Yes, religion rattles many readers

Catholic St  Franc  SWFirst things first. It appears that the combination of a Muslim congressman, a blunt Pat Robertson and page one of Google News created a bit of a technical problem yesterday here at GetReligion. It took some time, but we think that things are better. Hang in there with us. Meanwhile, I would like to flash back to the Divine Mrs. MZ's post on the New York Times column by public editor Byron Calame and his concerns that the newspaper's elite magazine did not get the job done on that now infamous Jack Hitt story about Carmen Climaco and El Salvador's abortion laws.

While MZ is still following that story, I want to underline a few points in last weekend's column by Deborah Howell, who holds roughly the same post -- ombudsman -- at The Washington Post that Calame fills (at the moment) at the Times.

Here are the top two paragraphs to set the scene:

The interests of readers and journalists often intersect in my office. Maybe a better word would be clash.

Journalists and readers don't always think alike. In fact, journalists, who can be a contentious lot, don't always agree with one another. One of my great challenges is negotiating the gap -- sometimes a chasm -- between how readers perceive journalists and how journalists perceive themselves.

Thus, Howell dedicated this column to offering some helpful New Year's resolutions for readers and for Post journalists. She urges readers to "to feel less animus -- and occasionally even be appreciative -- toward those who do the vital job of keeping us informed." Amen. Preach it, sister.

Journalists can tell when angry readers simply hate journalism and journalists -- period. This is not constructive. Readers can be critical without being unrelentingly nasty. The goal is progress, not revenge.

Then she gets down to business, bringing us closer to the current tensions over the Calame column at the Times. It seems that, when it comes to ticking off readers, some subjects are hotter than others. Thus, Howell writes:

Questions of taste bedevil readers: Why would The Post run a "Mother Goose and Grimm" comic on Dec. 11 that depicted a vampire couple wondering why they get so many "bat mitzvah" invitations? Or print an entry to the Style Invitational on Dec. 10 that said "For Sale: Sally Hemings, well used"? Or let op-ed columnist Harold Meyerson refer on Dec. 20 to the "Catholic Church's inimitable backwardness"?

The bat mitzvah line was supposed to be funny, but it offended some Jewish readers. The Sally Hemings line was tasteless, but then the Style Invitational always pushes the edge of the taste envelope. Meyerson is an opinion columnist. Still, his was a pretty broad statement. That phrase, in a column about Episcopalians' debate about homosexuality, angered several Catholics, including Sister Mary Ann Walsh, deputy media director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who wrote: "The bigotry against Catholics expressed in [the] column ... is nothing short of despicable."

Baby1 03 01Which leads Howell to this simple statement:

Resolution for The Post: Think twice about publishing something distasteful or overreaching on religion, race and gender -- especially in a supposedly humorous way.

Behold, once again, the ongoing presence of religion in these discussions of tensions between the public and the press. This subject is not going away, is it?

I would add that screwing up the facts is a crucial element of "overreaching," especially on a global, nationsl, religional and local news topic as complex as religion. This is especially true on topics as explosive as abortion (the media-bias research topic that never goes away) and, as Howell notes, Israel and the Middle East.

Religion is a topic that gives many journalists sweaty palms and readers flushed faces. There is no need to deny this. The answer is better journalism, the kind of journalism produced by experienced journalists who respect the complexities and sensitivities of the religion beat. In other words, we need more journalism by journalists who "get" religion.

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