Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Media bias, media blandness

posted by Rod Dreher

Journalism prof Jay Rosen has a long, great, difficult to sum up post about how the deepest bias among the press is toward a false moderation, and against so-called “extremists.” I think this sentiment expressed by my Beliefnet blog colleague Nicole Neroulias is a fairly pure example of what Rosen’s talking about. She’s expressing conflicted feelings about Steve Prothero’s new book, which is about why there really are irresolvable theological conflicts among the world’s great religions, and why that matters. Neroulias writes:

All kidding aside, however, I’m not sure how I feel about Prothero’s message. I haven’t seen the book yet, but as a religion reporter, I’m generally more interested in probing what different faiths have in common (especially when you get strange bedfellows), as opposed to stoking conflicts (which make plenty of news anyway). Perhaps this also has something to do with being in an interfaith marriage, but if that’s the case, more than a third of Americans may be inclined to feel this way, too.

Note the loaded language: “stoking conflicts” is the opposite of “probing what different faiths have in common.” The idea that to explore genuine conflicts both between and among faiths is an act of provocation is to turn religion journalism into an act of therapy. Is there a political journalist who would openly admit to approaching her beat that way? What political journalist would say that political journalists who routinely explore conflicts between the parties and their worldviews are provocateurs who just want to stir up trouble? To believe this is true is to commit yourself to providing your readers not with an understanding of the world as it is, but the world as you would like it to be. It means you aren’t writing stories, but a Story. It’s also an approach that automatically puts religious believers of whatever tradition who argue that on this or that issue, faiths are not ultimately reconcilable, automatically on the defense. The heroes in these stories are always the mushy-middlemen, or at least those who have learned how to speak the language of mushy-middleness persuasively to journalists.
I don’t mean to single out Neroulias; I have absolutely no doubt that many US religion journalists approach their beats in the same irenic, bridge-building spirit — which is one reason why religion journalism in this religiously dynamic and complicated country tends to be so bland, and why Prothero’s book is so tonic.
UPDATE: I want to highlight this comment in the combox thread from GrantL, an atheist reader who covers religion for his paper in Canada:

Part of the problem, I think, is that papers try to avoid saying anything “offensive.” or that could possibly be construed as such. (at least in the news pages) As you know, religions almost without exception make exclusive truth claims. The buddhist view of things and the Christian one are radically different. Both cannot be true. It seems to me that papers generally this it impolite to point this out.
I mean, if I do a story about a Muslim who makes a theological claim in starkly Muslim terms (say something very basic like there is one god and Mohammad is his prophet) I will get letters and angry phone calls from Christians who will accuse me of “taking sides” and defending or promoting Islam. I get the same thing if I do a story about a Christian (letters and emails and calls from other Christians and other religions) or Buddhists or whatever. Even though I am just telling the story of this person or group of people from their point of view, letting them explain their faith as they see it, I am accused of taking sides. (its particularly easy for me to let believers tell their story because, as an atheist, I have no theological bones to pick. Many of my believing peers have a very hard time writing about a theology they have their own theological issues with.)
On the other hand, if you do a story about the “Abrahamic faiths” as though they are some monolithic bloc of believers who more or less believe the same thing, everything is good. If you avoid writing about how Muslims simply reject, out right, the Christian claim that Jesus is the “son of god” but instead write about how Muslims and Christians believe in the “same” god, you won’t hear a peep except from the local loonies.
Editors, it seems to me, choose the path of least resistance. Its EASIER to write nice, happy, we all believe the same thing, kinda of story instead of pointing out that hey, we don’t all believe the same thing but, at the time, we are all stuck with each other.
This of course is nonsense. From my point of view, there is no need to hide from the differences in religions, particularly not if having a pluralistic society is important to us. The more we pretend that religions are all the same, the less we will understand them. You cannot cooperate with your fellow citizens if haven’t any real idea what they actually think about things.
I dunno, its very frustrating and often you have to wait for the right time to get a religion story that isn’t mush into publication.

This is both true and important. In my experience, almost nobody calls an editor or a reporter to thank them for a job well done on a religion story. It’s almost always to gripe and even yell about the purported anti-religious (or anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, etc.) bias in the story. If we have a lack of rigorous, thoughtful reporting on religion, it’s at least in part because the audience for that sort of thing is distressingly small.
Another comment of particular interest, from La Dolce Vita:

A few years back our paper established a “spirituality and values beat” that was basically a religion beat. The circulation area is swarming with conservative evangelicals. I don’t know what they were trying to pull with the euphemism.
At any rate, the young reporter who got the beat started doing a surprisingly bang-up job, in my opinion. Our readers finally started getting an inkling of the religious diversity we actually have around here. Then she did a story about a new-age “ghost whisperer” type who was giving a program at the local Unitarian Church. The managing editor went bananas, issuing an ultimatum that no stories about that kind of hokum would henceforth appear in the newspaper.
The local congregation of a major denomination bringing in a medium? If that ain’t news, I don’t know what is. The reporter has long since left for PR work — the hokum that pays.
Nowadays, we don’t simply ignore the diversity of the religious minorities in our area. We don’t even comprehend the big stories driven by the evangelical majority. We don’t have a clue.

