Journalism and Religion

26 Mar

“Both religion and journalism are disciplines that purport to seek the truth, albeit often in different realms. In that sense, journalists and religious scholars are on similar missions”

This is one of the trickiest topics we’ve yet to face. As a religious person…and an aspiring journalist, I believe that a good journalist can be religious, cover religious topics, and still be fair and objective in their reporting…even when covering religions that differ from their own.

There’s an interesting book out written by former LA Times journalist William Lobdell called  “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace“. (The Link will take you to the google books preview if you want to have a look at what he has to say). After being assigned to the religious beat, Lobdell, an evangelical christian, reported on hundreds of stories. He witnessed a lot of hypocrisy in many religions, investigated religious institutions that were corrupt, and saw the decline of morals. As this evidence piled up, he started to fear that God didn’t exist. Doubts and questions plagued him until his faith collapsed.

His story has some pretty compelling arguments that would suggest that perhaps a journalists can report on religion and remain faithful to his or her own religion. But then, I found this article on Nieman Reports (a website I highly recommend) that directly discussed Lobdell’s book. Basically, the author of this article says that Lobdell went about his religious reporting in the wrong way. He believed his job on the religion beat was a calling from God and he set out on a mission to “shape religious coverage at one of the nation’s largest media outlets.”

The problem here is that Lobdell didn’t separate his religion from his reporting. He wanted to cover religion through his own religious lens, and that creates a problem. I don’t think that a journalist needs to disassociate themselves from their religion, but they should be able to report without bias that may come with their own religion. It is possible to write a story fairly and accurately about a religion that is not your own as long you go in with an open mind, and the realization that their views are different than yours, not necessarily bad, just different. 

The SPJ came out with “Guidelines for Countering Racial, Ethnic and Religious Profiling” shortly after 9/11 in order to kind of set a standard for how journalists should approach coverage of the aftermath. There are some pretty powerful statements in these guidelines that should definitely be considered when covering religion. A lot of them are specific to covering Muslims because of the context, but they can be applied to all religion. Here’s some highlights:

1) Use language that is informative and not inflammatory
2)   Do not imply that kneeling on the floor praying, listening to Arabic music or reciting from the Quran are peculiar activities
3)  Avoid using word combinations such as “Islamic terrorist” or “Muslim extremist” that are misleading because they link whole religions to criminal activity
4) Ask men and women from within targeted communities to review your coverage and make suggestions

I thought these were interesting because they kind of resembled the four guidelines found in the book. I think truly, the most important guideline is number 3, which is a lot like number 2 in the book: “Distinguish between the group and the action”. There are a lot of times when a religious person does a terrible thing, or says a racist comment, and the media needs to be careful to distinguish that person’s actions with the beliefs and actions of the collective religion.

It makes me think of Professor Bott and the statement he made about African American’s and the priesthood. His mistake was speaking on behalf of the whole church, but a lot of the media made the mistake of assuming he spoke for the whole church. The bretheren later released a statement saying that he did not, in fact, speak for the church, but it was sort of misconstrued that way, and that’s misconception is something that’s hard to fix.

Overall, I think the most important thing is to remain respectful when covering stories about religion. Everyone is entitled to their own views, and to practice their own religion, it’s another aspect of the first amendment, an amendment that we as journalists kind of worship. We can’t attack their views, and we should let our views cloud our judgment in how we approach the story. We can disagree with their doctrine, and still represent them fairly. Religion and journalism don’t have to be enemies, but they can be if the journalists aren’t careful.

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