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Dean Baquet, an executive editor of The New York Times admitted on NPR after the 2016 presidential election that journalists at his publication and in other press have a hard time understanding religion, “We don’t get religion,” he said. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.”
This is more than unfortunate. It’s dangerous for maintaining religious freedom in this nation. We live in a society where it is often argued that politics is downstream from culture. In other words, laws follow the beliefs and behavior of citizens, which are formed by the culture in which they swim. Laws are made by people, adjudicated by people in black robes, embraced by people whose culture has been shaped by changing ideas.
Media’s Role in Creating our Culture
Yet, nobody except entertainment, does more to create the ideas that infuse our culture than the media that tells us what to believe and not to believe, what is valued and what is to be shoved aside. This is especially true since we are drowning in social media, and if we missed a piece of news, our friends will surely tell us how to feel about it because they’ve read it somewhere.
More than we would like to admit, our attitudes are shaped by the stories and viewpoints of journalists, what they cover and refuse to cover. Thus, if journalists don’t get religion or see believers as some odd group who use religion as an excuse to be bigots, then so it is. Too many journalists today have adopted the attitude that religious freedom is merely a speed bump in the way to achieving their progressive idea of a more just world. The sooner believers give up their faith as the silly superstition it is, then things will be better.
Thus when Indiana was considering their state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that was passed nearly unanimously in the Senate years before, journalists widely called it an “anti-gay” bill without any understanding or care about how the religious freedom of believers was impacted.
How journalists tell the story about religion impacts the culture, that in turn impacts the law.
Two Legal Cases
You only have to consider the legal battles that are whirling around many religious issues to see how far religious freedom is being challenged and in many instances eroded. Two Supreme Court cases have just been handed down where religious freedom triumphed, including one this week, but these are challenges based on freedoms we would have taken for granted in the past.
In a victory for religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court said that a California law that forces anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to provide information about abortion violates the Constitution. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “Speakers should not be forced by their government to promote a message with which they disagree, and pro-life pregnancy centers in California should not be forced to advertise abortion and undermine the very reason they exist.” These are the centers that were neither licensed nor funded by the state.
It once seemed like a given that the state could not force an organization to undermine the very reason they exist by forcing certain speech upon them, but no more. Religious freedom is simply not regarded in the vital, central place it once was held.
Thank heaven for the court rescue on this one, but it doesn’t always work that way.
In Canada, the saga of Trinity Western University, a Christian college, points to the undoing of religious freedom, and may be a harbinger of things to come in America. In 2013, Trinity Western University sought to open a law school, but were told that they could not do so because the university requires its students, staff, and faculty to sign a covenant that includes a standard that students will not be involved in a sexual relationship other than with their husband or wife.
Like BYU, Trinity Western, is based on biblical standards of sexual morality, and they see this covenant as basic to the school’s identity and who they are as an institution. It seems like being able to define yourself would be critical to maintaining the integrity of an organization, but the courts didn’t agree.
You might conclude that if you wanted to start a law school in Canada, don’t try making it Christian. As journalist Margaret Wente said, “The decision is also yet another giant step in the marginalization of conservative Christians, who are becoming an ever more endangered species in public life.”
In response, the lawyers’ associations of British Columbia and Ontario voted to revoke accreditation of the school or its graduates, unless the requirement of the covenant was lifted, citing it as a negative impact on possible LGBT applicants. This last week Canada’s Supreme Court agreed with the lawyer’s associations. LGBT rights trumped religious freedom. In fact it was hardly a contest. Trinity Western lost 7-2 in the Canadian court. The decision meant that a law society’s power to refuse the practice of Christian lawyers, beat out the school’s religious freedom. The school may abandon its plans for a law school rather than give up its identity and biblical standards.
7 Deadly Sins
When so much is at stake in an area that is integral to the ability of people to live out their deeply-held religious beliefs, you might suppose that journalists would be charged to cover the many sides of the issue with objectivity and depth.
Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist and founder at GetReligion.org told a group at BYU’s Religious Freedom conference last week said that instead journalists often get caught in these seven deadly sins.
Use simplistic labels as often as possible.