Yes, yes, yes! If all you look for is commonality, you miss some really important and interesting divisions. And if you think your job is to decide what kind of religion story is “respectable” for purposes of attention in the newspaper, versus reporting on what kinds of religion, however outlandish, people in your community actually profess, you’re failing as a journalist.
Great comments emerging in that thread. Take a look at them.
UPDATE.2: David J. White says in that thread that what accounts for this is that journalists take politics seriously, but don’t take religion seriously. As he writes:

To someone who takes politics seriously, political disagreements are important and potentially have serious real-world consequences, and therefore the passions they arouse are understandable. Journalists focus on the conflict aspect of politics because it’s something they take seriously and can understand.
On the other hand, to someone who doesn’t take religion seriously and views it a simply a matter of private opinion, religious disagreements are trivial and unimportant, and the passions they arouse are probably, to many journalists, fundamentally incomprehensible. Journalists don’t focus on these conflicts because many of them probably find it hard to understand why anyone cares about these things.

Yes, David, I think you have hit on it exactly.



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Scott Lahti

posted June 16, 2010 at 12:01 am


many US religion journalists approach their beats in the same irenic, bridge-building spirit
I like my religion reporting like I like my movies and I like my bible, i.e., where, in one form or another, stuff gets blown up – I support my local Boots Are For Glutes chapter and I hope you do, too. I’d much rather see two hours in Dolby surround of ten people feudin’ and fussin’ and a-fightin’, than of, to borrow from Benny Hill on a stag photo at the poker table, ten people in love.
Shorter comment: “Good night, Irenic”.



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stari_momak

posted June 16, 2010 at 1:28 am


Aren’t something like 85% – 90% of Americans still — despite suicidal immigration policies — nominally Christian? If so, it seems pretty unlikely that 30% of marriages are ‘interfaith’, unless a, say, Catholic – Lutheran marriage counts as ‘interfaith’.
As for this Neroulias person, her wedding notice in the NYT tells you all you need to know about her. Ivy degree, husband a Goldman Sachs guy, father a real estate guy. Really, I used to be a Burkean, but more and more I see the sans-culottes had it right.



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Jon

posted June 16, 2010 at 6:24 am


Re: Aren’t something like 85% – 90% of Americans still — despite suicidal immigration policies — nominally Christian?
Of course the bulk of our immigration comes from countries that are at least nominally Christian.
Re: If so, it seems pretty unlikely that 30% of marriages are ‘interfaith’, unless a, say, Catholic – Lutheran marriage counts as ‘interfaith’.
Yes, I suspect they are counting marriages between people of different Christian denominations. Which used to be a great big deal, after all. My grandmother was ostracized by her older bigoted siblings for marrying a Catholic and converting.



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Hector

posted June 16, 2010 at 7:35 am


Re: Of course the bulk of our immigration comes from countries that are at least nominally Christian.
In England, for example, I’ve heard it said that immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean provide the lifeblood of the flagging churches. It would appear that the immigrants tend to be more serious about their faith then most ethnic English people.
Anecdotally, the Episcopal parish where I go when I’m in Boston is largely made up of Caribbean immigrants.
Re: Neroulias,
Ms. Neroulias appears to be reading from the Gospel According to Rodney King.
“And the Lord said, verily, verily, canst we not all just get along?”



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Indy

posted June 16, 2010 at 7:52 am


It doesn’t have to be dramaz or kumbaya. What makes it one or the other is the business need—selling newspapers, getting page views, etc. People look for different things from religion than from politics. Does it really surprise you that religion is written about from a standpoint of moderation while politics is not?
For many people who are religious, religion is more personal than politics. It requires honesty and self examination. Religion informs the way we live our lives while reminding us of our frailty and weakness. So it’s infused with humility. I think that is why many of us are drawn to moderation when we read about it or discuss it. I can only speak for Protestants, but we know our foibles and we know that everyone involved, even clergy, are human and none of us are infallible. Of course, knowing our own weaknesses doesn’t lead all of us to moderation or serenity. Even here in the comboxes you see people who debate issues based on “none of us is perfect, here’s how it looks to me” and ones who debate based on “I’m right! I’m right! I need acknowledgement of that by everyone, I must prevail or I am nothing!”)
Politics, on the other had, superficially centers on problems and solutions, but the way politicians present issues often turns it into therapy (“You and I believe this so we’re good Americans, they don’t so they aren’t.”) Political rhetoric often approaches demagoguery, often comically so. Reporters report what the politicians say so the whole thing keeps bubbling in a froth of near hysteria, at its worst. That conditions people to view as a big drama. It’s largely artificial and a turn off to many of us, as Michael Smerconish pointed out.
Shorter version: The more humility underlies a topic (religion) the more moderation you’re going to find in discussions of it.



