One thing I learned over several decades of reporting was to share as little as possible of my personal convictions or private life with folks in the newsroom. Sometimes it was used against you.
A kind of cultural bean counting was common. At one newspaper we were discouraged from posting any kind of bumper stickers on our cars -- we're not talking about political ones -- that might hint at bias.
If you were found to have any traditional religious sympathies, watch out. I’ll never forget one hapless reporter friend whose degree from Regent University (founded by Pat Robertson) caused him to be shut out of religion reporting jobs at two major newspapers. He was more than qualified, but the taint of Christian fervor was too much for the editors.
But these days, some outlets want their reporters to have a personal brand and a point of view. Still, I was surprised to see the following Religion News Service story on the dearth of Muslim reporters:
(RNS) Rummana Hussain was one of those children whose Muslim parents envisioned her in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck.
Instead, she became a metro editor and reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, where she covers criminal courts and remains the only Muslim member of the editorial staff. She knows “a couple” more Muslims at the Chicago Tribune, the state’s largest paper.
“Blame it on the parents,” jokes one prominent American Muslim when asked to explain the dearth of Muslims in the U.S. media. Many Muslim-Americans are immigrants who see medical school — maybe law school, but not journalism school — as the key to their children’s success, said Ibrahim Hooper, a former television news producer who is now the national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Well-represented in medicine, Muslims account for a sliver of the mainstream American media. Many Muslim reporters take heart in what they see, at least anecdotally, as a recent uptick in the number of Muslim colleagues: With Islamophobia on the rise and Islam-related stories — particularly on Islamic extremism — dominating the headlines, the need for more Muslim journalists seems all the more pressing to them.
News organizations should strive for diversity in their staffs, including religious diversity, said Richard Prince, a former Washington Post journalist who now writes a column on diversity for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, Calif. “When we want to cover communities accurately it helps to have people from those communities in our newsrooms, and in leadership positions as well,” Prince said.
Well, that’s interesting. When Mitt Romney was running for president, I didn’t see a call for Mormon journalists. When evangelical Protestants first became prominent in swinging presidential elections 15 years ago, I didn’t see newsrooms trolling for born-again journalists.
So why Muslims now? The Prince quote was interesting, but where was he when newspapers have sent left-leaning reporters to cover important-to-religious-people issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia? One of worst examples of this was New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse who marched in a pro-abortion event even though she was covering the U.S. Supreme Court -– and its various abortion-related rulings –- at the time.
Which goes to say that the media hasn't exactly lined up over the years to provide like-minded reporters -- or even a diverse flock of professionals -- to cover religious folk. The RNS article assumes that Muslim journalists would be attuned to the finer points of Islamic law and practice.
That's an interesting point. However, I’ve seen plenty of Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant journalists who haven’t a clue about their own traditions. It also assumes that a Muslim journalist might change the narrative when the subject matter is Islam. But how would a Muslim cover something like the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris differently? The article doesn’t say.
The only faith about which lots has been written in terms of media influence are Jews. When people ask whether there are more Jewish journalists (defined in terms of culture, as opposed to religious practice) per capita in newsrooms than other religions, the arguments are often rather nasty.
Still, it’s always been a mantra of news organizations that you don’t have to be a member of a religious community to cover that community well. Remember the infamous 1994 Washington Post religion writer job posting that stated, “The ideal candidate is not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion”?
Fortunately, that mentality has changed; the Post’s most recent religion reporter hire used to work for Christianity Today. And remember that Louis Moore, a former religion editor at the Houston Chronicle and a Southern Baptist, always said that people of the same faith should cover their own because only they know where all the bodies are buried.
Although I’ve seen media organizations scramble for Hispanic, black, gay, Native American and other minority reporters to cover those communities, that has not happened on the religion beat. Other than Crux’s hire of John L. Allen, Jr., to concentrate on Catholics, I’ve never seen a media organization hire a reporter to mainly cover his or her own faith community. So why does this RNS piece stress that Muslim journalists get hired in the media “to tell their own stories?”
I can just imagine a young Buddhist/Jehovah’s Witness/7th-day Adventist or anyone else belonging to a smaller religious community walking into a newsroom and saying he or she wants to “tell the stories” of their group. Would they get a hearing? Am guessing not.
I think it’s great if newsrooms are truly diverse, when it comes to issues of intellect and culture. But they are not; especially the larger, elite, mainstream outlets. They don’t just lack Muslims, they lack cultural conservatives, people from flyover country, devoutly religious people of all sorts, veterans, blue-collar folks and more. See the conclusions of this famous 2005 self-study of The New York Times (.pdf here).
So if an editor wants to hire a Muslim journalist, fine. Just remember there are lots of other scribes from other religious traditions who’ve been waiting in line even longer to tell their stories too.
The photo of Al Jazeera reporter and producer Roxana Saberi is taken from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University website. The photo of Lebanese journalist Ghada Owais, who also works for Al Jazeera, is from ynetnews.com.