Monday, January 26, 2009

Does the press understand religion?

From misunderstanding basic tenets of faith to failing to reflect, or properly weight, the diversity of religious thought, the press does not understand religion. On the subject of press coverage and religion, I found this article by Les Sillars and was blown-away (h/t RNS Blog). This article is so rich with sub-topics of discussion, that I am unsure how to fairly approach the overall topic: the press doesn't understand basic Islamic tenets of faith; how the press' coverage of religion influences support for public policy on the Hill; the press unfairly stereotypes conservatives; the press has a "bigoted" approach to religion; the press won't get better anytime soon on the topic of religion, if it doesn't get worse. Each of these topics is worthy of exploration and discussion. If you have time, please read the article.

To me, the article missed one important issue. I am most bothered by how the if-it-bleeds-it-leads conflict-generating media elevates certain (more extreme) views into the public discussion creating the general misperception that those views are both normative and majority; their skewing or mis-weighting of the plurality of theological voices leads, cognitively, to a fallacious availability heuristic. In this light, lost is the respect for the vast diversity of religious and theological thought, dismissed by the oversimplified - and perhaps dumbed-down - fault lines of conservatism versus liberalism. And when the press is only willing to cover a very narrow set of hot-button issues (i.e., abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, school prayer), this supposed ideological binary perpetuates and exacerbates the divisiveness already inherent within those discussions. Healthy theological diversity is out, and unhealthy theological disagreeableness is in.


Katie said...

The day of "if it bleeds, it leads" is here, and the days of Edward R. Murrow are a fond memory. Keith Olberman gets a higher viewership than Jim Lehrer because he's noisy, and offensive, and full of bile... and Jim Lehrer looks like a beagle, who would just like to quietly and calmly give you the news of the day.

So of course a story about Islam is of course going to focus on extremism. Why? Because it is exotic, dangerous, and mysterious. Nobody wants to learn about a culture across the world, only to be told, "Yeah, they're just like us. Same hopes, fears, challenges." Bo-ring. So, we are told that they slavishly pray five times a day to "Allah", and have robes, and unpronounceable names. Because that's what gets ratings.

The blogosphere and other forms of non-mainstream media are filling this gap somewhat, but most of us are limited by resources to only "cover the coverage" without doing our own investigative journalism.

It's the way it goes. Although I wonder what Murrow would say, were he around today.

Darren Staley said...

Olbermann "noisy,and offensive,and full of bile?" I don't get that.

But anyway, to the larger issue, the Christians are largely to blame for this.

For decades the evangelicals have wanted to legislate their agenda. When that went foul, they made a point of espousing Judeo-Christianity a the basis of patriotism.

Now that this is no longer in vogue, the moderate Christians want in but many fear a bait and switch.

This is exactly why faith and politics should not mix. It undermines both faith and politics.

Before you call me crazy, ask yourself this honestly (and I am asking the room this, not a single person): knowing everything you know about Obama, his background, his education, his platform, what he has done thus far, would you have voted for him if he was an athiest?

"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

When we start living this, the press will be taken out of the equation.

Matt F. said...

Well, I took the time to read the article. I have to say the guy who wrote it seems like an idiot. He thinks that the reason people thought that Palin knew less about foreign policy than Biden is the result of anti-religious bias in the media (a claim he doesn't bother to support). I would argue that he misrepresents journalism at least as much as he claims that journalism misrepresents religion.

On the Olberman front, he is noisy, but I can't think of an example of him being offensive. And as for full of bile, he was covering the Bush administration. I think the country could have used a little more righteous anger. I will agree that he is often quite a bit over the top, but there are things worth getting angry about, just as Murrow got angry about Mccarthyism.

One more response to Katie's post. Observant Muslims do pray to Allah five times a day, and many of them wear robes. In addition, the media reports on extremism in the Islamic world because extremism is very much in power there. Honor killings, where a woman is killed by her family for offences against Islam (such as getting raped) happen in many Islamic countries, including our ally Saudi Arabia, and are not prosecuted. If the extremists were a small fringe section of the population of the Middle East, we wouldn't care. Unfortunately, the extremist elements in places like Afhganistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other places have arguably grown in power. I don't care about the moderates in those countries until they stand up to the extremists. Then maybe they can be reported on. Until then, I want our journalists focused on the dangerous thugs that are trying to drag that area of the world back into the Stone Age.