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Bill

posted June 16, 2010 at 8:34 am


Prothero’s book should be required reading for journalists. He shows a way to get a handle on the “provocative bits” as part of the larger picture of people and religion. And, to coin a phrase, “Provocation Happens.”



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Rod Dreher

posted June 16, 2010 at 8:47 am


It doesn’t have to be dramaz or kumbaya. What makes it one or the other is the business need—selling newspapers, getting page views, etc. People look for different things from religion than from politics. Does it really surprise you that religion is written about from a standpoint of moderation while politics is not?
I don’t know if it surprises me, but as a journalist, it bothers me. I don’t think it’s journalism’s business to approach any topic from either a therapeutic stance or a controversialist stance. I think it’s journalism’s job to do the best job it can reporting on the world as it is, and helping readers to understand why the world is that way. Sometimes that’s going to result in stories that explore commonalities; other times it’s going to result in stories that explore differences. I don’t want reporting on politics, religion or anything else to aspire to condition my reaction, as a reader, toward peaceableness or controversy. I just want to know the diverse facts and opinions relevant to a story as best the reporter can relate them, and to be left alone to make my own mind up. If a journalist’s moral or religious convictions prohibit him from approaching his job in that way, he should find another line of work, or at least work for a publication or broadcast that’s up front about its biases.
Think about it: would it really serve the interest of a reader seeking to understand why the worldwide Anglican communion is in such distress to have reporters approaching the story with the intent of focusing on what the warring parties within Anglicanism have in common? Does it help us to understand the conflicts within Islam, and between Islam and the West, if our media approach the story with the intent of focusing on commonalities between Islam and our own traditions? I don’t think reporters should, as a basic stance, privilege conflict over commonality; sometimes, I think, commonality could be the more important strand of a given story. But it is really wrong, from a journalistic point of view, to decide a priori that “seeking common ground” is going to be the guiding principle of covering religion. That approach may be laudable from a certain point of view, and I understand why religious people may see it as admirable, which it certainly can be. But it’s not journalism.
Anyway, my guess — and it’s only a guess — is that this “seeking common ground” approach has its own hidden biases. Religion reporters who adhere to it would cover the fracture in The Episcopal Church as a case of angry traditionalists rejecting common ground with TEC progressivists over homosexuality and Scripture — painting those standing on tradition and Scripture as the knotheads, not the innovators. Irenicism only goes one way, in other words. Me, I vastly prefer an approach that does its best to let both sides have their say, and that seeks to put the controversy in a larger historical and theological context.



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michael

posted June 16, 2010 at 9:01 am


Stoking up conflicts in religion routinely results in hundreds of people getting killed each week. I’ll take bland, please (make it a double).



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Pat

posted June 16, 2010 at 9:13 am


I see plenty of criticism of ‘journalists’ who stoke up political conflict. It’s just removed from the discussion of journalistic ethics by their being rebranded as ‘entertainers.’ Perhaps you will find the kind of religious reporting you want hidden under the same label, or an equivalent?



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Andrea

posted June 16, 2010 at 9:36 am


It’s not rocket science. When I do the occasional religion story, I approach it like everything else. You ask people what they’re doing, what they believe, what they want to see happen, why they think the other guy is wrong and then you go ask the other guy the same thing. That applies if you’re doing a story about why some Lutheran churches are breaking away from the ELCA because of its vote on gay pastors or why the Episcopalian priest converted from Catholicism because the Catholics wouldn’t let her be a priest. If it’s a story about some unfamiliar religious festival you ask the person organizing it to explain what they’re doing and its significance in their faith. If it’s appropriate during the interview I might tell them my own religious background as a way of establishing rapport or as a way to say, “This is what I grew up believing. How is your religion different and how can I make other people understand?” You approach people with respect and an open mind and you never, ever look down on them or assume you know something if you don’t or what you write will be resented and probably wrong.
I’ve had the impression that national journalists do a lot of the latter, probably because they simply don’t understand religious belief, don’t have a religious background themselves or have long since left what they had behind. If you have a profoundly secular Jew covering the ELCA split, I don’t know that she’s going to be very good at picking up all the nuances. Someone like me (or some of my fellow reporters) have the advantage of being raised in a church and understanding the people we’re writing about.



