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Keeping the faith: Connecting the dots with religion and ethics coverage

December 18, 2008

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

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?

Comments

I think it’s disgusting that mainstream media so often hires people who know nothing about religion to be “experts” on it. Not only are they not believers, nine times out of ten they have no academic credentials in the subject, either. Religion is complex, and reporters too frequently see it only from the perspective of a person who is not only non-religious, but actively hostile to all religions.

Would you hire a person who never took a science class to be the science editor? Or a bankrupt person who didn’t own a checking account to be the business editor?

Of course not. But “journalists” seem to think that religion is so inconsequential that any old reporter can cover it. That used to be the case, when ordinary Americans practically had an understanding of Christian principles in their DNA. But not today. Today, religious reporting requires more understanding of the subject, because they are dealing with an audience that knows little, so the authors need to know much more and transmit that information.

I have a Ph.D. in American Studies, which includes a specialty in American religious and political history. I am appalled at most religious reporting that I see. I am also a Pentecostal Christian, and I am equally appalled by the complete failure of religious reporters to understand vital denominational and political distinctions.

Please start hiring academic specialists to cover your religion information–or at least someone who is practicing the faith.

Posted by Kerry | Report as abusive
 

And by the way, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why “religion and ethics” reporting is failing. The consumers (readers, particularly religious ones) don’t see any reason to read anything the mainstream media writes about religion OR ethics, because reporters don’t seem to comprehend either. If you want religious readers to read about religion, try giving them the impression that you know something about the subject.

As it is now, religious readers see the media as entirely hostile to them, uninterested in the facts about faith, and unlikely to have any insight they can’t get on their own from more overtly religious sources.

Sorry, but that’s the truth.

Posted by Kerry | Report as abusive
 

Overall, I agree with the blog and the above comments. I particular agree that the media should try to get involved in the minutia of doctrine. However, this is happening. Just last week, Lisa Miller’s Newsweek story on gay marriage was appalling. She only quoted liberal theologians in the whole piece while undermining a more wholistic view of Judea-Christian marriage. It was infuriating and embarrassing to read. That story would have gotten laughed out of any secular theological convocation because it was so one-sided. If you are going to delve into exegesis at least do equal time. Please!

Posted by Bruce | Report as abusive
 

My experience is that students go into journalism because they have a ’cause’ they wish to promote, not because they have a thirst for truth or accuracy. As one wag put it, ‘They should not practice exegesis without a helmet.’ Good advice for any journalist covering religion.

Posted by Dennis Larkin | Report as abusive
 

Keeping the faith:
Note to journalists:
How is it that journalists might side step the teachings of the Bible in order to side step its ethical considerations except that they would not know it?
Isn’t ethics purported as a greater concern than mere religion in contemporary America? What area of ethics is incompatible with the Bible? Or, how is the Bible unethical? Do Christian journalists compromise their faith to keep their careers? Didn’t those begin these compromises as students in journalism school? Didn’t their professors before them? The question of faith, religion and adherence to the Word are separate questions in secular America to secular Americans. The cultural, or in any other sense direction, of our compromised ethics is predictable. All believers already know that direction and pray to prepare for its inevitable conclusion.
So yes credible journalists who write about religion ought to have a well read understaning of the doctrines supporting those religions, and also grasp that “religion” is a self-interest conceived bias of that supporting doctrine.

Posted by Thomas | Report as abusive
 

Yes, it should be absolutely required that anyone covering a story on a religious matter be of that said religion.

Likewise, anyone covering a story on a non-religious matter should not be religious at all.

It makes sense, right?

Seriously, how is this even an issue? Reporters write about tons of stuff they don’t fully understand, such as (but not limited to): science, education, economics.

As long as reporters are honest about their limitations, focus on facts, and try to cover all sides to the story (and I don’t just mean the knee-jerk “liberal” v. “conservative” – that’s often a false dichotomy), I really don’t care whether they worship satan or God or a spaghetti monster or nothing at all.

