On this week's Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the odd way in which the media covers President Obama's religious rhetoric -- which is to say that they typically avoid it. This particular story we were discussing -- a speech that's entire framework came from an inspiring and prophetic story from the Bible to encourage some of President Obama's core supporters -- suffered from the same problem we see all the time. Reporters loved covering the political parts and shied away from the religious parts. But this year has been full of scrutiny of religious rhetoric. So this story also displayed the flip (down)side of the poor way in which conservative religious rhetoric is scorned -- silence.
I can think of few better examples of just how uncomfortable religious rhetoric has become for press coverage than the way this speech was treated. I suppose I should mention, for the sake of full disclosure, that the White House must have liked my post on it since they sent it out to reporters.
A few readers and listeners to the podcast think I was way too easy on Obama. The fact is that I didn't mention my personal feelings about President Obama or his policies. If we were having a discussion about those things or even the speech itself, I'd have plenty of criticism to offer. But our job here is to simply analyze the way the media handles religion news, not talk political shop.
We also discussed that Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey that showed that significant portions of the population think that members of the media are biased, inaccurate and immoral.
I had found that last descriptor to be intriguing and couldn't quite figure out what it meant. Were people monitoring reporters' bar-hopping at night? Many folks commented that it likely relates to a push for what they see as an immoral agenda, which actually makes more sense to me. What do you think "immoral" meant in the case of the survey's respondents?
As for the rest of the public opinion, commenter sari shared these anecdotes:
The survey reflects public sentiment pretty well, I think, and with good reason. Whether it’s editors who pander to public opinion in order to increase market share or journalists who lack the knowledge base and requisite skills to research and report accurately on a topic, few media outlets can be trusted to present accurate, impartial news. The result is that many people refuse to go on record for fear of misattribution or misrepresentation, especially when interviewed on topics like religion.
My family was once featured in a large article about a huge corporate relo from one state to another. The interview came about when I contacted a reporter (not religion) who criticized Jewish leaders in print for not returning calls he had made “late Friday afternoon”. He had wanted input on congregants’ feelings about being relo’d from an area with communal supports to an area with virtually no Jewish presence. Had he done his homework, he would have realized that most rabbis had already turned off their ringers for the Sabbath. We talked, he apologized, admitted his ignorance, and said he was looking for people like us to interview. We agreed, but only on condition that he’d tape the interview to ensure that what we said was what we actually said. It was a nice article, front page in both states (sister papers), and he got his facts right.
Fast forward to a recent article about changes in a major Jewish institution without a) researching the institution’s history and b) soliciting opinions on these changes from any but the most liberal denominations. Rather than learn, the individual chose not to answer email and when phoned, was openly hostile (raised voice). The managing editor seemed ok with this behavior. A reporter who cannot be bothered to check facts or provide context should find another line of work.
At this point, our local subscription costs less than the coupons it provides. When that changes, we’ll de-subscribe. We’ve completely given up on TV news.
So often when we criticize the way newspapers are going, we talk about the lack of foreign bureaus and the like. But sometimes the problems are just much more basic. Getting the facts right and taking the time to learn the complexity of the situation go a long way. I don't want to defend mean behavior, but it is good to remember that reporters are having to cover many more beats than they did even a few years ago. It can be hard to get all of your stories filed and take that time necessary.