The Magazine

Sacred Mistrust

God is not in the details of reporting religion.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Blind Spot

When Journalists Don't Get Religion

edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, Roberta Green-Ahmanson

Oxford, 240 pp., $19.95

A little over four years ago a group in Iraq affiliated with al Qaeda and calling itself "One God and Jihad" released a video via the Internet showing the grisly beheading of a kidnapped American engineer. In the video, a man in a ski mask made a statement during which, the New York Times reported, he called President Bush "a dog."

A dog? In his essay for this slim volume, of which he is a coeditor, Paul Marshall takes the Times to task for failing to report that Bush was called not "a dog" but "a Christian dog." In fact, the latter is what the jihadist said, if translations of his statement were correct, and there is no reason to believe they weren't. As it happens, Reuters arranged for one of those translations, and other news outlets followed Reuters in reporting that Bush was called "a Christian dog." So of those outlets' coverage it may not be said, as Marshall does of the Times's, that "the religious dimension was obscured, even obliterated."

Yet Marshall's point--and indeed, that of the other contributors--is not that the media invariably botch stories that have something to do with religion. It is, rather, that enough important news organizations miss or dismiss or misunderstand or otherwise get religion wrong on enough occasions, and in enough important ways, to constitute a problem for the news business. That's what the title, Blind Spot, is meant to capture: Journalists may be said to have a blind spot in their field of (reportorial) vision when they fail to see and pursue religious elements of a story that are plainly there and critical to its understanding.

Of the nine chapters, six are styled as "case studies," meaning studies or reviews of this case of media coverage or that, in which blind spots are identified and discussed. What mostly interests the contributors to Blind Spot is "secular" news, such as the war in Iraq and the 2004 presidential election. But two of the case studies deal with the journalism on clearly religious subjects: Pope John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI; and Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ.

One chapter that is not a case study bears a provocative title, "God is Winning." This essay, by Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft, functions as an introduction of sorts to the case studies, its purpose being to demonstrate how religion, so far from yielding to the forces of modernization and withering away (as was often predicted) has, instead, become "increasingly vibrant, assertive, and politicized the world over." What has emerged, they say, is a "prophetic politics" in which "voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests." The voices are diverse, including--and this is only a partial list--"Islamic radicalism, evangelical Protestantism, Hindu nationalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhist revivalism, [and] Jewish Zionism."

These developments provide a powerful reason for news organizations to take religion seriously, and report on it just as they would any other part of a story. But Blind Spot shows that this task may be more easily spoken about than done.

After all, a reader here learns from Marshall about journalistic failures to adequately describe the nature and goals of Islamic terrorism; from Michael Rubin about widespread press ignorance of Shiite and Sunni beliefs and practices (in Iraq); from Allen Hertzke about simplistic takes on the faith-based quest to advance human rights through American foreign policy (as witness the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998); and from Danielle Vinson and James Guth about media mischaracterizations of George W. Bush's religious beliefs, on the one hand, and on the other, failures to examine John Kerry's during the 2004 campaign.

Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list. I would note, for example, that journalists writing about religion and politics in the United States often use labels that are woefully imprecise. Take "evangelical," which is often employed to refer to a range of Christian adherents so broad in terms of their theological beliefs and churchly practices--or non-churchly, as the case may be--as to beg the question of the term's definition.