Several readers have written in to let us know about a new feature over at Poynter.org entitled "New Frames Needed for Religion Reporting," written by Bill Kirtz of Northeastern University. This is a short summary of a recent forum on the subject at Northeastern and it offers some timely advice from veterans on the beat and some very good links to information. One of the key ideas in the piece is that mainstream journalists tend -- no surprise here -- to focus on conflicts rooted in religion and, thus, often miss important issues linked to the role faith plays in day-to-day life. As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas would note that journalists also like to turn religion into politics, either focusing on the horse-race side of the conflicts or, even worse, treating religion as part of the American political scene -- period. (What will the pope say during his visit that will affect the race for the White House?)
Another theme between the lines: It helps if journalists get their facts right.
Benjamin Hubbard, chair emeritus of comparative religion at California State University, Fullerton, and a blogger for The Orange County Register, noted that religion, values and spirituality permeate a range of important topics, including abortion rights, AIDS in Africa and the Iraq war.
So "it's more and more important for reporters to be religiously literate," he said. Hubbard sees religious coverage improving but said the media tend to adapt "conflict" models and present some clerics' unguarded comments out of context.
Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and director of the Center on Religion & the Professions at the University of Missouri, Columbia, also criticized "conflict framing" and said many reporters fail to capture the complexity of faith.
She said reporters covering religion should remember, "You're never an expert," be aware of their own biases and have a respectful attitude. "You can ask tough questions," she said, but argued that journalists should not try "to prove or disprove a faith."
I would agree with Mason that the mainstream press has special problems when it comes to covering Islam and Protestant evangelicalism. However, I would also note that both of those groups have trouble opening up and relating to the press. There are two sides to that disconnect. It helps when religious leaders respect the role of the press, as well as when journalists respect the role of faith in our culture.
What happens when you are covering religion in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or other non-Western cultures? That's another issue. Here is some wise advice:
... Munir Shaikh, executive director of the Institute on Religion and Civic Values, formerly called the Council on Islamic Education stressed the need not to generalize. He sees references to the "Muslim or Islamic "world," but notes that there's no separate "world" and that this tends to homogenize a diverse peoples and views. Instead, he said. journalists should be specific, identifying for example a country in which there is a majority of Muslims.
Shaikh identified other easily misused terms. He said "jihad," often translated as "holy war," actually means "striving for the sake of God" and that "Radical" or "Islamist" labels are as much of a generalization as "Moderate."
Of course, this implies that there is one normative interpretation of "jihad," which would seem to contradict his earlier advice to strive to connect specific beliefs to specific, named groups of Muslim believers. Also, there was a time when "Islamist" was being used as a term to describe a specific approach to fusing Islam and politics, but that consensus seems to have broken down.
Complex stuff. Click here, then read and discuss. Please.