There’s the story of the reporter who was showing off his deep religious knowledge in the newsroom. One of his colleagues asked him to explain the meaning of Easter. “That’s easy,” the reporter said. “Christians believe that Jesus comes out of his tomb on Easter — but if he sees his shadow he goes back in and we’ll have six more weeks of winter.”
Not all journalists are this ignorant about religion, and there are a handful who cover it pretty well.One of the guiding assumptions behind Via Meadia’s efforts to follow the news is that religion matters, and that the mix of ignorance and disdain that marks a lot of the MSM’s religion coverage does readers a serious disservice. We do what we can to highlight the good coverage that exists and to alert our readers to important news involving religious themes from around the world. We’ve highlighted stories the mainstream press have ignored or botched — from the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, to the rise of hot religion worldwide, to the non-existence of theocratic Mormon schemes.
A newly-released study from the University of Southern California provides chilling evidence that the MSM’s religious incompetence and insensitivity runs deep. A key discovery:
One-half of reporters say the biggest challenge to covering religion is a lack of knowledge about the subject. Only a fifth of reporters say they are “very knowledgeable” about religion, and most of these are mainly familiar with their own religious traditions, not the wider array of faiths and practices.
This doesn’t just tell us something about the qualifications of journalists. It says something depressing about the ability of editors to hire people with the background and the knowledge that allow them to cover world events intelligently. With some significant and honorable individual exceptions, the mainstream press today lacks the expertise it needs to assess and report some of the most important stories on the planet.
False panics over alleged theocracies lurking under every bush (haha), inability to analyze or cover major news stories involving Islam, and a persistent overestimation of global support for the secular rights-driven agenda that serves much of the MSM as a guiding ideology in lieu of religion can all be traced back to the religious illiteracy of so many journalists today. The MSM covers US politics less effectively than it could and missed the boat on the Arab Spring primarily because it has so little grasp of what religion is and how it works.
Via Meadia makes no claims to infallibility or to special secret theological knowledge, but we think religion matters. All over the world, people kill in the name of religion; more impressively, there are many who are willing to die for their faith.
Even where religion isn’t driving conflict, it plays a powerful role in the way people understand their own personal identities and life stories and in the way they interpret world events. Turkey, Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan, Nigeria: in these countries and in many others, it is impossible to understand contemporary politics without a deep feel for the religious identities and traditions that shape the way the people of these countries perceive and interpret political and historical realities.
People who aren’t well informed about religion aren’t competent to report much of the news in this world. This isn’t about faith; a well informed and thoughtful atheist can be an excellent reporter. Editors who don’t understand this aren’t competent to manage newsrooms.
Religion isn’t the only subject in this category. Reporters who are ignorant about economics and history can’t do their jobs well, either. But religious ignorance is more dangerous precisely because it is so widely tolerated in the news profession.
Let’s hope that by the time another Easter and Passover season rolls around, more reporters will understand what these holidays are, and why they mean what they do to so many. In the meantime, expect to keep seeing stories on Via Meadia that try to fill in the gaps that religious blindness leaves in the mainstream news.