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hlvanburen

posted June 16, 2010 at 9:54 am


The points that have been made here are pretty much dead on, and yet reflect a bit of a bias nonetheless. For example, in addition to the soft-sell approach that is being used to describe the conflicts in the Anglican Communion, a similar soft-sell is being used to describe the situation regarding the Ugandan law against gays and lesbians, and the support this has among American evangelicals.
http://www.alternet.org/news/147177/arch-conservative_u.s._christians_help_uganda_%27kill-the-gays%27_bill_stay_alive/?page=1
Calls made on this blog regarding media bias generally center around two points:
– Ignoring “problems” in more liberal religious faiths
– Overemphasizing “problems” in more conservative faiths
And yet, when I listen to more liberal individuals, they cite exactly the opposite phenomenon.
If you truly want the media to do a more robust job in exploring the differences between faiths, you have to be ready to accept stories that cast your faith in a bad light (see the Ugandan situation above) as well as stories that cast your faith in a good light. Yet what I see consistently, on both the liberal and conservative side, is the rush to condemn any story that begins to explore the dark side of one’s own faith. Whether it be the split in the Evangelical church, a controversy over the building of mosques in New York City, the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, or the support of legislation in Uganda, there is always a voice SOMEWHERE who will cry “bias” at the top of their lungs.
So, no doubt to preserve faltering sales and reduce the risk of a boycott for “unfair” reporting, newspapers pursue the middle ground, that pasty, tasteless reporting that offends nobody and doesn’t harm the sales of the paper.
And honestly, I believe that this is what people truly want. They may make complaints about how boring religious news has become, but they honestly do not want mainstream press coverage that truly digs beneath the surface of the issues to get at the meat of what is driving a conflict, because sooner or later that coverage will cast one side or the other in a bad light. And at that point the calls of bias and threats of boycotts comes out.
Far too often “fair and balanced” truly means “the way I believe”. As long as this is the case, all we are going to get is tasteless, colorless pablum in religious reporting.



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hlvanburen

posted June 16, 2010 at 9:59 am


“Someone like me (or some of my fellow reporters) have the advantage of being raised in a church and understanding the people we’re writing about.”
Then how do reporters write on nuclear science, space exploration, the mining industry, financial laws, and the host of other topics that have every bit as much nuance and special knowledge as religion? If you are saying that you must belong to a group in order to cover it, then are we going to surrender our coverage of a host of issues to the experts, who may themselves have a bias in keeping certain things out of the limelight?
If a secular Jew is considered at a disadvantage in reporting on the Episcopal split, then a journalism major is at a disadvantage reporting on the Gulf oil spill. Yet somehow we see good reporting on the oil spill from reporters who are not trained in that field.



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Rod Dreher

posted June 16, 2010 at 9:59 am


I don’t want journalism about religion or any other thing that seeks to coddle me or to protect my sensibilities. If something is true, but disturbing, then by God, disturb me. No good can come of evading hard, even painful, truths in reporting on religion, or any other thing.
A caveat: as I learned from journalists working in India and Pakistan, they sometimes decide to evade telling the full truth about sectarian violence, because religious passions are so heated in their part of the world that lots of people could die based on their stories. I respect that, and honor their concern. I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong for approaching their jobs in that way. The United States is not India or Pakistan, though, and I see far less justification for that sort of journalism here.



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Andrea

posted June 16, 2010 at 10:06 am


You’re right that nobody wants their church’s dirty laundry aired. Locally, that means that the pastor of a denomination that is having a national controversy will say “No comment.” Some of the more interesting things I’ve heard from Catholic priests or ministers usually comes directly after a “This is off the record,” which can be frustrating. I’d like to do a story someday about how so many of the young priests coming out of Catholic seminaries are conservative traditionalists and how that has gone over like a lead balloon with some of the older people in Church. There’s a generational divide there that I think is interesting. But it’s also something I’m unlikely to ever get anyone on the record about because the priest who compared Vatican II music and liturgy to our a 1960s out of date orange shag carpet will never, ever speak on the record about it and members of the congregation have far too much respect for the station of priest to ever complain in the newspaper. So everybody puts on a happy face and muddles along. I think those personality and doctrinal differences might be as great a problem for some churches as the priest pedophile scandals, which didn’t impact a lot of churches at a local level.



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John

posted June 16, 2010 at 10:15 am


It is tragic that most people are what that parents are in religious demonation. I guess they can’t think for themselves. Can you?



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Andrea

posted June 16, 2010 at 10:17 am


Hlvanburen, I didn’t say a secular Jew couldn’t cover religion well. I think it does put a reporter at something of a disadvantage, just as I would be if I attempted to go to New York City and cover the politics of a reform synagogue. I think if you go in prepared to research the topic widely, ask questions, listen to what you hear and report it accurately you will produce a good story. I wouldn’t go out to the oil field without doing research beforehand or without asking questions and trying to report the answers adequately. The problem that some national journalists run into is they don’t respect the sources or report shallowly, thinking they understand what they’re reporting on. For instance, if I see the word “heartland” or something similar about my part of the country, it’s a dead giveaway that whomever is reporting is an outsider, looking down on the people he’s writing about. Those are phrases no reporter I know would ever use. They sound faintly condescending, as in “those poor people” or “aren’t they quaint?” Apply that sort of voice to religion reporting and that’s where you have the problem. It’s possible to be an outsider and write with respect and understanding.



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Rod Dreher

posted June 16, 2010 at 10:21 am


What a silly comment. Has it occurred to you, John, that people who stick with the tradition handed down to them might have chosen rationally to affirm that tradition?



