The media have an inadequate understanding of religion. This simple fact is corroborated frequently, as mainstream outlets attempt to illustrate stories, explain religious themes and delve deep into faith-based systems. Unfortunately, most outlets miss the mark entirely, as journalists do not have proper understanding of the constructs through which they are attempting to report. As a result, the American public suffers a lack of pointed and well-presented information on a subject that stands at the forefront of important global and domestic issues.
Case in point, Christiane Amanpour’s 2007 CNN mini-series entitled, “God’s Warriors.” The three-part series delved into the world’s three largest religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. As is typical of the secular media, an enhanced level of relativism led the Iranian-bred Amanpour (born in London to a Persian family) to equate “extremism” within and among adherents to the three religions.
While each belief system has had moral failures, equating the deaths as a result of radical Islamic fascism to those of contemporary Christianity and Judaism is absurd. Furthermore, as is the case when journalists attempt to cover religion, Amanpour left out essential details that would have provided a more fair-minded picture.
In terms of her opaque coverage of Christianity, MercatorNew.com wrote the following,
“But she missed the obvious. [Christians] were participating in America’s legal and political system exactly as it was intended by the Founders, as a representative republic, with citizen involvement. She missed the pre-Jerry Falwell political civil rights activism of Dr. Martin Luther King and other Christians, and she totally missed Catholic social justice and the involvement of the roughly 70 million strong Catholic community in the US in the pro-life movement. She did highlight the powerful impact of Roe v. Wade on galvanizing Christians. She just failed to mention the Catholic involvement, which is considerable.”
In its usual ideologically-balanced form, The New York Times wrote the following endorsement: “This three-part series…is a fine primer on the emergence of strains of Judaism, Islam and Christianity that want to fuse politics and religion, and have shown a willingness to blow things up and kill people to do it.”
Again, an unhealthy and unbalanced level of moral equivalence – though I will give the Times credit for writing: “the issues on these Christian warriors’ minds seem positively quaint next to the agendas of the people in Parts 1 and 2.” Still, the inability to truly distinguish, on the whole, is a detriment to true understanding. Unfortunately, this sort of coverage is common.
The modern secular newsroom lacks the ideological know-how to truly understand religion. Perhaps Terry Mattinglybest exlplained the media’s “diversity problem”. According to Mattingly, “While there’s been heavy gender and racial diversity … there’s a lack of cultural diversity in journalism…” It is this lack of diversity that leads to major misconceptions and the media’s inability to adequately tell stories that are rooted, themselves, in religious themes.
The lack of diversity may lie in the journalists themselves, as personal faith plays a role in the ability to understand and thus illustrate religious themes. Just how religious are journalists? According to USA Today, “the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in 2007 that 8% of journalists surveyed at national media outlets said they attended church or synagogue weekly.” Additionally, 29% reported never attending church services, with an additional 39% stating that they go a few times each year. In sum: Not very religious – especially when compared to America as a whole.
Pew found that 39% of the public claims that they attend church services weekly. Additionally, past Gallup pollshave shown as many as eight in ten Americans claim allegiance to Christianity. Clearly, these numbers show the need for proper journalistic understanding and presentation, especially when covering stories rooted in Christian themes.
Not enough journalists are regular church goers. Faith is not an attribute one can physically observe, thus “affirmative action” – a promotional methodology that is highly controversial to begin with – is an impossibility (also, employment laws generally forbid interview questions of faith). While general ignorance and inexperience with religious themes is likely a culprit amongst journalists, and consequently mainstream media outlets, complacency is also an impediment.
In a 2003 Los Angeles Times piece, David Shaw wrote the following: “Absent…scandal — or the death of a pope and the election of his successor — the news media often seem indifferent to, ignorant of and, at times, downright hostile toward religion.” Shaw is completely correct in his assertion. If not indifferent altogether, the media approach religion so slothfully that it appears as though the effort to misunderstand is undertaken with a barely concealed level of hostility.
In covering the American Religious Identification Survey that was conducted in March 2009, the Pew Research Center wrote,
“A comment on the blog Matters of Faith declared, “The media’s tendency to give inordinate attention to religious dimwits and crackpots has seriously damaged the credibility of religious leaders. You rarely read or hear of the miraculously generous work of faith communities in caring for the poor and infirm around the globe. But let someone suggest that the Virgin Mary has appeared in a plate of refried beans and the bulletins circle the globe in minutes.”
This commentary targets one of the media’s main malfunctions when it comes to covering religion in general and Christianity in particular. As is the case with most stories covered by the mainstream media, the more outlandish, the more the story is pursued. In practice, this creates a climate of coverage strewn with the “dimwits and crackpots” mentioned above, as journalists lack the understanding or desire to seek a wide array of theological viewpoints. Meanwhile, thousands of Christian missionaries risk their lives both domestically and internationally to make lasting spiritual and physical change in the lives of those in need. Yet their stories go widely unnoticed.
Modern democracy hinges in part on a proper understanding of religion amongst journalists, leaders and the general public. Matters of faith are some of the most personal aspects of American life. Furthermore, faith is one of the only cohesive forces that, if properly nurtured, leads to interdependence and personal, spiritual and societal growth. It is a shared and common experience.
Given the religious turmoil present in the Middle East – conflict that has affected America and Americans for for decades – one might think that the media have a responsibility to offer properly informed coverage. While efforts to ethnically and sexually balance the newsroom have been underway for quite some time, ideological and theological divides have led to tilted and incomplete coverage in matters of faith. It is time that the media better serve our democracy in covering a subject that will be increasingly important in the coming decades.