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?"