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Keeping the faith: Connecting the dots with religion and ethics coverage
Some years ago, an American reporter who covered religion was at Tel Aviv airport leaving Israel.
As she was subjected to the usual questions from Israeli security, she was asked what she did for a living. “I write about religion,” she replied. “Which one?” the security officer responded. “Well, all of them,” the reporter said.
“How is that possible?” the officer asked. After 20 more minutes of questions, the reporter was allowed to board her plane, but it was clear from the conversation that the security officer could not conceive of a journalist writing about a faith to which she did not subscribe.
It’s an interesting question during this season of religious celebrations: Does a journalist have to be “religious” to cover religion? Is it desirable to have a reporter of one faith covering stories about another? What about atheist or agnostic reporters?
Reuters News Religion Editor Tom Heneghan, who produces the excellent FaithWorld blog, says reporters “need to know enough about the religion they’re covering to get beyond the usual clichés about the faith.” But, importantly, “they have to be ready to put aside the usual ‘either/or’ approach they learned covering politics or business. Religion often doesn’t fit into those categories, but into a ‘both/and’ perspective.”
For example, “Pope John Paul II was both liberal in some political issues such as defense of the poor or opposition to the Iraq War, and conservative in Catholic theology. Islam has radicals who commit violence in the name of God and moderates who say Islam is a religion of peace.”
Among Reuters journalists who cover religion are believers, agnostics and atheists, Heneghan says. His view, which I share, is that in principle all our journalists should be able to cover any religion because they are supposed to approach them objectively and that it’s hard to detect any differences in the reports they write.
“The real dividing line,” he says, “is probably between those with a religious background and those without one. Reporters who cover their own faith often have a big advantage over those who are not familiar with that faith — although they may also get too close to the story. Reporters who are believers or are from a religious background sometimes have a better feel for the complexities of a religion story, no matter which faith they are covering.”
No matter who does the reporting, Heneghan says, a good religion story is one that is clear and simple, without being simplistic.
FROM RELIGION TO FINANCE
This season of religious celebrations has also become a season of financial turmoil, alleged $50 billion Wall Street Ponzi schemes and wrenching business and government policy decisions that are putting many out of work. Against such a backdrop, it’s fair to ask how reporting on religion and ethics issues is relevant and how such reporting can help a professional audience make decisions.
The Bernard Madoff case has brought the intersection of ethics and finance into the spotlight, but even before that news broke Pope Benedict weighed in on the world economic crisis and the ethics of the financial community, branding the global financial system as “self-centered, short-sighted and lacking in concern for the poor.”
“Objectively, the most important function of finance is to sustain the possibility of long-term investment and hence of development,” he wrote in the message for the Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, celebrated on Jan. 1. “Today this appears extremely fragile: it is experiencing the negative repercussions of a system of financial dealings — both national and global — based upon very short-term thinking, which aims at increasing the value of financial operations and concentrates on the technical management of various forms of risk,” he said.
“The recent crisis demonstrates how financial activity can at times be completely turned in on itself, lacking any long-term consideration of the common good,” he said.
Stories like that one plainly illustrate the connections between “religion news” and “financial news.”
INTERPLAY NOT DOCTRINE
At Reuters News, “Our role is to cover the interplay of religious issues with society, politics and global affairs and to ensure that we are both expert and accurate in everything we write,” says Sean Maguire, our global editor for politics and general news.
“Sometimes,” he says, “that is about understanding how the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam impact the Middle East. Other times it is about how different religious beliefs impact national approaches to the difficult ethical choices in health care provision.”
What you’re not going to see are reports on arcane doctrinal differences. What you will see is coverage of the religious issues that form a backdrop to our time, such as Benedict’s criticism of the global financial system.
Such issues “are at the core of disputes and conflicts that pit ethnic and sectarian groups against each other and tip countries into war,” says Maguire. “They inform the decisions that governments take, are a big influence on electoral behavior and they form the cultural matrix within which individuals make their daily decisions.
“So we don’t cover religion in isolation, but to better understand the actions, reactions and behaviors of groups, individuals and states. That aids us in our editorial goal of helping customers make informed professional decisions.”
Unfortunately, the financial problems of the media industry have been rough on religion and ethics reporting. In the 1980s, a number of U.S. news outlets, including such papers as the San Jose Mercury News and The Dallas Morning News, made big investments in religion and ethics reporting. Now, as the industry has contracted, so has the religion beat, as Boston Globe religion reporter Michael Paulson blogged from a Religion Newswriters Association conference this past fall.
This is bad timing. We live in a world in which investors and consumers are increasingly confused about whom they can trust. There’s never been a more important time for reporting on the intersection of religion, ethics, finance and policy.
What do you think? Are the media covering religion and ethics issues in a smart way? Are we making the connections between religion and ethics issues and politics, finance and other areas? What are the stories that need to be covered in 2009?