The Need for Skepticism

This book makes the case that news organizations often fail in covering major stories because they minimize or misunderstand underlying religious issues. It’s an argument I’ve long sympathized with, dating to the early 1990s when I covered religion at New York Newsday and saw that my first task was to break out of the notion that religion was newsworthy only where it intersected with the culture wars.

It’s an easier argument to make today, given the role religion has played in presidential campaigns and international conflicts. But the level of religious knowledge remains low in many newsrooms, and, as the contributors to Blind Spot show, the result is that major national and international stories are sometimes blown.

For example, Michael Rubin, editor of Middle East Quarterly and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, writes that U.S. reporters often get the Middle East wrong because they don’t focus enough on underlying religious tensions, especially within sects. His essay “Three Decades of Misreporting Iran and Iraq” finds fault with journalists who missed the importance of tensions within Shiite Islam during the war in Iraq. Unaware of the traditions involved, reporters mistakenly assumed that Iraqi Shiites were closely tied to Iran. “To convey conflicts, politics, and diplomacy accurately, Western correspondents must steep themselves in religious debates in order to understand the who, what, where, and why of the events they seek to describe,” Rubin writes. “Theology need not shape journalists’ work, but an understanding of it should.”

The contributors generally see ignorance, rather than bias, as the largest obstacle to good religion reporting. Terry Mattingly, a syndicated religion columnist, uses a 1996 flub in the Washington Post to illustrate that. A story about a prayer rally outside the Capitol noted that the mood was at times hostile toward Congress, with one participant saying, “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone in the Capitol.” The story passed through the newspaper’s multilayered editing process without anyone recognizing a reference to the term “slain in the Spirit,” which Pentecostals use to describe a spiritual transformation. (The Post corrected the story, which mostly consisted of reformed sinners telling how they had come to Jesus.)

Several contributors pick up on a complaint frequently heard about news reporting on the Catholic Church: that journalists writing about religion frame their stories in terms of conflict between conservatives and liberals, the usual template for political coverage. That angle doesn’t always work so well for interpreting politics, much less a complex religion story such as the death of Pope John Paul II and election of Pope Benedict XVI. Amy Welborn, whose work has appeared in Commonweal and other Catholic publications, writes that this secular-minded filter led to incomplete journalistic evaluations of John Paul’s impact on the Catholic Church.

While the contributors do a good job of showing how journalists’ inability to “get religion” can mar coverage of major news, they are not always as persuasive as they could be. That’s because some lapse into a bad habit common in media criticism: The critics’ true complaint is that the news coverage isn’t tilted their way.

I got that impression from Jeremy Lott’s essay on media coverage of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. He takes Gibson’s side in the debate begun when Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, and a number of Christian and Jewish scholars urged the director to make changes in an early version of the script to avoid depicting Jews in a way that might lead to anti-Semitism.

Lott writes that if he were teaching journalism, he would challenge his students to frame the story as a conflict between an eccentric director “trying to do something new and different and utterly personal” and “a bluenose establishment of critics, competitors, and lobbyists, which didn’t want this upstart exciting the masses.” That’s bad advice. It would be better to challenge journalism students to be open-minded rather than to typecast Gibson’s critics—many of them accomplished experts on Scripture and Christian-Jewish relations—as out-of-touch moralists bent on stifling artistic expression.

In another essay, two political scientists call journalists to task for portraying the 2004 presidential campaign as a battle between George W. Bush’s “irrational faith” and John Kerry’s “intellectual reason.” C. Danielle Vinson and James L. Guth, both of Furman University, write that Bush’s religious views were cast in a negative light while Kerry’s were not. They support their argument with quotes such as this one from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd: “The president’s certitude-the idea that he can see into people’s souls and that God tells him what is right...is disturbing.... People who live by religious certainties don’t have to waste time with recalcitrant facts or moral disputes.”

The essay misses the fact that there were valid journalistic reasons for reporters to scrutinize Bush’s faith with heightened skepticism. Members of the “elite press” were not the only ones to suspect that the president’s religious views had led him toward war in Iraq. Cardinal Pio Laghi, who had tried to talk Bush out of starting the war, had said in a speech quoted by Catholic News Service that Bush acted almost as if he felt divinely inspired and “seemed to truly believe in a war of good against evil.” Publications as diverse as the Christian Century and Haaretz raised similar issues. The possibility that Bush’s understanding of his faith contributed to his decision to go to war was a difficult story—it is hard to judge motivation—but it had to be examined, and that examination is here described as “negative” coverage.

The reporters’ skepticism also was overdue, given the pass Bush received in coverage leading up to the Iraq war—something I would not expect to be addressed in a book in which former Bush administration officials wrote the foreword and afterword (speechwriter Michael J. Gerson and John J. DiIulio Jr., respectively—the latter evidently still seething, perhaps justifiably, at the way the media covered his efforts as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives).

Although some of the essays’ conclusions are debatable, the book’s foundation is solid. As Gerson puts it: “A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time.”

Mattingly offers some useful suggestions in a chapter aimed at clearing up the journalistic blind spot toward religion. News organizations should hire more reporters with knowledge of religion (though they needn’t be religious), he writes. He adds that news organizations need to offer improved training and that journalists must be more careful to use religious terminology correctly. As Mattingly has noted on the blog GetReligion.org, the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction; newspapers have cut back on religion coverage as part of the general shrinkage in the industry. That means there are fewer religion specialists in newsrooms to alert editors and fellow reporters to the overlooked religious element in major breaking stories.

In a book with many contributors from academia, I was looking to see if any would suggest that universities carry some responsibility for the low level of religious literacy in newsrooms. None does, but this book demonstrates that religion needs to be at the core of study in the humanities and should not be a subject pushed to the margins. If colleges can be less uneasy about religion, so too can the next generation of journalists.

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 
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Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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