James said...

The press is no longer interested in getting the news out, nor being correct in its reporting. Instead it is interested in being the power that controls the thoughts and minds of the people. Candidates seems to have to sell out to the press to win. To understand anything one must study it from all sides, see as the person sees. But for a media that is losing readership to talking heads, and to bloggers, who are just as much at fault, sometimes, for spreading fertilizer instead of studied news.

No the press does not understand religion, and their reporting has killed many. A good example is thinking that Catholics and Protestants have nothing in common, or that Muslims are all the same.

Drew it is blogs like yours, that have as its writer and its readership those of different religious views, peacefully speaking to each other that brings understanding.

Katie right on target as usual. Darren and Matt you too. The press rather have cute entertainers than true journalists, and half-truths unresearched than indepth understanding of of an issue. At best we get civil religion stories rather than civil stories on religion

Kent H said...

Good ole Darren,
I'm not sure how "the Christians" being part of the process and being sure their voice is heard in the public square can be the reason the press misunderstands religion.
Again, you and I cross this huge chasm together. Faith and politics must relate. Not church and state. I hold (with everyone else) certain faith-based opinions that pertain to life and practice. My faith tells me that God has opinions on issues that I should hold. And when political measures breach these issues, my convictions will be affected (eg. abortion, social help programs, etc.).
On a historic note, it is true the National Constitutional held for no religious test for office but our blessed Republic began with 13 states that ALL held a miniumum of a theistic viewpoint to hold office. Just a thought.
To the point of the article, the fact is exactly as James said. Journalism in the historical definition has ceased to exist. Every talking head has an agenda and a network willing to support it. We don't hear enough about the religious nature of the conflict in Sudan because it's Christians being slaughtered. Islamic conflicts are a few nuts who have "hijacked" the faith. Well, frankly the "few nuts" have control of every Islamic government. The atrocities are state inflicted -- as Matt F. stated.
No, most media outlets do not understand religion - because to do so would mean getting out of the press booth and studying theology, history, and politics. But sweeps week is coming and the faithful need to hear more of what we do best - biased coverage of every issue (either side).

Alicia said...

Drew--just looking at the topic here "Does the press understand religion?" makes stop there and pause.

Rhetorically, I throw this back to the group. Do many people really understand religion? I mean really . . . aside from spouting out our specific churches point of view.

Just in the United States there are over 1,000 different versions of the Christian faith, each believing in and focusing on different interpretations of the Bible. Many of the groups have fundamentally opposite views and all claim to be the right one . . . preaching “the right way” to live one’s life and get to Heaven.

Religion is its own worst enemy when it comes to the “understanding” part.

Kent H said...

Great point, Alicia,
Admittedly, I must see the issue of "understanding" different faiths (and even my own) as a process rather than a destination. I have studied the tenets, history, and theology of Islam and Muhammed personally. But I cannot "understand" with full knowledge how the extreme adherents would devalue life and promote jihad. I have some knowledge of the views of Taoism, Hinduism, Budhism, etc. But to "understand" these faiths is not simply a study of words and definitions but of culture, worldview, and history.
In the Christian faith, there are many splinter groups, factions, sects, and interpretations. And all of these can't be true and right. But in the question, we are logically assuming a "right" and a "truth" to be pursued. It is also an assumption that all truth claims are not equal. Mine is to find God's opinions on any given subject and stand there as best I can.

Pat Carr said...

I can understand how the press does not know how to deal with religion in the public arena. The loudest voices of religion in America over the last 25 years have been fundamentalist Christians and the Catholic Church, which has also have been rolling back to pre-Vatican II times. These voices leave no room for thoughtfulness, genuine discussion and compromise, all attributes needed in honest public discourse.
My faith has been a long journey of varying degrees and times of closeness and distance from God and a growing impatience with institutions and fundamentalist stands. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that most people, individuals and journalists alike, have little connection to faith, which naturally leads one to doubt and uncertainty, and too much connection or exposure to religion, which often falsely gives people the notion that there is only one right way do things. As for unbelievers, I find them more intellectually honest then those who are “religion” believers because they usually at least acknowledge that they may not be right. It is only when one is able to realize that they do not have all the answers, but may certainly have strong beliefs about issues and values, that one is open to listen to the other.