It's a law. Whenever the Vatican issues a papal encyclical, journalists have to figure out what the pope was trying to say.
To do this, we contact scholars, politicos and clergy for background information and edgy quotes. Thus, a reporter recently called Father Richard John Neuhaus of the journal First Things to discuss Pope Benedict XVI's "Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)."
During this interview, Neuhaus referred to the pope as the "bishop of Rome." The reporter then said, "That raises an interesting point. Is it unusual that this pope is also the bishop of Rome?"
(Cue sound: One comedy-club rimshot.)
Writing in his online journal, Neuhaus noted that the journalist later said, with "manifest sincerity, 'My job is not only to get the story right but to explain what it means.' Ah yes, he is just the fellow to explain what this pontificate and the encyclical really mean. It is poignant."
Wait, there's more. Another time, an "eager young thing" from the same national newspaper called to discuss a political scandal. Sadly, Neuhaus said, corruption has "been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.?
There was a long pause and she asked: "What garden was that?"
Neuhaus isn't alone in noticing that reporters often veer into a mental ditch when covering religion. In a scathing Books & Culture essay entitled "Religiously Ignorant Journalists," sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina said he is tired of calls from journalists who don't know that Episcopalians are not "Episcopals" or who confuse evangelicals with "evangelists" or even, God forbid, "evangelicalists."
Why, he asked, do newsroom managers allow this?
"I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the 'Democrizer' or 'Republication' parties, or about the most recent "Supremicist Court" ruling," said Smith. "So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?"
Anyone who talks to people in pulpits and pews knows that many -- especially in conservative sanctuaries -- believe they know the answer. They believe that most journalists are biased against religious people.
Neuhaus, however, is convinced that the problem is even more basic than that. Journalists work hard, he said, but they are "not always the sharpest knives in the drawer." Most are the products of journalism schools that, according to Neuhaus, are intellectually second rate or worse.
While he knows of "notable exceptions" of bias and malicious intent, the priest said he has "been led to embrace something like an Occam's razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice."
These are fighting words for journalists. As a professor, I must confess that many if not most of my student journalists in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have come from the honor rolls. I have also had the pleasure of knowing more than my share of brilliant women and men who are professional religion reporters.
Yes, if would help if more editors hired trained, experienced professionals to cover the religion beat. And it would help if Neuhaus and other clergy who belittle the craft of journalism urged their own colleges to emphasize journalism education, thus adding to the intellectual diversity in newsrooms. Religious leaders could praise and support postgraduate seminars such as those offered by the Pew Forum and the Poynter Institute that help journalists learn more about religion and improve their reporting skills.
But mistakes will be made.
Just this week, Newsweek served up an instant classic in the journalistic genre of "laugh to keep from crying" miscues about religion.
The story concerned the success of the debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. At the moment, the team is ranked No. 1 in the nation (Harvard University is No. 14) and Falwell tried to explain that the debaters were, in their own way, involved in a kind of ministry to the culture.
Alas, the reporter mangled a crucial metaphor.
Thus, the story now ends with this correction: "In the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK misquoted Falwell as referring to 'assault ministry.' In fact, Falwell was referring to 'a salt ministry' -- a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says, 'Ye are the salt of the earth.' We regret the error."