Just the Catholic facts –
Religion journalists point to reasons why secular media often get faith wrong
By Emily Stimpson, Our Sunday Visitor
HUNTINGTON, Ind., Aug.30, 2007 (www.catholic.org) – “Why does the secular media often get faith wrong?” That’s the question asked all too often when Catholic happenings make news in the secular press.
Case in point: Pope Benedict XVI’s freeing of the traditional Latin Mass last July.
No sooner did the news break than did errors in reporting start making their way into the living rooms of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Some of those errors were small — misnaming the missal that would be used — and some were great — passing off the decision as nothing more than an attempt to placate “rabid traditionalists.” All, however, played a role in confusing people about just what exactly the Catholic Church was up to.
Of course, it’s not just news about the Catholic Church that the secular press gets wrong. Protestants, Jews and Muslims also fret about how they’re represented in the press. So, what’s behind the persistent errors about Catholicism and other religions that make their way into news reports? Is it ignorance? Bias? Ratings? Or is covering religious news simply more difficult than covering political or business news?
Try “all of the above.”
Bias and ignorance
According to Raymond Arroyo, veteran journalist and host of EWTN’s “The World Over,” one of, if not the greatest, problem in the mainstream media’s religion reporting is the reporters themselves. Many, he said, have little or no religious training, view faith as a mere curiosity and can’t understand the significance of what they’re covering. They also, he said, lack basic knowledge of religious history and doctrine.
Arroyo recalled one journalist for a major network approaching him at the papal conclave in 2005.
“He said, ‘I know they call this the Holy See, so when did the water recede?’ And he was being serious,” Arroyo told Our Sunday Visitor.
“Most journalists are stone dumb when it comes to theological matters. And this is a complex beat. You’re dealing with thousands of years of history and laws,” he said. “It’s hard enough for me to get it right as a lifelong Catholic.”
On top of that, Krista Tippett, who hosts the weekly National Public Radio program “Speaking of Faith,” believes most journalists approach religion assuming that it’s subjective and, therefore, not to be taken seriously.
“It’s not that most people sit down and decide that,” she said.
“But the bias is there, which means journalists aren’t taking the time and care to do the research and analysis they would for other stories.”
Covering all faiths
That problem isn’t made any easier by the need for journalists to cover not one, but dozens of faith traditions.
“I could have a Ph.D. in religious studies, and I still wouldn’t know enough,” said Laurie Goodstein, the chief religion correspondent for The New York Times. “The sports staff has somebody devoted to basketball, somebody devoted to soccer, somebody devoted to college sports. But there are just two of us at the national religion desk. I have to cover the entire world of faith.”
The reporters, of course, aren’t the only ones to blame. There are also the folks who sit behind the desks at corporate headquarters, wanting to please the advertisers and garner top ratings. That want shapes the stories covered, the depth of coverage given and the headlines devised.
“Even good reporters are subject to the editorial desk,” said Arroyo. “And, at least in broadcast journalism, the Holy Grail these days is ratings — not communicating an idea, not understanding it, not getting a story right, but getting the largest audience.”
Too little time, space
In a news culture dominated by sound bites, reporters also have the challenge of conveying complex ideas in two minutes of airtime or in 900 or fewer printed words. Which, according to Tippett, sets a reporter up for problems.
“When we’re talking about God, mystery, ultimate truth, we’re talking about something that ultimately defies words,” she said.
“We’re trying to put the language of the public sphere on the ineffable. Religion is the most intimate thing you can ask people to talk about, but it ends up sounding trivialized when we squeeze it into soundbites.”
The end result of that type of reporting is not simply isolated mistakes that confuse Catholics and others, but rather a mistaken picture of religion as a whole, a picture that’s increasingly dominant in American’s conceptions of religion. That picture is essentially political, with religion becoming just one more place where “conservatives” and “liberals” square off against each other.
It’s also a picture of extremes, where only the loudest and most passionate voices get heard. “The sexy headline and strident voice are more exciting than the gentle voice,” said Tippett. “So, we have this skewed picture of religious events and who religious people are.”
Consistent errors in reporting also undermine people’s trust in the source. More and more, Arroyo said, those errors are perceived as “spin,” and they’re driving faithful people away from the traditional news outlets straight into the arms of alternative media, particularly talk radio. And that brings with it yet another set of problems.
“Increasingly, people aren’t getting solid reporting, they’re getting opinion,” he said. “That’s especially bad for the church.”
Improving the news
There are at least a few correctives currently available in the mainstream press. Goodstein pointed to the Religion Newswriters Association, which educates journalists about how to cover the world of faith.
“They play such an important role, both for those who have backgrounds and those who come in cold and have to learn everything,” she said.
There are also programs like Tippett’s “Speaking of Faith” and Bob Abernethy’s PBS’ “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” Both provide in-depth coverage of religious topics and feature interviews with religious leaders of all stripes. Abernethy started his program with the explicit intent of doing what wasn’t being done elsewhere — recognizing the importance of religion in global events and individual lives and talking about it without pitting different perspectives against each other.
“We try to be mindful of how precious these ideas and traditions are to people,” he said. “And we try to probe the depths of the spiritual motivations people have for what they do.”
Shaping their coverage
Abernethy, who was born into a family of Baptist ministers, and Tippett, who holds a master’s from Yale Divinity School, both see their personal faith shaping the way they approach religion news.
“I recognize that it’s a valid part of life, that it’s possible for intellectually-minded people to have deep faiths, and that faith makes real contributions to our understanding of the world,” Tippett said.
“I think it gives me a better sense of what a good religion story is,” added Abernethy. “And I hope it makes me more sensitive to what people of deep faith tell me, that it makes me try harder to fairly represent what they say.”
Arroyo credits Tippett and Abernethy with “filling a void” and “making up for the woeful lack of coverage at the major networks.” In the long run, however, shows like Tippett’s and Abernethy’s may help journalists working for secular outlets take religion more seriously, but they can’t entirely change the nature of the beast. Working for public television and radio exempts Abernethy and Tippett from much of the ratings game and demands of advertisers that color religion reporting in most broadcast outlets.
And, as Goodstein pointed out, both have a luxury few journalists have — namely, time. Most, regardless of how much they respect questions of faith, are still limited by airtime and word counts. Most are also limited by the confines of what they do — news reporting.
“People look to us for what’s the biggest news of the day, and in that word ‘news’ is the word ‘new,’ ” Goodstein said. “News covers controversies, and it often doesn’t cover the good people are doing.”
Also, as Arroyo pointed out, even the best secular reporters have to make judgment calls about what constitutes a “legitimate” viewpoint. They have to do so “while trying not to take a position or judge anyone,” but their ability to do that, he continued, is limited by human nature. It’s even more limited when they don’t have an insider’s understanding of the faith on which they’re reporting.
Given those realities and given that, for the foreseeable future, most Catholics will continue to get the majority of their news from the mainstream media, Arroyo believes the only real end run around mistaken and misleading coverage of religious news is for bishops, priests and laypeople to step up their efforts to inoculate Catholics against it.
“If Catholics were better catechized, bad secular coverage wouldn’t matter,” he said. “But because there are such deficiencies in understanding, people are subject to all sorts of propaganda and bad reporting. The real problem is people don’t know their faith.”
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Emily Stimpson is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.