media literacy

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

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Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

For years -- decades even -- I have been active in the whole "media literacy" cause, trying to help Americans (especially in religious circles) understand more about the role that mass media play in our culture.

During these same decades, I've heard journalism educators -- on the cultural left and right -- argue that the same thing needs to be happening in elite newsrooms and even educational institutions, only in reverse.

Let's stick with the journalism angle: One of the main reasons that pros in our newsrooms often do such a lousy job of covering religion is that there are so few editors and managers who know any thing about religion. Let me stress that the issue is not whether these journalists are religious believers. The issue is whether they know crucial information about the lives, traditions and scriptures linked to the lives of millions and millions of believers who reside in this culture and often play roles in public life.

I've mentioned this before: I'll never forget the night when an anchor at ABC News -- faced with Democrat Jimmy Carter talking about his born-again Christian faith -- solemnly looked into the camera and told viewers that ABC News was investigating this phenomenon (born-again Christians) and would have a report in a future newscast.

What percentage of the American population uses the term "born again" to describe their faith? Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent back then? I mean, Carter wasn't telling America that he was part of an obscure sect, even though many journalists were freaked out by this words -- due to simple ignorance (or perhaps bias).

This brings me to this weekend's think piece in The American Conservative, a magazine defined by cultural conservatism not conservative partisan politics (thus the presence of several big-league #NeverTrump scribes). The double decker headline on this piece asks:

Woke Progressivism’s Glaring Religion Gap

Identity politics demands that we "educate ourselves." So why are its practitioners so often ignorant of religious belief?

Here is Georgetown University graduate student Grayson Quay's overture, which ends with a stunning anecdote:

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Parade of 2016 yearenders: Global stories that clicked at the Lapido Media website

Parade of 2016 yearenders: Global stories that clicked at the Lapido Media website

Clearly, anyone who wants to understand the modern world (hello administrators at the vast majority of modern seminaries) needs to take a class or two in media literacy.

At the same time, it has become increasingly obvious that most of the journalists who manage newsrooms (hello Dean Baquet of The New York Times) need to have some kind of systematic, professional training in religious literacy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there is an organization called Lapido Media that is working hard to build bridges to major newsrooms in the United Kingdom and beyond. The Media Project -- the continuing education umbrella project that includes -- recently cooperated with Lapido Media in an effort to produce a newsroom-friendly book entitled "Religious Literacy: An Introduction." I wrote the final chapter in the book and GetReligion readers that get the book will see many links to themes at this website.

(I should also mention that the headline on the website feature about the book needs to be fixed, since this is not "the first" handbook of this kind, since the Religion News Association -- to give credit where credit is due --  has done similar booklets on this topic in the past, which evolved into the entire ReligionLink project.)

Now, the Lapido team has released an interesting set of feature stories from its website to mark the end of 2016. GetReligion readers with a special interest in global news should click here and check this out.

Some of the subjects include: 

BBC Head of Religion, Aaqil Ahmed chose a Lapido event to clarify the BBC's use of the term 'so-called Islamic State' in our unprecedented most-read article of the year.

Also, this:

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Time to wrap up 2016, starting with: 'Religion still matters, whatever your beliefs'

Time to wrap up 2016, starting with: 'Religion still matters, whatever your beliefs'

If you have followed GetReligion through the years, the you know that we never completely close our cyber-doors during the 12 days of the Christmas season -- but we do slow down a bit.

We also mark the end of the religion-news years with quite a bit of commentary from hither and yon about the news events and trends of the year that is ending. We'll post the Religion News Association Top 10 stories list, as well as my annual "On Religion" commentary on that, along with a podcast about both of those. Religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling has already turned in a pair of memos looking ahead to 2017.

You get the idea. We will also post more than the usual number of think pieces about subjects we assume will be of interest to people who care about the state of religion news and topics linked to that.

So let's start that off with a piece from The Times on the other side of the pond that ran with this GetReligion-friendly double-decker headline:

Religion still matters, whatever your beliefs
From US politics to Middle East terror, it has never been more important to understand how faith shapes our world

Commentator Tim Montgomerie begins with the rather obvious -- now -- observation that Hillary Rodham Clinton probably wishes, when looking back on the year that was, that she had hired a few more people to pay attention to religious voters in the American heartland, especially the Midwest, when picking out the 4,200 members of her campaign staff.

For example, there wasn't a single Clinton campaign staffer -- saith Slate magazine -- who was assigned to investigate the concerns of evangelical Protestants. If Clinton had done half as well with evangelicals as did Barack Obama, she would be president-elect.

So what's the bigger story here? It's the fact that many journalists just don't get religion, of course.

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Your video think piece: 'Getting religion' is crucial when covering complex, even violent news stories

Your video think piece: 'Getting religion' is crucial when covering complex, even violent news stories

I am in the middle or writing a pair of "On Religion" columns about the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and the Lapido Media network that promotes religious literacy in the press and in diplomatic circles. Click here to read the first of those Universal syndicate columns, if you wish:

However, the main thing that I wanted to share with GetReligion readers -- especially working journalists -- is this video that was shown as part of the conference. No, I wasn't there (my final semester here at the Washington Journalism Center was starting right about that time), but I certainly wish that I could have gone.

What was the general thrust of this event? Here are some crucial background quotes, the first drawn from published remarks (.pdf here) by Richard Porritt, a former top editor at The London Evening Standard and the British Press Association wire service.

Let this soak in, as a statement about UK media (and elsewhere):

A journalist who is not confident about the facts is dangerous. And with a specialism like religion mis-reporting can lead to widespread misunderstanding. For too long religious affairs -- as editors deem fit to call the specialism -- has been a job palmed off on reporters. It is a role that has traditionally been dodged by the cream of the newsroom for specialisms thought to be more glamorous or hard-hitting. But there is no more vital role in a modern society cluttered with half-truths and myth surrounding religion.

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