Blind Spot

When journalists don't get religion

Richard N. Ostling has never gotten used to seeing journalists commit sins of omission and commission on the religion beat.

Religion can get very complicated, with layers of emotion stacked on centuries of history, doctrine, symbolism and ritual, said Ostling, who is best known for his decades of work with Time and the Associated Press. But mistakes are mistakes and it isn't good for readers to keep seeing stories that, week after week, cause them to mutter, "Wait a minute. That's just wrong."

Here's a prime example, a mistake Ostling keeps seeing in reports about the declining number of ordinations to the Catholic priesthood. This mistake often shows up in news coverage of mandatory celibacy for priests or the scandals caused by clergy sexual abuse.

Journalists often report that Rome does not ordain married men.

"Now it would be accurate," said Ostling, "to say that the overwhelming majority of men ordained as Catholic priests are not married. It would even be accurate to say that 'almost all' priests are not married. But what about Eastern Rite Catholicism, where you have married priests? Then there are the married men who have been ordained in the Anglican Rite, who used to be Episcopal priests. You have a few Lutherans, too."

Journalists will always argue about the meaning of words like "objectivity," "fairness" and "balance." But at some point reporters and editors should agree that accuracy is important and that it's a bad thing when -- year after year -- critics accuse journalists, with good cause, of getting the basic facts wrong.

That's the bottom line in my chapter in "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," a new book produced by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. It's hard for journalists to do a credible job covering religion events and trends when they cannot keep their facts straight. This is true whether one is parsing Vatican documents, the sermons of Iraqi clerics, the canon laws that affect millions of dollars in pensions and properties during a global Anglican schism or the faith testimony of an evangelical seeking the vice presidency.

The problem is that journalists who cover religion news -- along with those who cover other complicated beats such as science, sports, law and the arts -- must write stories that work on two levels. Their stories must be accessible enough for readers, yet accurate enough to pass muster with clergy, scholars and devout believers.

How can journalists "get" religion? How do we improve the odds that our newsrooms get it right? It's crucial that journalists find journalistic solutions to this journalism problem.

* Journalists must face this reality: It's impossible to understand what is happening in our world without understanding the power of religion in real life at the local, national and global levels.

* Journalists must be more humble and own up to our mistakes. In particular, we need to be more careful about our use of religious language, especially loaded labels such as "moderate" and "fundamentalist."

* Newsroom managers, even during these hard times, must seek out skilled professionals who want to work on this beat, while striving to promote cultural and intellectual diversity. They need to offer training to other journalists whose work constantly veers into religious territory. Today, religion stories are everywhere.

* Reporters and editors who cover religion must find ways to get inside the daily lives of the people they cover. When religious believers tell their stories, we have to understand what they are saying and try to accurately capture their point of view, even when what they believe is controversial.

Yes, this can get complicated.

Does an Orthodox rabbi have the same beliefs as a Reform rabbi? Do "moderate" Baptists (think Bill Moyers) have the same beliefs as "conservative" Baptists (think Rick Warren)? Will an Anglican bishop in Nigeria automatically have the same doctrinal beliefs as one in New Hampshire? Will a Sufi mystic in Kashmir have the same understanding of the word "jihad" as an Islamist in the mountains of Pakistan?

Words matter, on the religion beat. Some of them are even sacred.

"Some people would say that little mistakes like this do not matter all that much," said Ostling. "Well, they matter to the people who read the story and know that what they are reading is wrong. What does this say about our journalistic standards?"

That global blind spot

BERKELEY, Calif. -- The interfaith coalition that formed in the 1990s to lobby for religious liberty in China was so large and so diverse that even the New York Times noticed it.

One petition included two Catholic cardinals and a dozen bishops, Evangelical broadcasters, Eastern Orthodox bishops, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Baha'is, Orthodox and liberal rabbis, Scientologists and Protestant clergy of a various and sundry races and traditions. One Times article noted that these were signatures that "rarely appear on the same page."

But there's the rub. This was already old news.

Many of these religious leaders had already been working for a year or more on what became the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, landmark legislation that made religious freedom a "core objective" in all U.S. foreign policy, noted political scientist Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma, speaking at a conference called "The Politics of Faith -- Religion in America."

This bill, he said, was the opening act in "broader, faith-based quest" to weave moral content into the fabric of American policies around the world, while liberating religious liberty from its status as the "forgotten stepchild of human rights."

President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act on Oct. 27, 1998, and in the decade that followed this same interfaith coalition backed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002 and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

This coalition was "made up of groups that usually fought like cats and dogs on other issues, but would join together to work for religious freedom," said Hertzke, speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, long known as Ground Zero human rights activism.

These leaders would work on religious-liberty issues over morning coffee and bagels, before returning to their offices where they usually found themselves in total opposition to one another on abortion, gay rights, public education and a host of other church-state issues. Nevertheless, their coordinated labors on foreign-policy projects "produced trust and relationships that had never existed before," he said.

The question is whether this coalition's ties that bind can survive tensions created by the current White House race and renewed conflicts over religious and cultural issues in America.

"The kinds of energies generated in these kinds of social movements are hard to sustain," said Hertzke, after the conference. "There was always the concern that fighting over the familiar social issues would siphon away some of the energy that held this remarkable coalition together for a decade. ...

"The fear is that if people feel really threatened on the issues here at home that matter to them the most -- like abortion -- then they will not be able to invest time and resources in these human-rights issues around the world."

One reason this interfaith coalition never received much credit for its successes, he said, is that journalists usually focused on the efforts of conservative Christians to oppose the rising global tide of persecution of other Christians. This media preoccupation with the "Christian Right" often warped news coverage of broad, interfaith projects to protect the rights of all religious minorities.

In many cases, the results were inaccurate, biased and patronizing.

"Thus, abusive treatment of Christians abroad was labeled 'persecution' -- in quotation marks." Expressing similar grammatical doubts, a "grassroots group was described as gathering to pray for 'what it calls' Christian martyrs," noted Hertzke, in his chapter in "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," a new book produced by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

In one New York Times article, he noted, Christian activists seeking the release of prisoners were described as writing letters to countries "whose names they cannot pronounce." Another article described efforts to end the civil war in Sudan as a "pet cause of many religious conservatives."

This was a strange way to describe a movement that, at its best, combined the social-networking skills of evangelical megachurches with the pro-justice chutzpah of Jewish groups, the global reach of Catholic holy orders and the charisma of Buddhist activists in Hollywood.

"What we found out was that human rights are part of one package," said Hertzke. "If you pull out the pin of religious freedom, it's hard to support freedom of speech, freedom of association and other crucial human rights. ... Religious freedom is a rich and strategic human right."