The Magazine

Sacred Mistrust

God is not in the details of reporting religion.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By TERRY EASTLAND
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Then, too, there is the problem of accepting at face value what our politicians say about matters of faith when more questions may fairly be asked. Take, for example, Bush's belief that civil freedom is a gift of God and that its spread throughout the world is "inevitable." Bush attributed his belief to a "theological perspective." Okay--but where were the journalists who asked him about a theology that contemplates the inevitable spread of political liberty? What is the theology that teaches such a certain human outcome?

Likewise, where were the journalists who pursued candidate Barack Obama about the black liberation theology of his onetime church, and asked him about his evident sympathy with that theology, as indicated by passages in Dreams from My Father. And where were the journalists who asked him what he meant by his stated desire (in South Carolina before its primary) to build a Kingdom of God on earth? Merely a metaphor, this reference to a "Kingdom," or did its use indicate something grandiose (in any of the word's definitions) about Obama?

As might be expected, the editors of Blind Spot would like to see less of the blind spot that is their focus. They would like more journalists to "get religion." These are worthy goals. And in his essay Terry Mattingly, a veteran religion reporter and media critic, offers some sound recommendations: He urges greater care in handling religious language and in using labels, and he shows by negative example how news organizations should not go about hiring religion reporters (a lesson, by the way, for those outlets still in business and able to hire).

Mattingly recalls how, some years ago, the editors of the Washington Post put up a notice in the newsroom for a religion reporter, hoping to find someone on staff. The "ideal candidate," said the notice, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."

The latter half of that conjunction was problematic, Mattingly writes, correctly observing that it's hard to imagine Post editors "seeking a Supreme Court reporter and posting a notice saying that the 'ideal candidate' is one who is 'not necessarily an expert on legal issues,' or similar notice seeking reporters to cover professional sports, opera, science, film, and politics." He makes a compelling case that news organizations should seek to improve their coverage of religion by "taking precisely the same steps they would .  .  . to improve coverage on any other complicated, crucial theme: hiring qualified specialty reporters and giving them the resources to do their jobs."

This may seem like urging the obvious, but sometimes it's the obvious that most needs doing.

Terry Eastland, publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the editor of Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate Over Church and State.