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Connie Connie in Wisconsin

posted June 16, 2010 at 10:47 am


Then how do reporters write on nuclear science, space exploration, the mining industry, financial laws, and the host of other topics
Oh, oh, I know this one! There’s a Bizzaro cartoon from the early 1990s that shows reporters throwing darts at a grid titled “Today I am an expert in . . . ”



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GrantL

posted June 16, 2010 at 11:06 am


Excellent post Rod.
As a journalist who does the lion’s share of religion reporting for the paper I work at, I can sympathize with the reporter’s view you quoted.
Part of the problem, I think, is that papers try to avoid saying anything “offensive.” or that could possibly be construed as such. (at least in the news pages) As you know, religions almost without exception make exclusive truth claims. The buddhist view of things and the Christian one are radically different. Both cannot be true. It seems to me that papers generally this it impolite to point this out.
I mean, if I do a story about a Muslim who makes a theological claim in starkly Muslim terms (say something very basic like there is one god and Mohammad is his prophet) I will get letters and angry phone calls from Christians who will accuse me of “taking sides” and defending or promoting Islam. I get the same thing if I do a story about a Christian (letters and emails and calls from other Christians and other religions) or Buddhists or whatever. Even though I am just telling the story of this person or group of people from their point of view, letting them explain their faith as they see it, I am accused of taking sides. (its particularly easy for me to let believers tell their story because, as an atheist, I have no theological bones to pick. Many of my believing peers have a very hard time writing about a theology they have their own theological issues with.)
On the other hand, if you do a story about the “Abrahamic faiths” as though they are some monolithic bloc of believers who more or less believe the same thing, everything is good. If you avoid writing about how Muslims simply reject, out right, the Christian claim that Jesus is the “son of god” but instead write about how Muslims and Christians believe in the “same” god, you won’t hear a peep except from the local loonies.
Editors, it seems to me, choose the path of least resistance. Its EASIER to write nice, happy, we all believe the same thing, kinda of story instead of pointing out that hey, we don’t all believe the same thing but, at the time, we are all stuck with each other.
This of course is nonsense. From my point of view, there is no need to hide from the differences in religions, particularly not if having a pluralistic society is important to us. The more we pretend that religions are all the same, the less we will understand them. You cannot cooperate with your fellow citizens if haven’t any real idea what they actually think about things.
I dunno, its very frustrating and often you have to wait for the right time to get a religion story that isn’t mush into publication.



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La Dolce Vita

posted June 16, 2010 at 11:39 am


A few years back our paper established a “spirituality and values beat” that was basically a religion beat. The circulation area is swarming with conservative evangelicals. I don’t know what they were trying to pull with the euphemism.
At any rate, the young reporter who got the beat started doing a surprisingly bang-up job, in my opinion. Our readers finally started getting an inkling of the religious diversity we actually have around here. Then she did a story about a new-age “ghost whisperer” type who was giving a program at the local Unitarian Church. The managing editor went bananas, issuing an ultimatum that no stories about that kind of hokum would henceforth appear in the newspaper.
The local congregation of a major denomination bringing in a medium? If that ain’t news, I don’t know what is. The reporter has long since left for PR work — the hokum that pays.
Nowadays, we don’t simply ignore the diversity of the religious minorities in our area. We don’t even comprehend the big stories driven by the evangelical majority. We don’t have a clue.



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David J. White

posted June 16, 2010 at 12:01 pm


People look for different things from religion than from politics. Does it really surprise you that religion is written about from a standpoint of moderation while politics is not?
It seems to me that at least part of the explanation for the fact that journalists approach religion differently from the way they approach politics — and my only qualification for saying this is the fact that I have been a daily newspaper reader for nigh on 30 years now — is that, in general, journalists as a group are inclined to take politics seriously, whereas they are not inclined to take religion seriously.
To someone who takes politics seriously, political disagreements are important and potentially have serious real-world consequences, and therefore the passions they arouse are understandable. Journalists focus on the conflict aspect of politics because it’s something they take seriously and can understand.
On the other hand, to someone who doesn’t take religion seriously and views it a simply a matter of private opinion, religious disagreements are trivial and unimportant, and the passions they arouse are probably, to many journalists, fundamentally incomprehensible. Journalists don’t focus on these conflicts because many of them probably find it hard to understand why anyone cares about these things.



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Liam

posted June 16, 2010 at 12:44 pm


Another powerful incentive for blandness in covering religion might be called the Donahue-Foxman Syndrome: that is, the fact that there are organizations out there whose entire mission is to parasitically suck the blood in self-enriching umbrage from any un-bland statement by religion by any public person or entity.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 16, 2010 at 2:36 pm


A brief post (surprise!) from your friendly neighborhood Pagan.
Seeking common ground is what I do, what I seek to accomplish, when I’m dealing face-to-face with other people. Religion is just one topical area from a list of topics where that effort is important and can be critical.
Writing and reading about religion — especially when at least one of the religions to be covered is militantly opposed to the mere mention of other religions* — becomes an exercise in futility in a society where religion is a primary identity attribute. Think about the decades-long foorah over prayer in public schools, and pay attention to the fact that Catholic private schools began to flourish after 1) a large influx of Catholic immigrants and 2) their recognition that Protestants controlled public schools and required non-Protestants to pray in a way that Catholics (at least) found offensive.
Hey Rod! Maybe Templeton would be interested in becoming a clearinghouse for what you, I, Grant and others agree is valid journalism about religion.
* Where I live, that would be Christianity in general and an uncivil civil war amongst their own sects over those mere mentions.



