Catholics 'clutch' rosaries in Poland? Journalists should pay attention to details in worship

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The big issue in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) was a question raised in my recent post about coverage of a remarkable religious rite that took place on the border of Poland.

Poland is, of course, an intensely Catholic land. Thus, there were several layers of symbolism present when legions of worshipers lined up along parts of the nation's borders to pray the rosary, specifically praying for the future of their land and all of Europe.

Note that I called the participants "worshipers."

Yes, that was a value judgment on my part, a decision that was unavoidable when writing about this event. It was clear in the news coverage (I focused on BBC and The New York Times) that the Poles were, to some degree, mixing religious faith and concerns about current events and trends.

Thus, were these people "worshipers" or were they, oh, anti-Muslim activists?

The language didn't get that blunt in the BBC coverage, but it was a close call. At that global news powerhouse, this was a political event that was using religious symbolism linked to Polish nationalism. At the Times, this was a religious event with strong political overtones.

You can see these two competing narratives in the coverage. In this case, I think the Times did the better job.

However, the podcast raised another issue. Wouldn't it have been good to have included some of the language of the rosary prayers in the story? Might that be linked to the message of the event?

I mean, what were the worshipers actually saying in these rites? The "mysteries" that are combined with the basic rosary prayers contain riches in terms of biblical language about specific themes in Christian life and history. Did these Poles use the texts of the "luminous" mysteries linked to the life and work of the most famous modern Polish Catholic of all, St. Pope John Paul II?

Ah, but asking about that would have required paying attention to what's going on as those Catholics "clutched" their rosaries during this "controversial" rite (using language that shows up in news stories about this kind of thing).

So why do mainstream journalists struggle to, you know, "get" religion, to understand that in many cases the religious content and symbolism in these events is linked to, well, their meaning to the people involved?

About the time we cut the podcast, I noticed that another journalist had written a fine piece on precisely this subject, with the headline, "Why Rosaries Scare the Media."

Then I noticed that this piece was written by Clemente Lisi, a former editor at The New York Daily News and several other mainstream New York City newsrooms. Here's the kicker: Lisi is now my colleague on the journalism faculty at The King's College in lower Manhattan.

So what's going on when journalists struggle to cover this kind of story? Why do so few journalists "get" religion? Why does this blog exist?

Take it away, Prof. Lisi. (Warning: He does use the "devout" word at one point.)

Newsrooms, from my experience, lack diversity. While diversity in the job market is the aim of all companies, no other industry needs it more than journalism. Newsroom diversity leads to big ideas, better debates, and improved news coverage. The problem? Diversity is often seen as having to do with either race or gender. Are there enough African Americans on staff? Should we hire another woman? These are all questions media companies grapple with behind closed doors every time there’s a job opening.
What employers never lose sleep over (or even talk about) is whether there are enough devout Catholics in their newsroom or if they need to hire a person of faith -- any faith -- to report on what’s going on in the world and in the community. Believing in God is taboo in the newsroom.
To say there is a religious blind spot in hiring is a gross understatement. But it makes a big difference in the way important issues such as abortion and gay marriage are covered by media outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Media coverage can sway public opinion and help determine laws and policy. It impacts social mores, and it’s being done largely without people of faith in key positions.
There is no more secular setting than in a newsroom. ... You can’t see bias when everyone around you thinks and feels the same way.

At that point, Lisi launches into his own take on the Polish border rites.

By all means, read it all. And, as always, enjoy the podcast.

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