Faith, journalism and 'the facts'

After another day of watching Pope John Paul II shake Communist Poland, American political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain and her hosts gathered at a television to see how the state's reporters would handle this spiritual drama.

Polish viewers, in 1983, did not see and hear millions of people chanting, "We forgive you" to their oppressors or the Polish pope repeatedly voicing the importance of solidarity -- "So-li-dar-nosc!" -- between God and his people. The TV news did not show his grief about martial law.

The reports didn't lie. They merely edited key facts.

"Who knew? They had about 30 seconds of a visual of John Paul speaking, but you did not hear his words," said Elshtain. "There was a narrator talking. The former archbishop of Krakow -- now the pope -- back in Poland -- end of story. Then they shifted, and it was one of those real Orwellian moments, to something about the level of coal production in Silesia. ...

"They didn't flat-out lie. They didn't say, 'And by the way, the pope hasn't been here today.' But was that the TRUTH of those events? Of course not."

News reports are longer and more detailed when John Paul comes to America. There are interviews with Catholics protesting church teachings on sex. Experts dissect the church-state implications of masses on public property. Reporters ponder his impact on Hispanic voting in Florida or California. There are features on pope-soap-on-a-rope and other novelties. The pope is seen as a head of state that delivers sound bites about public policies, not sacramental mysteries.

The reports don't lie. They may miss the spiritual facts.

"There seems to be this belief out there that religious truths cannot be examined," said Elshtain, speaking last week in Potomac, Md., to 200 journalists from 40-plus nations. "The media act as if the truth claims of religion are somehow strange and unable to be tested. As opposed to what? Political theory? Economics? Science? The arts? ...

"Religion does involve leaps of faith. That is also true of other important parts of life that journalists manage to take seriously. Yet religion is always singled out as somehow being uniquely irrational and the source of bizarre behavior."

The conference was called "Uncovering the Truth" and organized by Gegrapha, a network of Christians in mainstream newsrooms. "Gegrapha" is Greek for I have written. Pontius Pilate is quoted as using this term when asked why he identified Jesus as king of the Jews. Pilate said: What I have written, I have written. It was also the world-weary Pilate who asked, "What is truth?" He needed the facts.

Elshtain said journalists insist that their news reports are rooted in facts drawn from rational observations about the real world. They gather these facts as they search for "truth." But where do journalists find their information? They focus on politics, economics and other respectable sectors of the public life. Religion is not worthy.

Thus, journalists struggle to offer accurate, balanced, unbiased coverage of religious life. Journalists often panic when religious beliefs affect public life, as they so often do.

"It's true that it may be hard to write down the truth claims of religion, like facts in a ledger," said Elshtain. "But it's also true that religious truth claims set in motion real actions, by real people, in the real world. These religious words and acts and beliefs affect real life in the public square. You can report the facts about this."

Journalists must learn to accurately define religious terms and find informed, credible sources to speak for all sides in complicated controversies. It would help if more reporters received specialized training about religion, so they would have some idea what they're writing about. Believers get angry when news people mangle the facts.

Journalists must not become cynical about religion, Elshtain said, because this will shatter public trust in the press.

After all, a society that is "skeptical of everything, except its own skepticism" will struggle to maintain a healthy public life, she said. "There needs to be questioning. There needs to be debate. But a certain kind of radical skepticism that denies our capacity to know the truth -- that cannot sustain democratic institutions."