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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