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VIEWPOINT: The American Media Needs To Take A Theology Class (Or Three)

By Jack Jenkins, Guest Contributor on May 4, 2013 at 10:35 am

"VIEWPOINT: The American Media Needs To Take A Theology Class (Or Three)"

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Credit: CNN

There’s no way around it: Religion plays an especially powerful role in American public life. More than 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in God, and one need only examine the recent religiously-infused national debates over religious liberty, access to contraception, and marriage equality to see how crucial religion is to millions of Americans.

Yet religion seems to be having an increasingly hard time getting a fair shake from another major player in American life: the media. The breadth and quality of religion reporting in the United States has atrophied in recent years, with once-robust religion sections now all but erased from the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers. Meanwhile, religion reporters have either been laid off or forced to re-shift their professional focus to covering religion “on the side.”

The result is a mainstream media sorely lacking in quality religion reporting, a fact that calls into question the press’ ability to paint an accurate picture of modern American life. In light of the recent confused coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and Islam, it’s worth reminding the press why they (we) should try harder to get religion right. So, in the spirit of modern journalism, I’ve put together five reasons why journalists need to get working on their religion coverage:

1. Failure to understand religion can lead to embarrassingly inaccurate stories. When Roman Catholic cardinals descended on the Vatican in March to cast their vote for the next pope, journalists were quick to solicit the opinion of Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun who rose to fame last year for her public opposition to Rep. Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal and her rousing speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. But in midst of her interviews, Campbell was also repeatedly asked another question: Which papal candidate did she intend to vote for?

The question was, well, kind of awkward. Campbell is a woman, meaning current Catholic doctrine prohibits her from holding any priestly position, much less the role of cardinal, which is the only title afforded the right to cast a vote for the next pope. Campbell graciously corrected the reporters before they went to print, but the inane and ignorant questions exemplify the larger problem of facepalm-inducing religious illiteracy that continues to plague mainstream American journalism.

The New York Times, for instance, had to issue a correction in March for an article that botched the definition of Easter. Unfortunately, the correction itself was also wrong, sparking an avalanche of tweets and blog posts mocking the Times and their story. Vanity Fair even offered the Old Gray Lady a few pre-written faux-corrections for other religious holidays, such as, “An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. It is the Festival of Lights, not the Festival of Sprite™.”

These kinds of mess ups may seem small, but in a profession where reputation is built on accuracy and where backlash is swift, reporters can’t afford to play fast and loose with religious details.

2. Lazy religious reporting can make stories appear biased. Getting smart about religion requires more than the occasional trip to Wikipedia. Religion isn’t just a bulleted list of facts and names, but a perpetually contested space rife with heated debates over scriptural interpretation, theological nuance, and liturgical practice.

Granted, asking brevity-obsessed journalists to convey complexity is roughly as difficult as asking a southern preacher to shorten her Easter sermon. But when journalists fail to acknowledge the kaleidoscopic character of modern American theological life, they tend to overrepresent the loudest or most conveniently accessible religious voices and position them as the “authentic” representatives of all believers.

During the coverage of the papal selection, for example, MSNBC leaned heavily on the analysis of George Weigel, a Senior Fellow at the conservative Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Ethics and Public Policy Center who supported the Catholic bishops in their campaign against the HHS contraception requirement and continues to agitate against marriage equality. Significantly less airtime was given to representatives of progressive Catholic groups such as Catholics United, organizations that oppose the Catholic bishops on many issues but whose positions better reflect the views of most American Catholics according to polls on topics like marriage equality.

Journalists should obviously be able to recognize that a good story highlights different perspectives on the same issue, and having more voices in the room can have other perks: It wasn’t George Weigel but James Salt, head of Catholics United, who correctly predicted that Jorge Mario Bergoglio would become the next pope — on CNN.

3. Religious illiteracy leads to missed opportunities. Journalists often fail to grasp the connections public figures make between their religious beliefs and their policy positions, an oversight that can lead to missed stories. Todd Akin’s troublesome comments about how women’s bodies have ways of “shutting down” pregnancy by rape, for example, were at least partially reflective of what is taught at Covenant Theological Seminary he attended in St. Louis. The seminary has since issued a statement decrying Akin’s comments insisting that the act of rape is “wicked”, but implied continued opposition to abortion even in instances of rape. This story, while potentially eye-catching, went largely unreported outside of the religion blogosphere.

4. Good religion reporting can keep people safe. Mainstream media outlets have been more discerning than usual in their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and their connection to Islam, but troublesome inaccuracies are already starting to appear. The L.A. Times falsely reported that the worship space of the bombing suspects was the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in the days following the bombing (it’s actually the Islamic Society of Boston), and only corrected the story after one of the ISBCC’s imams made a series of passionate pleas over Twitter.

The ISBCC’s digital urgency was rooted in real-world fear. In the wake of the bombings, Muslims in and around Boston reported a wave of sometimes violent harassment even before the bombing suspects were said to be Muslims themselves. Given their unique role as information conduits from the authorities to the public, journalists have extraordinary power during times of crisis and tension — especially when religion is involved. They should not take it lightly.

5. Religious illiteracy is a fixable problem. Obviously getting smart about religion isn’t the easiest of ventures. Some people literally dedicate their whole lives to grappling with the mysteries of the divine, so expecting journalists to always get religion “right” in 750 words or less is a bit of a tall order. Still, there are a few practical steps existing journalists can take to improve their overall coverage of religious issues.

First, it helps to pull from diverse religious sources. Even if you’re writing about only one religious group, it doesn’t take much to become familiar with the various “wings” of any given religious tradition. After all, reaching out to a different variety of experts – be they religious or otherwise – is simply good journalism, and leads to fuller, more interesting stories. What’s more, journalists who cover other areas – national security, environment, health care, etc – are all expected to consult with issue experts. Religion has its own cadre of experts – faith leaders, theologians, historians, liturgists, advocates, etc. – that reporters should know about.

Second, there is much to be learned from the few (but surprisingly resilient) media outlets that prioritize religion news. Secular outfits such as the Religion News Service still consistently produce excellent examples of informed religion coverage, and religious tradition-specific media arms such as the Catholic News Service, the Presbyterian News Service, the United Methodist News Service and others regularly produce exhaustive reporting and insightful analysis of their respective communities. Giving these sources a glance before penning a piece on a religious issue is not only a smart research move, it’s also an acknowledgement of one’s fellow journalists and their work.

Finally, simply treating religious issues with respect can go a long way towards improving quality of coverage. No one expects major media machines to suddenly start churning out above-the-fold features about the various theological stances regarding the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, but if the editors and reporters treated religion with the same level of deference they reserve for, say, politics or sports, then articles that involve religion are far more likely to get the due diligence they deserve.

To be sure, covering religion is a tricky business. Print media has known for years that religion stories sell: According to a 2002 study for Folio Mag, magazines who put Jesus on their cover see issue sales jump by as much as 45 percent, and fronting an image of the Bible can bolster sales by as much as 51 percent. Yet the sheer diversity of opinions amongst believers makes it nearly impossible to pen a quality story that pleases all religious parties. Nevertheless, shooting for a higher standard of excellence in religion reporting is not only a noble goal, it’s a valuable public service. Individual journalists, the media at large, and the American public as a whole only stand to gain from a press that not only takes religion seriously, but also strives to report it accurately.

Our guest blogger is Jack Jenkins, a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.

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