It is much easier to label a group or a law they recommend than understand them and their motivation. Mattingly said, he was once called in to meet with a group of Muslims at Radio Afghanistan, who said they had just one question for him. “Why do Americans insist on calling Muslims either moderates or fundamentalists? These concepts are completely foreign to Islam. Muslims may argue among themselves about particular issues and how to enforce them, but in our view of doctrine, there is no such thing as moderate.”
When he asked them, “What do you think Americans mean when they refer to moderate Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims,” they answered, “I think a moderate Muslim is someone America likes, and a fundamentalist Muslim is somebody America doesn’t like.”
Mattingly noted that the Associated Press Style book recommends that journalists don’t even use this term, unless that is what a religious group applies to themselves. The word in the press, he said, has come to mean a soft form of cursing and is always pejorative.
Religion is often portrayed as bigoted, anti-gay, insular, oppressive or superstitious in the press. Mattingly suggests that rather than have journalists use simplistic labels on religious groups, that they actually explore what these groups believe on certain topics and why.
Assume that religion equals politics.
Mattingly said that to journalists, politics deal with things that are real as opposed to things that are mere beliefs. Thus, all claims that actions center on doctrines and traditions are actually rooted in politics, sociology, and economics. “In many ways,” he said, this is the basic worldview of a lot of newsrooms. Politics is what is really real. It is the religion of most American journalists.
“What do you do, then, with people, whose political actions, when you push down to it, are actually attempting to defend the historic practice of their own religious faith? How do you cover these people? Is it important to actually cover the details of their religious beliefs accurately?
So much of the media coverage that believers think is unfair comes because they are in the blind spot of journalists. Religion is out of the framework through which journalists view the world. If you have a hammer, than all the world is a nail, right? Journalists, who operate in a world where every thing is political, cannot see, religion—and miss the story because it was invisible to them.
For instance, when President Thomas S. Monson died, the New York Times ran an obituary about him that curdled Later-day Saints. It hardly felt familiar talking about the man we knew so well. It began, “Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon church who rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage died Tuesday at 90. “
McKay Coppins writing in The Atlantic captured the distress members felt at the way President Monson was portrayed, “In the days since Monson’s death, much of the press coverage has couched the LDS leader’s legacy in the context of culture war, or politics or institutional infighting. The New York Times obituary, for example, defined his life’s work by the things he didn’t do—such as his refusal to alter the church’s stances on same-sex marriage and female priesthood ordination.”
The other approach from the media was to cover this event as a side note. As Bethany Mandel wrote in The Federalist, The New Times Memorializes Mormon President Less Charitably Than They Did Fidel Castro. She wrote, “Across the rest of the media, Monson’s death was treated as a blurb, barely worthy of mention. The story appeared 14 minutes into NBC’s “Nightly News,” with Lester Holt taking 23 seconds of the broadcast to explain the life, work, and importance of the Mormon leader. The CBS “Morning” show devoted two more seconds to the story than NBC did. CNN ran a short blurb, which to their credit also included positive details about his ministry.”
In some ways, we might not have been surprised at the poor reporting on President Monson’s death. If journalists primarily see the world through a political construct, then they report a prophet’s death in terms of what he didn’t do to further a progressive, political agenda. How could we have a better example of blindness?
Treat religious doctrine and traditions as mere opinions.
Mattingly’s third deadly sin, committed by journalists, is perfectly illustrated by the discussion of the coverage of President Monson’s life quoted above. The New York Times implied that his leadership was backward and entrenched because he didn’t oversee changes in the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage and female priesthood ordination. In fact, President Monson was consistent with the doctrine that had been revealed to the prophets of the Church. He did not act on opinion but revelation.
Mattingly said, “I’ve have seen this happen with the Vatican where Pope Benedict XVI reads from the catechism and then it is described in a press report as his opinion of Catholic doctrine. It’s more authoritative than that. Journalists treat it like he just created these doctrines on marriage and sexuality. It is happening right now in the present and doesn’t have anything to do with the first great statement or marriage and theology 65 years after the Church’s founding. It is just politics. History is important to religious people.”