Posted by alex | Report as abusive
 

One should not be able to “report” on something he or she doesn’t understand, or worse, disagrees with. That is prejudgment, or simply put, prejudice. All too often simplistic judgments are implicit in the news storie, that only perpetuate caricatures of religious (or irreligious) people, for that matter. It is not an easy situation, as one always regards as “irreligious” anyone whose religion (or irreligion) is other than one’s own. Religious “news” is certainly possible, what is often almost impossible to produce, is objective presentations of religious “news” George

 

Thank you KERRY for your input. That was well said.
I don’t think the mainstream liberal media understands or cares too much about what the people think or want. With their over the top all inclusive attitude, they spread all religions thin, with the resultant being a very dilute presentation of religious values and spirituality.
Religion is specific about rights and wrongs, and as it should be. We all need boundaries and certain parameters for existence.

Posted by joyce | Report as abusive
 

Kerry, who posted the first two comments, says he has a PhD
“in American Studies, which includes a specialty in American religious and political history”. He’s “disgusted” and “appalled” about non-religous reporters in the mainstream media, and says that religous readers see the media as “entirely hostile to them”. Well, gentle readers, does this not tell you how bigoted such people are? How virulently they expect the Press to pander to them? And most importantly, how utterly useless it is to report on them or to waste one’s time reading about them.

Posted by C.C. Millah | Report as abusive
 

There are thousands of knowledgeable reporters who report on religion in the world. In the U.S. they’re called preachers or pastors. If I wanted to write an article on quantum mechanics, I wouldn’t need a degree in physics. All I’d need is a general understanding of the subject and a source that knew what he/she was talking about. The same is true of reporters on religious subjects.

The fact is that the complainers don’t really want reporting. They want preaching that caters to fundamentalist beliefs that translate into shaping politics and law. Unfortunately, they’ve been pretty successful in recent decades, particularly when it’s all based on ancient stories that have no more basis in fact than Islam or the religions of the ancient Greeks, Romans or Norse.

I repeat. Today’s fundamentalists are mostly about politics and power, not religion. The same as fundamentalists in the Middle East and the same as fundamentalists all over the world since the beginning of mankind.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive
 

The quote from Editor Heneghan is concerning. He states “[Religion reporters] 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.”

Ummm… How can one accept the belief that politics and business can be covered with either/or judgments? That very simplistic view of the world is just as likely to lead to political and financial cliché’s as it is for theological ones.

So, is either/or thinking really encouraged in reporting generally? If so, maybe the cliché of the liberal media is justified. After all, its either true or it’s not, and I’ve seen more blues than reds on the evening news, so it must be true.

Posted by Tom | Report as abusive
 

Some interesting comments here. Since I’m quoted in Dean’s post and mentioned in the comments, I’d like to make a few observations:

1. Several readers seem to throw all religion reporters into the same pot. I’d be the last one to claim there are no problems with religion reporting in the general media. Several large news organisations have appointed religion editors to address this problem. But several comments here don’t seem to see any difference in the quality of reporting in different media. They mention the worst cases as if they were the rule. This undermines their portrayal of reporters as the only ones who don’t make enough distinctions.

2. to Kerry — The argument that all religion reporters should have divinity degrees or all market reporters an MBA betrays a narrow understanding of what human intelligence is capable of. Most educated people have a university degree in one field and yet deal with other areas in their careers. For example, many engineers, doctors, liberal arts PhDs and others become managers in their companies, hospitals or universities without having academic qualifications in management. They can do it and succeed precisely because they have a good education. They may never become experts but they can become competent and well informed.

There is also the question about the place of religion in daily journalism. Sean Maguire put it very clearly: “our role is to cover the interplay of religious issues with society, politics and global affairs.” We write these stories for a general audience, which means that many readers will not be followers of the faith being written about. So we rarely write in detail about doctrinal issues within a denomination or particular insights into the Bible by one theologian. Those are issues for the religious press to cover. Our exception to this rule is when that religious issue intersects with social, political, economic or other public affairs in a way that touches people outside of that faith. So, for example, we don’t write at length about the theological underpinnings of Pope Benedict’s views on bioethics but we did report about the specific “dos and don’ts” listed in the latest Vatican document on bioethics. Just because the reporters who covered the document did not spell out in detail the theology behind them does not mean they have not studied it.

Regarding “experts” — we do not call ourselves experts. We are informed observers with the training and experience to report on events we are covering. The experts are the people we quote in stories to explain the meaning of those events. That’s why they’re quoted in the story, with their professional affiliation to give the reader an idea who’s talking.