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Erin Manning

posted June 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm


Andrea, I found your comment re: the story not being told, e.g. the young orthodox priests clashing with the “shag carpet” reality at the parish level, very interesting. I think these stories are being told–but only in the Catholic press:
http://www.uscatholic.org/church/2010/03/men-same-cloth-old-priests-vs-new-priests
Perhaps the reason religion reporting in the secular media is so different from religion reporting in the religious media is the whole “insider/outsider” construct. Just as a group of scientists might excoriate each other’s work in industry publications but then appear together at a conference which receives a positive report in the secular press, so do religious groups tend to air their conflicts and grievances on the inside via religious publications, but put a more placid face forward when the reporter from the local newspaper calls.
[Captcha: diocesan Peking]



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Nick the Greek

posted June 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm


Journalists take politics seriously, but don’t take religion seriously
I don’t think they take politics particularly seriously either, except as theater.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm


Just another example of how the media can’t handle complex issues and always looks for a way to simplify them. It’s either armed conflict or “move along – nothing to see here”. Because religion is always deeply complex and conflicted, and too difficult for outsiders to understand easily and compress into a simple story, the media generally shies away from religious issues. Unless there’s a simplistic conflict, a yes-no conflict on some tangible issue like abortion, the media generally doesn’t get involved and won’t do a good job of covering the story even if it does get involved.
The media does feel an obligation towards “community service” which generally takes the form of encouraging people to get along and go beyond their differences, and it applies this same principle to religion, with predictable results. Of course, this same superficiality alsp applies to journalists and scholars who try to address these issues, including Prothero himself and his claims about those who preach the unity of religion. That issue is also much more complex and interesting than Prothero makes it out to be, and it’s a simplistic straw man to suggest that those who emphasize the unity of religions are blind to the obvious differences and the conflicts which have arisen.
The basic argument about the unity of religion is probably best summed up in the Hindu story about the blindfolded wise men who try to describe an elephant. The first feels the elephant’s trunk and declares it’s a snake, the second feels his legs and declare’s it s tree, and so on. The idea being that the conflicts between religions, while real enough and based on actual experience, are the result of partial experience and partial revelation. My own view would be similar: that God is incomprehensible to the intellect, which can only see parts and pieces of God from certain angles, and never sees the whole of God as he is, and that our attachment to some of these partial descriptions, and our insistence that was is partial is actually the true and complete picture of God, results in all these conflicts and contradictions in religious theology and practice.
But that kind of overview is simply inaccessible to media coverage, or even most scholarly reviews, and so we are left with simplistic coverage of either conflicts or commonalities, without any real broad-based understanding of what we are looking at, either on the level of conflict or commonality. Religion is probably the most fascinatingly human of endeavors, and yet the media manages to make it one of the most boring things to read about, ever. A strange contradiction.



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CAP

posted June 16, 2010 at 3:40 pm


one point that is continually missed, is that religious faith is far more of a personal issue than political issues that more broadly affect the public-at-large.
public initiatives (ie political ones) usually affect a large swath of people irregardless of their particular circumstances. if some corporation wants to build a sludge plant in your neighborhood, it’s going to affect the baptists as much as the atheists. the point a to point b effects are obvious and manifest in a real-life sense.
but if one neighbor wants to go to a church that is preaching a fiery pentacostal path to salvation, and another is going to a church where the priests wear funny-looking hats and speak a lot in a foreign language, what does it matter to you and i?
from a perspective of personal faith and worship, it shouldn’t matter one whit how your neighbor honors their god (or not.) and from a community perspective, well . . it’s going to be a very treacherous endeavour to make the case that someone else’s faith practice is messing up your neighborhood.
so in criticizing the faith of others, is it done because you worry about the others ultimate salvation? if that’s the case, perhaps you should consider minding your own business. and if you want to make a case that an individuals faith practice is dangerous to the community that we all share, well . . you need to make that distinction explicit.
and if it’s the latter, expect a very thorough criticism of your criticism.



