And the impact on religion coverage? I cannot tell you how many times I have heard journalists make statements that sound something like this: “Oh, I didn’t interview (insert name of relevant religious leader), because my editor said that we don’t need to give extremists like that a platform.” But what, I add, if this priest, or imam, or rabbi, or preacher is actually a key figure in the story? What if many of their claims are accurate, in terms of the history and doctrine of their faith?” At this point, journalists often shrug their shoulders or roll their eyes.
Nicole Neroulias, the religion reporter and Beliefnet blogger whose opinion I criticized yesterday, joins the thread over at GetRel. She writes:
Thanks for posting about this. I wanted to respond to Rod Dreher’s blog, but I thought it would be inappropriate to join the comments over there, and I’m waiting for my copy of “God Is Not One” before blogging about it further at Belief Beat.
In the meantime, to clarify: I have no problem covering religious conflict (or any conflict – I covered crime for years), including points of view that could hardly be considered “moderate.” What I was trying to convey, in that quick aside on my Belief Beat post, is that the concept that different religions have fundamental differences isn’t news to me, or presumably anyone else who reads a newspaper, lives in a diverse community, has an interfaith family, etc.
In my experience, it’s often the interfaith stories that reveal the complexities of this beat, beyond the usual conflicts (which, as I noted in the original post, do get plenty of coverage), while also providing some good old-fashioned man-bites-dog news appeal. Furthermore, if the concern is whether this point of view contributes to media bias/blandness, keep in mind that “conflict” stories are frequently framed as us-vs.-them scenarios: an inaccurate generalization at best, a dangerous mistake at worst, on the religion beat.
But, your mileage may vary, especially for journalists who work in different forms of media or for religious vs. secular press.
Again, I want to dispute a couple of Neroulias’s points. I think she assumes far too much, e.g., “the concept that different religions have fundamental differences isn’t news to me, or presumably anyone else who reads a newspaper,” etc. If Neroulias is asking, “Do most people understand there’s a difference between Judaism and Christianity, and between Buddhism and Islam?”, the answer is bound to be yes. The question, though, is whether or not there are any essential differences — and what to make of them? I’m a fairly well-informed generalist on religion, and I’m learning a lot from Steve Prothero’s book about the essential differences between the major world religions. I’m just guessing, but I’d bet cash money that nine out of 10 people you’d pull off the street couldn’t give you even a basically articulate answer if asked to explain the key theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism (obvious things like, “Catholicism has a pope” don’t count). In fact, as sociologist Christian Smith’s research has shown, younger Americans from all religious traditions have little or no sense of fundamental differences among their faiths, or why any of this matters.
My sense is that religious conflict makes journalists nervous, so they instinctively report from the irenic and ameliorative point of view — and, as Rosen says, marginalize those that they deem as immoderate, whether or not those sources have good arguments for their positions. The theory, consciously entertained or not, seems to be: People hate each other because of religious difference, therefore if we downplay or ignore religious difference, people won’t hate each other. That may be true, but it’s not journalism.
I also object to this:
Furthermore, if the concern is whether this point of view contributes to media bias/blandness, keep in mind that “conflict” stories are frequently framed as us-vs.-them scenarios: an inaccurate generalization at best, a dangerous mistake at worst, on the religion beat.
Are they really? “Frequently?” Can we see some examples? What does “us vs. them” mean in this case? Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t recall reading stories in the mainstream media that openly take sides in religious controversies, and try to rally one side against another. I think Neroulias is projecting. When I was at the Dallas Morning News, I had more than a few go-rounds with various reporters on staff about their disinclination to write about this or that substantive example of Islamic extremism in the community. I maintained then, and still maintain, that if the same stories I highlighted had involved Christian churches, they would have been in the newspaper, because they were news. I like and respect my reporter friends there, but I was convinced that these stories were ignored by our newsroom because editors and/or reporters feared that to write them would be to contribute to an us-vs.-them atmosphere they assumed was in the community. These guys are professional journalists, and never would have written a story in an “us-vs.them” way. My guess — and it’s only that — is that they (or their editors) concluded that whatever they wrote, people would see it as “us-vs.-them,” and make judgments of which these reporters disapproved. So the stories never got written. I would like anyone to post examples of stories from mainstream newspapers or broadcasts that frame religious conflict as “us-vs.them.” Not only does it not happen “frequently,” but I don’t think it happens much at all.
Again, I’m willing to be shown that I’m wrong.