Not 5Q+1: Thoughts from Michael Luo on faith and ink

A long, long time ago, during the gentle, mild reign of GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, we used to have “5Q+1″ features in which we asked journalists — including many not on the religion beat — a set of questions about their views on religion and the news.

Maybe we will bring that back sooner or later. That think ye?

As time went by, Sarah broadened the feature to include a wider variety of questions. In one such interview, she e-chatted with Michael Luo of The New York Times about a variety of subjects, including that whole “Linsanity” explosion in Madison Square Garden and the NBA in general. Click here for a refresher on that. One of the key exchanges went like this:

I grappled a good bit with what exactly I could say in my essay that was new and potentially instructive about Jeremy Lin. I thought about just explaining my emotional connection as an Asian American, which is arguably applicable to a broader swathe of people. But I realized writing about him as an Asian American Christian, specifically, could be illuminating, because it is a sub-category on the religious continuum that is not widely known. It is also a huge part of Lin’s identity. Understanding that he is an Asian American Christian, specifically, is important to understanding him, I felt. Of course, that is not what the entire piece was about. I was trying to explain this welter of emotions inside of me that he evokes and this multi-layered sense of connection.

Certainly, there is a danger in lumping all theologically conservative Christians, or “evangelicals,” together, because there are distinct differences in the histories, cultural milieus and general orientations of white, black, Asian and Latino evangelicals. Has the media papered over these distinctions? Sure. Part of it is our under-coverage of religion in general. The other part of it is just getting out there and covering these communities in thoughtful, in-depth ways.

When you tweeted that it was a vulnerable column, did you feel like you were risking something by writing about yourself? How do you think reporters who are open about their faith are perceived internally at their media outlets or externally as a reporter?

As a journalist, my instinct, in general, is to shy away from making myself the story in any way. The risk in identifying myself, as I did in the article, as one of these “every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the Bible-and-pray” types is on two levels. There’s the personal risk in terms of what others might think of me, whether they will instinctively try to put me in a certain box, or ascribe certain stereotypes onto me, which no one likes. There’s also the journalistic risk, in terms of whether it might affect my ability to do my job and be credible as an objective journalist. …

Now, journalist Paul Glader of The King’s College faculty (best known for his Wall Street Journal reporting) has explored some of the same material with Luo in an interview featured in the current issue of Christianity Today.

There is material in this piece that I know will interest regular GetReligion readers, since it relates directly to interactions between religion and journalism and religion in major newsrooms, such as The Times. The key is that Luo sees the connections between religion and real life, including his own work covering criminal justice.

For starters, there is this:

What do fellow Christians most often misunderstand about journalism, particularly news reporting?

Their misunderstandings [aren't] so different from the misunderstandings that non-Christians have. Newspapers, including The New York Times, haven’t done the best job in this period of profound skepticism of explaining what we do. It’s just assumed that people know basic principles, like the fact that the editorial page and the news department are separate, or that opinion columnists are different from reporters. In a period of such political polarization, [explaining ourselves] is essential.

Many Christians consider The New York Times hostile toward evangelical faith. Is that a fair assessment?

Most evangelicals — and non-evangelicals — would be surprised by the lengths that reporters and editors go to fairly report the news. We agonize almost daily over individual sentences, even phrases, in articles and headlines, web summary lines and captions, to make sure they are fair and unbiased. Do we always succeed? No, but the effort is almost always there.

On the other hand, sometimes you can’t know what you don’t know. A lot of reporters and editors at The Times don’t know any evangelicals, have never set foot in a church, and have worldviews that are far removed from evangelicals’. … They might not know that evangelical is a theological orientation, not necessarily a political one; that there’s a difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism; that plenty of evangelicals do not believe the earth was created in six 24-hour days; that not all evangelicals believe in the Rapture. Ignorance can lead to inaccurate and misleading characterizations. And yes, it can lead to bias seeping through in the way Christians are depicted.

Oh to have been able to submit a few questions for this fine interview!

For example, Luo discusses the justifiably famous 2005 Times self study that, among other essential themes, included several references to the newspaper’s struggles to cover religious issues. It called for more intellectual and cultural diversity in the newsroom. How goes that?

And, of course, there is the matter of the Bill Keller confession in 2011 that the Times is not a liberal newspaper, unless the topics being covered are linked to culture, morality and, well, religion. Here’s a chunk of my Scripps Howard column on that:

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. … We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

In the interview with Glader, Luo does note:

The Times is like a lot of other cosmopolitan institutions: filled with highly educated people, many of whom went to elite colleges. Often, there is a dearth of Christians in these types of places, and The Times is no exception. I don’t know about the faiths of all my colleagues, but I’m definitely not alone. I know of a handful of Christians in the newsroom, people whose faith looks like mine, including people who would really surprise outsiders.

By all means, read it all.

GetReligion readers will also appreciate this Thomas Kidd essay at The Anxious Bench about why there will always be a need for Christian publications that have the freedom, and gumption, to cover some of the muddy stuff that takes place, from time to time, inside the church.

Read on.

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.


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