret News package.

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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.

  • http://www.chronicallychristian.com Kevin Swartzendruber

    You bring up a good point. It seems that in every area of news, reporters work to appear as insiders letting you in on the details of their stories. The moment the news shifts to stories of religious interest, however, they often appear to be outsiders narrating what they see while peering through a foggy window. News agencies would do well to hire believers to report these stories, or simply put their reporters through some intensive religious training. Of course that would entail accurate reporting, which many news agencies don’t seem to care to do when it comes to religion.

  • http://www.deseretnews.com Michael De Groote

    Terry, you are absolutely correct about those ghosts in the Top Ten AP stories lists. One thing I noticed about looking over the lists was how hard it was to find a story that did not have a religion angle. All you have to do is look.

    Thank you for taking the time to talk with the Deseret News about this important subject. We are planning another article on the subject to run on Saturday. That article will look at efforts to get religion right.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    I think a lot of Journalists take the doubting Thomas approach because they think it is not a religious viewpoint. A person who holds to a specific religious tradition knows his tradition is a world and life view that should not be the only one represented in his stories. A secular person does not see secularism that way. If the secular viewpoint is the only on represented that is OK because it does not really count as a viewpoint. It is somehow seen as a privileged vantage point that can see things as they really are without and religion distorting things. But that assumes exactly that secularism is true. That religion really does distort our ability to see and process facts rather than enhance it. So they are doing what is unthinkable for a Catholic or a Jew. That is write every story from the assumption that their religion is true and all other religions are false. They just don’t think their religion counts as a religion because it is so deeply ingrained in the journalism culture and in their mindset.

  • Jettboy

    Kevin, its not just religion that reporters on the whole work to appear as insiders except a particular subject. How many times does a report about Republicans and Conservative sound just as uninformed and biased? I guess it depends on if you are an insider or not with those positions, but I sure feel the difference and mostly negative.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Do you have two sources on the Virgin Birth?

    Actually, yes, we do have two independent sources. Three, if you count the author of the ‘Protevangelium of James’ as an independent historical witness, as some do.

    Why do these folks so often ask questions which have really obviously glaring answers?

    Re: I couldn’t resist at the end of the story quoting from C.S. Lewis’s ‘Screwtape Letters’ in which Satan tells his nephew, and I quote roughly, ‘all we have to do is get them to believe we don’t exist and then we’ve won.’?”

    Actually, the passage is about ‘materialist magicians’, who worship and serve impersonal ‘life forces’ while denying the existence of personal gods, devils, or angels. I guess Dionne’s misquotation is close enough, though.

  • http://seminaryinacan.blogspot.com/ David

    If anyone is looking for some contrast, I seem to remember NPR running a “good girls turned strippers” angle on the economy in 08-09.

  • Jon in the Nati

    “there really is a fundamental conflict between the definition of truth used by journalists and the definition accepted by people of religious faith.” [...] “Our rules say, ‘Prove it. Show it to me. Give me the evidence. Do you have two sources on the Virgin Birth? Why should we believe these guys who said they saw Jesus after he died?’?”

    Probably true, but I hardly see that it matters. I’m not asking reporters to believe what I believe; I really don’t care that much if they do or don’t. I’m only asking that if they want to make my (and others’) beliefs part of the story, that they understand what it is we believe, understand why it matters, and report accurately on it. It has nothing to do with accepting truth claims or not; it has everything to do with good journalism.

  • John M

    Tmatt,

    In what sense are you literally preaching, and in what sense are we literally a choir?

    Sorry, but the use of the word “literally” in a figurative sense slays me. Figuratively speaking, of course. :)

    -John

  • R.S.Newark

    Good quote from “The Screw Tape Letters”, there’s also a good one from Lewis’s “Elmer Gantry” that says…”I know there’s a God because I’ve seen the devil”…in other words evil- we all know – exists. The reporters you discuss clearly believe – say the Tea party for example – are evil.

  • http://churchwatch.wordpress.com Alan

    Patrick Coffin of Catholic Answers is fond of saying, “If I don’t know what an RBI is, no newspaper is going to hire me to write a sports column, but all the major papers let people who know nothing about religion write about it.”

  • Jim

    “This is, literally, …”

    No it’s not. Stop saying that. Please.

  • http://www.rickwarren.com Rick Warren

    In evey other area of coverage, media hire experts (or at least insiders) to cover and comment on events. Sporting events are covered by former coaches and players who truly understand the event. Former political leaders are hired to cover and comment political events. Doctors cover medical events. Only in religious coverage do we have non-religious journalists trying to interpret the Catholic church, Jewish Reporters trying to explain Evangelicals. etc. Mormons should cover Mormons, Muslims should explain Muslims and Methodists should cover Methodists!