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Why Journalists Get Religion Wrong

As campaign season heats up, the candidates' "religious beliefs" will increasingly become part of the American conversation. The media isn't likely to be of much help. If Iraq is your issue, you can count on an endless parade of articles … Read More

By / January 17, 2008

As campaign season heats up, the candidates' "religious beliefs" will increasingly become part of the American conversation. The media isn't likely to be of much help. If Iraq is your issue, you can count on an endless parade of articles describing just about every aspect of the war; the same won't be true of the candidates religious beliefs and practices.

I understand why religion reporters so frequently give up the beat, and why their story ideas meet with skepticism from editors. Because while reporters are forced to think about the outside world, religion forces us to consider the interior world.

Consider how a reporter goes about his beat. If it's education, then he visits the school district and reports on what teachers and staff and students tell him. But if it's religion, going to a church, mosque or temple doesn't work quite as well. Private conversations with God aren't all that accessible to reporters. The First Amendment gives reporters the freedom to ask questions of whomever they please; it doesn't bestow magical mind-reading powers.

Take abortion, for example. How often does a reporter really attempt to get inside the head of a Christian evangelist pro-life advocate? Or Palestinian-Israeli relations. How often does a reporter ask a person in that dispute, "What do your prayers with God tell you about this situation?"

Very rarely. And that's because editors are bred to treat with skepticism any reporter's attempt to get inside a source's head. This works in 90 percent of journalism because reporters and editors have to guard against the possibility that the source is bullshitting them. And more often than not, that type of maneuver can be checked against empirical, verifiable, external facts and evidence. Not so with religion. If a source tells a reporter that she's voting for Huckabee or Edwards because her prayers guided her in that direction, how could a reporter possibly call bullshit?

As this process unfolds, I'd love to see reporters really dig into religious issues. Not so much what the candidates believe, but what Americans believe — remembering, also, that no belief at all is still a belief in something. Because the campaign offers a high-profile opportunity for journalists to get it right, to set the agenda, to bridge the interior to the external. People vote not always for what they suspect will affect their surroundings, but also for what they hold closest to their souls. I've seen countless stories so far on how Iraq, the economy, and health care are helping voters sort out their presidential preferences. But I haven't seen a single story where reporters really interrogate a number of Americans about their religious beliefs.

Good reporting, no matter the subject, challenges our assumptions and adds nuance to our understanding of the world we live in. Informed, accessible coverage of "religious beliefs" must be part of of this process.

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