Religion reporting as public therapy?

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Stephen Prothero
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Once again, we need to flash back in time to look at that amazing and increasingly relevant memo that New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote to his staff in response to an in-house study of his news operation. You may recall that the study was called "Preserving our Readers' Trust (pdf)". The headline on the Keller response was "Assuring Our Credibility (pdf)" and one of the most important passages linked to religion coverage (there were several) said this:

We must ... be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples -- the way the word "moderate" conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of "religious fundamentalists" to describe religious conservatives -- but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

In other words, when mainstream journalists use the word "moderate" (as in "moderate" Muslims) it usually means, "People that we like." GetReligion readers already know that the word "fundamentalist" has turned into an slur that usually means, "Dangerous, uninformed, simplistic people that we don't like." Who cares what the Associated Press Stylebook says, anyway?

But let's back up to the word "moderate" for a moment. Rod "Crunchy Con" Dreher has a provocative post up (make sure that you check out the comments) that points toward an important PressThink essay by Jay Rosen of the journalism faculty at New York University.

As always, Rosen's views are witty and rather nuanced. The heart of the matter is that he believes it is hard to pin simplistic political labels on most journalists -- like "liberal" and "conservative." If anything fits, especially in elite newsrooms, it would be the word "cosmopolitan." I would add that many people try to call journalists "secular," but that rarely works, either. Journalists were "spiritual," but not "religious" before it was hip.

As Rosen noted in his famous essay "Journalism Is Itself a Religion," it is crucial that many journalists are absolutely convinced that there are no moral absolutes, no absolute truths that transcend time and culture. Thus, journalists have a natural distrust of traditional forms of religion, while looking with favor on modern, evolving, nonthreatening forms of faith. Where have I heard that before? Hello, Dr. James Davison Hunter.

In this new essay, Rosen connects some of the same dots. One of his central points is that most journalists hold in contempt people they consider "true believers." Thus, most reporters and editors believe that they are seeking out "moderate" voices or, I would argue, they are seeking to amplify voices that they consider "moderate."

And the impact on religion coverage? I cannot tell you how many times I have heard journalists make statements that sound something like this: "Oh, I didn't interview (insert name of relevant religious leader), because my editor said that we don't need to give extremists like that a platform." But what, I add, if this priest, or imam, or rabbi, or preacher is actually a key figure in the story? What if many of their claims are accurate, in terms of the history and doctrine of their faith?" At this point, journalists often shrug their shoulders or roll their eyes.

Now, back to the Dreher post, which focuses on a quotation from a blog post by Nicole Neroulias of Beliefnet about the new book by Stephen Prothero entitled "God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World -- and Why Their Differences Matter."

The bottom line is that the book's central thesis -- that irresolvable theological conflicts exist between the world's great religions -- makes Neroulias nervous. Thus, she writes:

... I'm not sure how I feel about Prothero's message. I haven't seen the book yet, but as a religion reporter, I'm generally more interested in probing what different faiths have in common (especially when you get strange bedfellows), as opposed to stoking conflicts (which make plenty of news anyway). Perhaps this also has something to do with being in an interfaith marriage, but if that's the case, more than a third of Americans may be inclined to feel this way, too.

In response, Dreher has this to say:

Note the loaded language: "stoking conflicts" is the opposite of "probing what different faiths have in common." The idea that to explore genuine conflicts both between and among faiths is an act of provocation is to turn religion journalism into an act of therapy. Is there a political journalist who would openly admit to approaching her beat that way? What political journalist would say that political journalists who routinely explore conflicts between the parties and their worldviews are provocateurs who just want to stir up trouble? To believe this is true is to commit yourself to providing your readers not with an understanding of the world as it is, but the world as you would like it to be. It means you aren't writing stories, but a Story. It's also an approach that automatically puts religious believers of whatever tradition who argue that on this or that issue, faiths are not ultimately reconcilable, automatically on the defense. ...

I have absolutely no doubt that many US religion journalists approach their beats in the same irenic, bridge-building spirit -- which is one reason why religion journalism in this religiously dynamic and complicated country tends to be so bland. ...

In other words, traditional (sorry, that would be "fundamentalist") forms of religion are uniquely dangerous and, thus, it is a public service to spotlight safe, progressive, evolving, "moderate" forms of faith -- in order to make the world a better place. It means avoiding some newsy subjects (like that whole messy Sunni v. Shiite thing), but journalists need to ignore some of the dangerous facts in order to promote progress.

The ultimate question: Does this help readers (and public leaders, even) understand the role that religion plays in the real world?

So, read the pieces by Rosen, Dreher and Neroulias and tell us what you think. If you have read the Prothero book (mine is on order), you can address that, too.

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