A sermon on journalism: Let us attend

cpulpit4Please hang in there with me as I continue to do some post-Key West forum housekeeping. GetReligion readers who are interested in debates about Associated Press style, the history of American religion and the future of newspapers may want to click here and head over to my latest column for the ethics and diversity team at that online newsroom water cooler operated by the Poynter Institute.

I admit that the style of this one is a bit strange and even preachy. Thus, the headline that they provided: "Literal Evangelism: A Sermon on Language, Usage and Religion in the News."

Here's how I started things off:

The readings for today's sermon are from Billy Graham, Bill Keller and The Associated Press Stylebook.

Let us attend.

If you go to the Poynter.org site, you'll find quite a few URLs in this column and themes that will sound familiar to frequent GetReligion readers.

Please remember that this column is written to an audience of professional journalists and I am trying to make a case for some fundamental values in the craft of newswriting. This is, to use Jay Rosen's way of talking, an example of a journalist (that would be me) trying to preach the old-time religion to the journalism choir. I freely admit that, inside the modern tent, there are strong debates going on about some of these old doctrines. But it is still acceptable to preach about the basics.

I won't bore you with the whole thing, but here's a summary statement that gives you a good idea of what I'm up to.

Words have great power in the world of religion. However, there is a problem: Many religious leaders do not agree on what many of the powerful words mean. As Graham noted, it may be impossible -- in clear, historical terms -- to define words that are used all the time in religious and mainstream media.

What does the word "church" mean to a Southern Baptist? What does the word "Church" mean to a Roman Catholic? A "bishop" in the United Methodist Church is not the same thing as an Episcopal bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop, or an AME Zion bishop, or a Catholic bishop, or a Pentecostal Holiness bishop or, come to think of it, a Mormon bishop.

I could go on and on. Define "marriage." Define "sin." Give three examples.

This is complicated stuff. ... Many religious believers are convinced that journalists do not have well-developed vocabularies, when it comes to the rites and the wrongs of religious doctrines, rituals, history and traditions. It's hard to do a good job, journalistically speaking, when you are not getting many of the words right.

Journalists also like to use certain words to describe people they respect, or with whom they agree. This works the other way around, too. One person's "evangelical" is another person's "fundamentalist." One person's "moderate" is another's "liberal." The public is convinced that our labels are clues to our biases.

We cannot avoid labels, in hard-news reporting. Thus, I suggest that we strive not to attempt to read people's minds. We must strive to let people describe their own beliefs and do our best to report their words as accurately as possible. We must try to let people label themselves.

The goal is to report unto others as we would like them to report unto us.

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