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