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Rod Dreher

posted June 16, 2010 at 4:13 pm


but if one neighbor wants to go to a church that is preaching a fiery pentacostal path to salvation, and another is going to a church where the priests wear funny-looking hats and speak a lot in a foreign language, what does it matter to you and i?
Strongly disagree! There is no such thing as a total separation of religion and life. It’s a common mistake to think that religion is a mere hobby, like gardening, or guitar-playing, which might make one’s life more interesting, but only that. It’s just not true. In the West, our entire civilization has emerged out of Christianity, and its marriage of Hebrew religion with Greco-Roman philosophy. For better or for worse, that’s a fact. More concretely, there’s a reason the textbook controversy in Texas exists, and that reason has to do with the kind of religion that dominates in Texas, versus (say) Massachusetts. There’s a reason some states are open to same-sex marriage, and others aren’t — and it has a lot to do with the content of the religion observed in those states. And so forth.
To take the long view again, religion has a lot to do with the ways in which life is very different in Cairo, Mumbai, Osaka, Stockholm, Sao Paolo and Waco.
I’m a religiously observant person, and I am interested to learn about the way religion is seen and practiced in different cultures in the world, precisely because I know this stuff is important. And within Christianity, my own faith tradition, I am interested to know how these questions are discussed and resolved because I really do believe the eternal fates of souls are in play. What could be *more* important than religion?
I don’t care altogether much about music, and my neighbors’ musical tastes never cross my mind. But I know that music, broadly speaking, is a very important topic, and that it’s simply inaccurate to say that musical tastes don’t matter, simply because it doesn’t bother me if my neighbor is listening to Metallica or Mozart, just so long as he doesn’t knock down my door and try to force me to accept his tastes. I mean, to a certain extent that’s true, but music is such a powerful force in culture that I wouldn’t expect the media to be indifferent to it, or to cover music from the point of view of someone who wanted to focus on what musical traditions have in common, not what separates them. That would be a dunderheaded way to approach the music beat … but for some reason, quite a few people think it’s a virtue when covering religion. This only goes to show that they do not take religion seriously.



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Jillian

posted June 16, 2010 at 4:29 pm


Journalists don’t focus on these conflicts because many of them probably find it hard to understand why anyone cares about these things.
I’m not sure that’s it despite Rod wanting to be so. My impression is that 80-90% of readers prefer to read news from religion that basically amounts to “status quo unchanged: clergy are still generally earnest, well-meaning, thoughtful people; houses of are worship still standing and being gently used; pushy religious activists are still obsessed with things that won’t affect the quality of my day…hey look: our church picnic is weekend after next”.
Then there are perhaps 10-15% of readers on average for whom religious news is their version of the sports section or stock exchange page: they want their tribes and proxies and heroes to be winning, their investments to be gaining in value, the competition to fail. They read for portents and trends and fresh young talent, dying old champions, close descriptions of floundering and triumphs, careers and stats, pratfalls and injuries, grudges, attendance figures, signing bonuses. How to get their kids to like the game and get good at it, into training camps and careers in it. And the betting odds and dates of the upcoming fixtures.
If you’re a journalist there’s obviously some question of whether and, if so, how to balance the desires of these two major subsets of readers. I suspect we end up with a split pretty reflective of the readership. But the hardcore will always go to their team publications and Pravdas/First Things and ComIntern, er, network of similarly committed friends for most of their in-depth information and what the politically correct, well-whetted opinion to have is. Your average journalist for e.g. Time or Newsweek won’t even try to compete with that.



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CAP

posted June 16, 2010 at 5:27 pm


but rod, the example of the different cultures you cite are about numbers, not about any particular strength/weakness of a certain faith tradition. if religious belief affects public will, it is largely due to the will of a majority, not because one faith practice is ‘better’ than another.
and so, in a pluralistic society like america (and increasingly the inter-connected modern world) majority consensus will become more and more elusive, and thus the imperial promotion of one particular faith practice harder and harder to rationalize. and so it is not surprising that people explore that dreaded ‘mushy middle’ looking for answers about a shared human direction.



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Hector

posted June 16, 2010 at 6:54 pm


Re: but if one neighbor wants to go to a church that is preaching a fiery pentacostal path to salvation, and another is going to a church where the priests wear funny-looking hats and speak a lot in a foreign language, what does it matter to you and i?
It doesn’t matter, in one sense of the word. I don’t mind that people practice different versions of the Christian faith, or that they practice non-Christian religions. Obviously I think that Christianity is more true then, say, Hinduism, but I don’t deny there are good things in Hinduism too, and I’m certainly not going around trying to convert Hindus, or Jews, or Muslims, or practitioners of Vodoun.
What I am concerned about- and incensed by- is the claim that Christianity is _fundamentally the same thing_ as Islam, or Hinduism, or Vodoun. Because the inevitable end of that chain of logic, or illogic, is to result in one of the three outcomes:
– to make Islam more like Christianity
– to make Christianity more like Islam
– to denature both Christianity and Islam until they’re some sort of tertium quid, a formless and indistinguishable mass of spiritual tapioca pudding.
Option 1 I don’t particularly object to, but I’m sure a Muslim would object to it, for good reason; it’s also quite unlikely. Option 2 or (more likely) option 3 would both mean throwing out basic Christian teaching and accepting either a modalistic or an Arian version of Christianity- which would cease to be Christian in any meaningful sense of the world, and would strip Christianity of the beauty and truth of the dogmas of the incarnation and the trinity.
It isn’t the fact that Muslims are Muslims that I find threatening, it’s the insistence of some people that the differences between Muslims and Christians are unimportant. By the same token, I think Christian ecumenicism is a great thing, but I don’t want to be ‘ecumenical’ with Methodists if that means denying the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, I don’t want to be ecumenical with Roman Catholics if that means accepting papal primacy, and I certainly don’t want to be ecumenical with the UCC if that means accepting that the virgin birth and the resurrection were just pretty stories.



