Now, More Than Ever, Journalists Have to "Get" Religion

BlogHer Original Post

In Nigeria, nearly 700 people are reported dead after members of a violent Islamist sect attacked police stations and government buildings last week. In Pakistan, six Christians have died after more than 100 homes were attacked, reportedly by Muslims who believe they'd desecrated the Koran. In Texas, a District Court ruled that a Santeria priests can resume animal sacrifices in his home. In India, survivors of last years' violent attack on Christians in Orisha are trying to sow peace. Meanwhile, some fret over the fact that the likely elevation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court will mean that 6 of the 9 sitting Justices will be Catholic.

These headlines are just a few examples of the high profile stories occurring every day that call for knowledgeable religion reporters. Yet, news organizations never invested heavily in the religion beat in good times, so it's not surprising that there are problems with religion reporting in these troubled times. Organizations such as the Religion Newswriters' Association offers backgrounders, leads and tip sheets to help journalists and bloggers keep up with a beat that's grown increasingly complex.

In May, 2009, Lyndsey Lewis shared the results of a senior research project she she conducted at the University of Florida on the news coverage of religion. While she found a number of knowledgeable reporters working in the field, she also found instances of coverage that she thought reflected ignorance or bias. For example, she cited a news story in which the Late Rev. Jerry Falwell referred to a "salt ministry:"

"The reporter figured he must have said "assault ministry," and Falwell's quote entered the magazine that way. In reality, of course, Falwell used the term "salt ministry" in reference to the Book of Matthew, but it seems the journalist was either unfamiliar with the term or was biased by preconceived notions about Falwell." 

Here in New Jersey, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield was one of several critics who accused the Newark Star-Ledger of anti-Jewish bias for a headline related to the July 23 arrest of 44 people, including twp mayors, a deputy mayor, assemblyman, five rabbis and other public servants in a corruption probe in New Jersey. Federal investigators allege that several rabbis were involved in laundering money connected to a complex  scheme involving crimes including bribery and a black-market scheme to obtain and sell human kidneys. Acknowledging the importance of the story, Hirschfield question some of the language used to describe the rabbis and their communities:

"The coverage, which initially began in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, suggests that the motivation for their coverage may be less than appropriate. In fact, it may be nothing less than an excuse to vent deep resentment at a particular portion of the Jewish community."

From what I've read of the coverage, Hirshfield's charge seems a stretch. But it's clear that the story will continue to require reporters who know a lot about the diversity of Jewish communities. According to the Star-Ledger, the accused rabbis come from two community of Syrian Jews in New Jersey and New York -- communities known for their "insularity."

Terry Mattingly, a former religion reporter-turned blogger, would likely advise the Star-Ledger reporters to be careful and specific in their descriptions of the Syrian Jewish community. Mattingly criticized a recent news report describing a bullfight in California that reportedly was connected with a "religious festival" among Portuguese immigrants:

"All of the [religious festival] that I have covered - especially when linked to ancient traditions in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other major faiths - have very precise titles, rituals and purposes.

"So, if you are willing to ask a question or two, you usually hit a specific passage in scripture, a reference to the life of a holy person, a tie between the secular and religious calendars, or some other hook to the faith in question...."

 Meanwhile sometimes it's smart to know when to factor religion out. For example, after an 8-year-old Liberian girl was allegedly raped in Phoenix, AZ in July, her family came under worldwide criticism when the father was quoted as saying that the family no longer wanted her, because she had shamed them. Some bloggers immediately tried to figure out the family's religion, thinking that it might explain the family's cruelty. According to the parents' Pastor, the parents misunderstood the question they were being asked.

Have you seen examplles of really good or really bad media coverage? What where they? 

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