Newsweek: Avoid stereotyping

Ned Flanders2Newsweek's Lisa Miller has some advice for journalists covering people who "were taught that homosexuality is an abomination and that Adam and Eve cavorted with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden": Be compassionate and avoid stereotyping. I don't know about the compassionate part, because I'm not sure what that means to a journalist (be kind and civil?), but avoiding stereotypes is Journalism 101.

For example, in writing about the common conversion code some evangelical groups recently signed onto, The Associated Press avoided the use of words like "some" and "generally." In my view, the AP also avoided stereotyping the groups it wrote about. Good for the AP. But that story was about large groups, not individuals. Individuals are harder to write about.

Miller's journalistic advice comes from her review of journalist Hanna Rosin's recently released book God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America. Miller praises Rosin for achieving this balancing act:

The challenge for any responsible journalist approaching this subject, then, is twofold. She must approach with compassion, avoiding the stereotyping that so often characterizes books and articles about religious groups. This tendency among reporters to see people of strong faith as freaks or oddities (whether Mormons or Muslims or Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians) only exacerbates misunderstandings between Red and Blue Staters and fans the flames of the culture war. At the same time, she must retain her skepticism, wrestling with the fact that what liberal intellectuals fear most about evangelical Christians is in this case partially true: the students at Patrick Henry College do want to take over the world and they do think that anyone without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is going to hell.

From what I've read, seen and heard of Rosin, I believe she is an excellent reporter who strives to tell the truth in her reporting. That's a more general way of saying "don't stereotype." Miller seems to suggest that Rosin should go a step further and moralize about the subjects she is covering:

Because this book preys so heavily on liberal anxieties, one wishes Rosin had grappled more deeply with this question: does Patrick Henry College actually pose a threat to American values of pluralism, equality and democracy? Certainly, its students are culture warriors in the extreme -- committed to breaking down church-state separation and debunking evolution, as well as to overturning Roe and banning gay marriage.

Now before you hit that comment button, remember that we are a blog about journalists and how they cover religion. This isn't a place to debate Roe v. Wade or separation of church and state. The question is: Should journalists insert their view on what American values are?

In Miller's view they amount to pluralism, equality and democracy, whatever that means. And how do religious beliefs play into how a reporter covers a story? As Miller notes, Rosin is a "former Washington Post reporter, a member of the educated East Coast elite, and a Jew." Who gets to decide the values on which journalists stand?

Is it even possible to eliminate a journalist's personal opinions and religious values from religion coverage? Or is avoiding them the Holy Grail?

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