You assume there are no believers among religion reporters. I don’t know how many religion reporters are believers and they may well be in a minority, but I know enough of them to know this blanket assumption is not based on facts.

If religious readers feel the secular media are entirely hostile to them and don’t bring any insight they can’t find in the religious media, maybe that’s because they don’t understand the difference between the two. Secular media write for a variety of readers to show how religion interacts with the society around it. Religious media write mostly for followers of their faith to deepen their knowledge of it. Asking one to do the other can be misplaced.

3. to Thomas — I don’t quite understand why you ask “what area of ethics is incompatible with the Bible? Or, how is the Bible unethical?” Those are questions for the religious media to ask and possibly answer, not the secular media. They interest us when they enter the public sphere, for example in a dispute where politicians support or oppose a certain policy because of their religious beliefs. Then the question would arise whether it is ethical to do this.

4. to George Good — Lots of assumptions here. You don’t want reporters to cover topics they don’t understand — we don’t either. You extend that to say they shouldn’t cover something they disagree with. We can’t agree here. Trained reporters can report the facts of an event even if they disagree with the leading figures in it. If not, only Republican reporters could cover Republican politicians and Catholics the Vatican. Western news organisations would have had to send communist reporters to cover the Soviet Union. You then go a step further and say “one always regards as ‘irreligious’ anyone whose religion (or irreligion) is other than one’s own.” That sweeping statement makes every believer a sectarian and ignores all the work on interfaith dialogue being done all over the world and with all religions. If we had to work with these unrealistic assumptions, religion reporting would indeed be impossible. But the evidence shows it’s not.

5. to Joyce — You make a good point that the secular media give a diluted presentation of religious values and spirituality and that religion is and should be about rights and wrongs. Where I disagree is your flat assertion that the media don’t care about what people think or want. Secular religion reporting has to deal with what people think in private when that influences how they act in public. But it does not plumb the depths of a person’s spirituality if it has no relevance to the news being covered. And it cannot champion one theological view over another. The secular media are not there to give detailed lessons about the values of a specific religion with no link to what’s happening. That would be catechesis, not journalism.

6. to Ray — Thanks for your observation that “the complainers don’t really want reporting.” My view goes in this direction, as you can see from my comments above, but I’m not sure all these complaints are that deliberate. My feeling is that the current plethora of media has led to some confusion about which outlet serves which purpose. I sometimes get the impression that critics of secular religion reporting — consciously or unconsciously — want to hear the same message from secular media that they get from their religious media. There is some overlap between the two and that’s not bad. But if the secular media were to drop their critical perspective, some of the big religion stories in recent years — the Catholic clergy sex scandals, the radicalisation of Muslim schools in Pakistan, the Israeli settler movement, the growth of Hindu nationalism in India, the spread of Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity in developing countries, polygamy in several faith traditions — would have been reported only from one side. We would be less well informed for it.

7. to Tom — The daily news is dominated by “either/or” stories whether it comes from “liberal” or “conservative” media. A politician wins or loses an election. Congress supports or rejects a bill. A trial ends in aquittal or conviction. The stock market goes up or down. A team wins or loses. Of course there are gray areas and of course these are also covered in the media. But the “either/or” stories make headlines because they report important facts about leading issues. Presenting this as some kind of “liberal” media agenda is a red herring.

Religion reporters get fewer big-headline page one stories than their colleagues in political and business reporting because their subject matter is less suited to that approach to the news. On this beat, some newbies — and some oldies — apply an “either/or” perspective that does not always do justice to the complexity of the story. There certainly are political and economic stories that also go beyond this perspective and have to be written as longer analyses or background reports. After three decades of doing all these types of stories from dozens of countries, I’m convinced there are many more of these stories in the religion field than in others.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive
 

I suppose some relevant questions are as follows: Can someone who does not subscribe to a particular religious tradition still understand that tradition? Also, is it necessary to be sympathetic toward or subscribe to a given religion before one can be considered informed or educated concerning that tradition? My answers to all said questions is no. One should delineate agnostics from atheists and both from religionists. James Livingston, in his “Anatomy of the Sacred” elegantly states this problem and logically deduces that people of faith do hold an advantage when it comes to studying religion, but personal religiosity is not necessary for understanding nor is agnosticism necessary for objectivity. It is as much the responsibility of the reader to read with a critical mind as it is for the writer to write objectively and in a well-informed fashion. We can only know what we know what we know, and can only ask questions that are informed by our knowledge. The most important thing is to grow that knowledge and realize that no story is fully rounded or completely objective.

