A journalist who strives to practice the discipline of balanced, objective reporting never has an easy task. Inserting religion into the job description only makes things more difficult. See here what washingtonpost.com/Newsweek On Faith columnist Claire Hoffman had to say about the subject a week ago:
I've been writing this blog for four months now and the main lesson I've learned is that commenters here on the topic of religion have little ear for nuance and much propensity for deep and energetic anger.
At first, it bummed me out to read all these screaming comments weekly, seemingly willful in misunderstanding everything I'd written. The pitch of the comments seem particularly incongruous to my reality as I'm generally mild-mannered and would rather listen than talk -- that's why I became a journalist. I rarely have an opinion that is answered with a scream.
I was advised to ignore the craziness. People familiar with the site and other religion blogs said there was something inebriating in the combination of the anonymity of the web and the radicalism of religious opinions that made people react with venom.
Yes the job of a journalist covering religious issues can induce fits of rage from one's audience, particularly when the subject matter is something the audience member believes deals with issues of eternity, the meaning of life, or the occasional issue of morality. I've noticed that people are particularly peeved when a journalist writes about a subject they deeply care about and fails to reflect their point of view accurately. Sometimes journalists fail to reflect that point of view entirely.
In a perfect world this would never happen. Perhaps someday journalism will move to some sort of Wiki-like bliss where all of humanity can have input on the day's headlines. Until then reader reactions must suffice and journalists ignore or dismiss them at their peril.
The topic Hoffman was addressing in her post happened to be Scientology. From personal experience I know that the subject of Scientology regularly results in angry-off-the point comments that contribute little to productive dialogue. (Note: comments off topic are regularly and [hopefully] hastily deleted from this site.) The challenge of the subject of Scientology is that some people believe they are an evil cult while others, those who believe in Scientology, believe it is all about achieving self-improvement.
Here's what Hoffman wrote about a German government official's comments that Scientology is "not compatible with the" German constitution:
What is Germany so afraid of?
German officials have categorized Scientology as a business, not a religion, and tax accordingly. Scientology has responded by complaining about "religious discrimination."
The AP reports that "The North Rhine-Westphalia Higher Administrative Court in Muenster refused last month to hear an appeal to a February ruling allowing the intelligence agencies to continue observing the Scientologists. ...
Ban Scientology? Doesn't that seem kind of extreme? They are a religion largely focused on self-improvement. While I'm well aware of their checkered past, decrying it unconstitutional seems like a threatened position to take by a nation.
This particular post went on to receive 521 comments, which is only surpassed by a recent post on gay marriage rights. Generally Hoffman's blog seems to receive fewer than 50 for the average post.
It goes without saying that the topic of Scientology sets off a certain portion of people who comment on blogs and news Web sites. Part of that is because there is no easy way to cover a subject so sharply divided between those who see the positives and those who see the negatives of Scientology.
I think another aspect is that Scientology receives little serious news coverage by the mainstream media. Part of that can be blamed on the Scientology organization, which has in the past made journalists' lives quite difficult. Another part is the media's general inability to commit resources to covering religion seriously, much less Scientology.
Perhaps this can explain the growing movement known as Anonymous. Mainstream journalists seem to be largely ignoring this movement, but that hasn't stopped it from growing in size and influence. The movement known as Anonymous is something journalists should watch closely and don't be surprised to see others like it appear when journalists fail to do a proper job of covering issues that are meaningful to large groups of people.