As I mentioned earlier this week, GetReligion turned 11 on Feb. 2 and I noted that with a salute to the late journalist and pastor Arne Fjeldstad, the leader of The Media Project that backs this weblog, who died earlier this year. I also mentioned a major religious literacy conference for journalists and diplomats -- fittingly called "Getting Religion" -- held recently in England.
I wrote a pair of "On Religion" columns (here and here) about that conference that, among other voices, quoted Dr. Jenny Taylor, the founder of the Lapido Media network. I mention that because one of those Universal syndicate columns ("Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That's 'anti-journalism' ") led to something that I don't think I have ever seen before.
That would be a major editorial in a daily newspaper that warns the press not to ignore religion news. No, really.
The newspaper in question is The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, which is, of course, not your normal daily city newspaper. I should also mention that, as of a year ago, former GetReligionista Mark Kellner has worked in that newsroom helping produce its expanded religion-news coverage.
So here is that editorial. I need to make one comment partway into the text, so hang in there with me.
Too often, religion is considered out-of-bounds for journalism, in large part because it is a sensitive subject that can easily be portrayed incorrectly.
For example, government leaders in Berlin have had serious discussions for several years on whether or not to display any Christianity-based Christmas decorations in public spaces. But limited coverage explaining the conflicting preferences of Christians, Muslims and other faiths over the issue have resulted in a lack of public understanding and a need for near-identical public debate annually. Similar discussions -- including a dearth of religious details or simplistic, glossed-over definitions -- have taken place in the U.S. as well.
But avoiding these topics completely in the news doesn’t benefit anyone.
Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, describes the building process of an enormous mosque in East London. The mosque receives financial sponsorship from Tablighi Jamaat, a global Muslim organization believed to be a center for radical Islamists. The mosque’s construction and backing haven’t received much press because, Mattingly believes, religion is a sensitive subject.
He quotes British media critic Jenny Taylor as saying, “The majority of the world is deeply religious,” but that, at least in Great Britain, there is still a sort of “cultural prejudice and ideological pressure not to ‘do God’ ” in the news. But the problem is not isolated to Great Britain.
Concerning that case study with the mosque: I want to stress that Taylor mentioned it in her presentation at the conference as an example of how the media is often afraid to cover disputes INSIDE Islam. This fear often gets in the way of valid coverage, even when doing so would offer mainstream Muslims a chance to make a case for their beliefs and traditions, gaining separation from more radical forms of this complex faith.
Here is that section of my column:
One story has been unfolding in East London, where controversy has long swirled around plans to build the massive Abbey Mills Mosque near Olympic Stadium. How massive? It would hold 9,000 people, roughly four times the size of the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral.
The power behind the mosque is Tablighi Jamaat, a global organization that Western security experts believe serves as a recruiting network for radical Islamists, including al-Qaeda. Many Muslims accuse "TJ" of opposing efforts to help believers, especially women, assimilate into Western life.
A cabinet minister will soon decide the mosque's fate. But the key, said Taylor, is that this story has received little mainstream press coverage, in part because journalists either don't take religion seriously, fear making mistakes or don't want to be called "Islamophobic," even when defending moderate Muslims.
There is no way to justify this lack of coverage, she said, and in the end "to ignore religion is 'anti-journalism.' "
Now, back to the editorial in The Deseret News:
Perhaps the main reason for this is precisely because religion is so easy to portray in the wrong light. It is easier to avoid it than to risk getting in on the wrong side. However, religion is -- and should be -- a sensitive subject. It should be handled delicately in journalism and not avoided. Instead of glossing over religious terms and throwing out generalities, religion deserves more attention from journalism, not less. A Christian Today column put it nicely: “Poor understanding of the complexities of religious belief, theologies and ideologies means that nuances are often lost in mass reporting.”
Precisely because religion is a main pillar of American life, it deserves proper media coverage. The media should be more attentive, and sensitive, to the issues of religious liberty.
The Supreme Court doesn’t tackle religious issues often. But a Pew Research Center column illustrates that, at least from religious viewpoints, 2015 will be a very different year. The high court is soon going to hear even more challenges surrounding the Hobby Lobby and contraception mandate that requires businesses to cover birth control for their employees. At the end of February, a Muslim woman will defend her stand against Abercrombie & Fitch for wearing her religious head gear, or hijab, at work.
In April, the Supreme Court will look again at the definition of marriage; Robin Fretwell Wilson, a family law professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign, noted that justices who oversee the matter should consider the faith-based concerns as well as the constitutional ones.
Likewise, journalists and readers should not shy away from faith-based matters just because they deal with the sensitive subject of religion.
Word. Pass this one around, please.
IMAGE: "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," the book.