Posted by Soraya | Report as abusive
 

Thank you to Tom Heneghan for clarifying some arguments and putting some posts into their proper context. Obviously a trained journalist who can think objectively about two sides of an argument. Bravo.

Most of the comments are overwhelmingly about faith or religion, which misses part of the orginal articles focus on ethics and business. Pope Benedict’s comments about business being “self-centered, short-sighted and lacking in concern for the poor.” is typically also a very narrow view from the Church.

Without wealth creation we would all be poor. Without wealth creation we would have no wealth to re-distribute. No wealth to tax. No social programs paid for by taxes. Never mind philantrophy, ironically something only the wealthy can seem to afford. The history of the Church has also relied on wealthy donors, but also on wealth creation to support not only their goodworks, but also their parish churches and lavish cathedrals.

I would assume that someone that is intelligent enough to compare and contrast scripture or world religions is also clever enough to know the difference between greed and wealth creation.

Posted by MrBill, Eurasia | Report as abusive
 

No person of faith should use the media as a resource for information, whether already a person of whatever religion in question or a seeker. One should “go to the horses mouth.”

Being a conservative Christian I laugh sometimes at the stuff the media publishes. Things like “such-and-suck pastor opposes gay marriage.” If he’s a biblical Christian of course he does! His reason is not bigotry or hatred, his reason is based on God’s revelation in scripture.

The problem is the reporting is always motivated by personal agenda. If the reporter in a gay rights story was a conservative Christian he would probably write pro-christian. That’s just a fact. Everyone is guided by presuppositions. If you hold a certain set of beliefs (whether you are aware or not) and you come into contact with conflicting beliefs there’s no way to be absolutely neutral. Neutrality is a myth. Anyone wh claims to be neutral on any issue is lying from the get go or at least deceived!

Should religion be covered? Why not it isn’t off limits whether the reporter is a member of the faith or not. There needs to be honest reporting though. The reporter should admit his/her position, knowledge of said religion, and be completely honest with the reader. I feel that often a story is geared toward ignorant readers in order to sway their opinion towards that of the reporter or reporting agency. It’s just bad reporting. It’s not restricted to religion it happens in all genres of reporting.

The bottom line is that the consumer needs to be aware that what they read, hear, or see is not neutral content. It’s always biased no matter how good a job the reporter does in being fair to all concerned. If you want to hear news about religion, fine, listen and read! Don’t look for counsel on spiritual matters from cable news or a national newspaper, find a preacher.

 

any one who has an ounce of fairness should accept that reporters write a story that is influenced or diluted by their point of view ,and also by the pressure from the editors of the different news papers.when a liberal slant is required they inevitably dig up some progressive rev who has similar views to them selves,which gives them an opening to marginalize people who they disagree with.any doubt about impartiality went out the window during the last political election.

Posted by brian lee | Report as abusive
 

Well, as long as they keep up to truth and don´t falsifie quotations, like Phil Stewart obviously did before Christmas on the Popes speech, it is acceptible. This caused a lot of damage for the trust in media, and it has not improved by that it seems to be practically impossible to commucicate with Reuters on this kind of matters.

Of course a reporter can have personal opinions. But it should be cristal clear what is opinions and what is facts. In this case all was mixed up.

Ulf Silfverling, Stockholm

 

Back off Israel,you pushed Palestine to the edge with no service’s.Did you expect them not to react.

Posted by mcme | Report as abusive
 

You asked a couple of questions.

Are the media covering religion and ethics issues in a smart way? No, religion is only covered in how it relates to war and politics………Are we making the connections between religion and ethics issues and politics, finance and other areas? I think the media have help make a lot of these connections to people running for office…. What are the stories that need to be covered in 2009? Third party candidates, fair debates, clean elections, true free markets, and sound currency coined by congress.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive
 

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