Mattingly said that he is stunned how many journalists try to report on tensions in the Middle East and know nothing about the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. “When you have consider the importance in the conflict in Iran, how do you cover that story without understanding, without knowing what those people actually believe and why they struggle?
Be lazy. Always settle for a quote or two from people who have an authoritative title or the same activists you have interviewed over and over and over.
“We have a journalistic crisis that has come from the fall of media revenue,” Mattingly said. “Staffs are tiny compared to what they used to be. This problem is real and it also means they have let lots of people go and they have hired intensely young people for whom research constitutes maybe two Google searches.”
Mattingly said, “This is not to put them down. They are trying to produce six stories a day in an Internet environment where the doors never close and the presses never stop running. This can lead to disasters that we can understand, but they are still disasters.”
Mattingly notes that you can always tell what side of a controversial story the journalism is on. “Look for the cases where real people on one side are quoted over and over and over. Then when it gets to the other side, usually the conservative side, all you get is one paragraph, taken from a public relations statement. How often have you seen that phenomena? They are attempting to give the other side, but they haven’t actually talked to the other people or met them, heard their case studies etc. They only interacted at a human level with one side.”
It is also true that when journalists cover religion, they consider it more objective somehow to quote those who are disaffected from their faith—as if they could give a more rational point of view. Faithful followers of a faith are not considered a good source for information on that faith.
As for journalists being lazy, years ago I interviewed a prominent news reporter who had written a book on Mormonism. As I read the book, it seemed shallow and driven by a point the author wanted to make—that the most noteworthy thing about the Mormon Church was its wealth. When I interviewed the author, I asked about his sources. Had he ever attended an LDS meeting? No. Had he read an LDS book of scripture? No. Had he seen General Conference or read its proceedings in the Ensign? No. Had he read anything else in any Church magazines? No. Yet his book was widely touted as comprehensive and objective, but he had taken no time to get to know his subject.
Focus on the lurid angles of religious life.
Mattingly said, too many journalists turn “believers into National Geographic specimens on a laboratory slide as framed by secular elites. At best religious believers are amusing, colorful fools whose traditions seem as strange as remote tribes in some other parts of the world.”
This Latter-day Saints understand well. How often we have read articles that are about us, but the writer is painting a caricature and missing altogether the spiritual richness that motivates us?
Always focus on big things and ignore the small.
Mattingly noted, “If you are going to catch a trend early, you are going to catch it on the local level.” The best example for him of this is the many stories on the closing of Catholic schools and stories that deal with the shrinking number of clergy. The other big stories are the decline mainline Protestantism, where the main age of the parishioners is 65 and up.
A link is missing in these stories, he said, because the journalists don’t look more closely. These are really stories about declining birth rates. “If you don’t include this,” he said, “you are not covering the story. When families were larger, they could afford to have a child enter the priesthood. That is not true today. “This is all stuff at the lower level, but it is about what schools survive.
Ignore the role that religion plays in other hot topics.
When Kevin Durant was being courted by NBA teams, many went to great lengths to sign him. There was a stunning amount of media coverage on the process. Then three members of the Golden State Warriors showed up at his door without any of the lavish perks, visited with him for an hour, and closed the deal. Why? Nobody seemed to catch that important fact, except in one passing mentioned buried deep in a story.
These three who came to see Kevin were friends, whose relationship had been cemented when they shared their Christian faith and spent time in scripture study and prayer. “Does that sound like a fairly relevant fact in the recruiting of Kevin Durrant?” asked Mattingly. Yet, religion is only treated in passing and ignored in important stories.
Mattingly acknowledged that there are a welter of religious opinions and “It may not be factual what people claim religion is doing in their lives at all times, but the fact that they believe, is real. If you omit that fact from the story, you ignore sociology and how the country works.”
These seven deadly sins in religion reporting, may not sound deadly at all, but as Latter-day Saints, we regularly run into the misunderstandings and misconceptions about our faith, born of reporters who fell for these rules. In a time and climate when religious freedom is on the line, it can also be downright dangerous if religion is dismissed as inconsequential or harmful. The consequences of sloppy or biased religious reporting are real.