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Rod Dreher

posted June 16, 2010 at 6:59 pm


If you’re a journalist there’s obviously some question of whether and, if so, how to balance the desires of these two major subsets of readers.
This analysis is really off. I don’t think many reporters stop and think, “How can I give the reader what the reader wants?”, at least not in the way you indicate. Anyway, as a consumer of media, I don’t want my religion news to be reported from the point of view of comforting me, either in letting me know that things aren’t changing, or that my side is winning. I just want to know what’s really happening, and why. The way you’ve portrayed this only makes sense to people who don’t believe that religion is worth taking seriously.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 16, 2010 at 7:52 pm


“What I am concerned about- and incensed by- is the claim that Christianity is _fundamentally the same thing_ as Islam, or Hinduism, or Vodoun.”
Is there really anyone making this claim? It seems like a red herring. It would be rather crazy if there were anyone seriously saying this, but since I’ve never heard anyone say it, it seems a bit unnecessary to get concerned. In fact, the only thing remotely like this I’ve ever heard is from atheists who basically consider all religious equally untrue and tus “the same”. But that’s not a common view, especially in the media.



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GrantL

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:40 am


You know, at the end of the day, it’s actually not that complicated. It matters not if you are at the New York Times or a small community weekly. The job of a journalist is to write about what goes in their community, even if that community happens to be the entire planet. Religion, for good or for ill, is part of community life. The good, bad, ugly and ridiculous of it.
Journalists should not avoid covering religion AS IT IS anymore than they should avoid covering crime or sports. If I cover a local hockey game, I don’t worry about trying to say that hockey is really the same as boxing and basketball. If you did that, it would be totally absurd wouldn’t it? Not so much when you cover religion and you have to them ask, why? You would not do that in any other area of coverage but religion.
The difference is that, by my experience, there is a kind of self censoring going on when it comes to religion. Noam Chomsky, back when he and Edwards wrote Manufacturing Consent, talked about how journalists internalize the values of the industry. It’s not a conspiracy, it just what happens in any industry and journalism is no different. So some things get censored or filtered out automatically. We all do it. I do it. Rod must have done it. Everyone does.
I’d submit that this has happened with respect to religion. There are acceptable ways to write about religion and ways that editors and reporters would rather not do. Not because the “liberal media” (a TOTALLY meaningless term, usefully pretty much for partisan ranting and nothing else) doesn’t understand religion. Most reporters are religious people. (demographics people!) But rather, religion is a) see as something private and not part of larger life in the community and b) so varied that you cannot possibly avoid annoying someone or large groups of people by writing about it as it is. So its gets filtered out.
So, as I noted before, stories about how we all pretty much believe the same thing, and pretty much sing from the same hymnal, that’s cool. Sectarian stories are fine around say, popular religious holidays….mostly. I can do a story about the “meaning of Christmas” and that generally will not get much reaction. (Although I once did an Easter story that turned on the views of the leader of one of our city’s biggest churches. He has a pretty radical view about what the bible was all about, one that could not be called popular Christianity at all. I merely covered his view of it as a local religious leader…and in return a wave of more orthodox (small O) believers wrote to tell me who I was undermining society by giving his man’s views ink. The paper then decided to avoid “non standard” interpretations of the Easter story after that, much to my chagrin.)
But stories that really do show the conflicts between various faiths more or less is a no go. I suspect the is is more pronounced the smaller the paper is. Try running a story about a Jew or Muslim who says that Jesus is not, in fact, god, and you’ll see what I mean. Our religion page really should be called “the nice Christianity page” that only focuses on a kind of banal, pop religion but never really gets into anything meaty or interesting.
But again, this approach is a massive mistake.
I mean, anyone who thinks that you can cover hot button subjects like gay marriage, or female circumcision, or anti-poverty work, or international issues like the anti-gay carnage about to be unleashed on Uganda due to American evangelicals, or ongoing relief work in Haiti or a dozen other things without understanding there is an important dimension that involves religion is simply deluding themselves. And if you cannot, as a journalist, be willing to explore those dimensions AS THEY ARE, then you are not doing your job. If you say we all believe the same thing, more or less, then you really have no hope to getting a handle on any of it.
No, I am not a believer. Personally I have no use for religion at all. A lot of the time I think it’s wrong or bad. But that said, my views simply are not relevant to religion coverage. My readers don’t want to know what I think about the views of Cleric X. They want to what Cleric X, or the community he is part of, has to say or what they do.



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