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Don’t Know Much About Theology

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.

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  • Matt

    Trust me: ignorance of economics and finance is vastly more widespread, more tolerated and more pernicious among even business reporters than ignorance of religion is among either religion reporters or reporters generally. The distinguishing feature of reporters is that they *don’t* know about whatever it is they’re writing about.

  • vanderleun

    “But religious ignorance is more dangerous precisely because it is so widely tolerated in the news profession.”

    I would suggest that religious ignorance is tolerated because, in the news profession, religious intolerance of the Christian and Jewish religions is tolerated. Not only tolerated but, in many cases, promoted.

    Islam gets a pass because, as all newspaper staffs now know clearly, Islam is dangerous to news organizations and news organizations, as organizations, are not the haunts of particularly brave individuals.

    As a result sentiments like “Let’s hope that by the time another Easter and Passover season rolls around, more reporters will understand” are particularly irritating since you must know to a fair-thee-well that such a state simply is. not. going. to. happen.EVER.

    Hence, we will continue to value Meadia for insight into these subject areas without the threat of sudden competition from the old media that have long let their respect — for religions that they do not fear — lapse.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    Keep up the good work on religion. Atheists need to be educated.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    Not that there is anything wrong with being an atheist. Otherwise I’d have to excommunicate practically my whole family. I love em all.

  • Rob G

    I don’t expect reporters to be subject matter experts, I do expect them to do some research on the subject they are about to cover, and afterward, and clarify, before opining or publishing. It’s when reporters, or anyone else for that matter, make statements that demonstrate their uninformed opinion, especially when it appears that they don’t even consider the possibility that they might be uninformed, that is what undermines their credibility. There’s no shame in admitting ignorance, but if one choose to remain ignorant and then opine from a position of ignorance, then one is a fool.

    I have the same problem with reporters covering the military, rank and unit structure are no more complex than sports rosters. No editor would let some a reproter who couldn’t tell a bat from a hockey stick cover sports, but they let reporters who can’t tell the difference between a private and a colonel, or a platoon and a brigade, write articles on military subjects. Shame and disdain.

  • dave.s.

    That’s the world’s second best Unitarian joke! You don’t get to steal it to make fun of reporters.

  • Kenny

    As Matt said in post #1, ‘journalists’ are just as ignorant of economics & finance as they are of religion. I’d also add history and science, too.

    About the only thing the media is good at is 1) enforcing political correctness and 2) being a propaganda organ of the Democrat Party.

    And this is undoubtedly why the news media is thought so poorly of by the American people and why mainstream newspapers are going broke.

    It will be celebration time when the New York Times goes under. Until then, let’s cheer ever round of layoffs in the news industry and their poor financial results.

  • Gary L

    Garry Willis in his 1991 Under God: Religion and American Politics noted the same secular journalistic attitudes all the way back to the 60s….

    “I remember when, in the 1960s, journalists were trying to report on black militants. In attempts to understand the movement from the inside, works supposed to be revelatory were studied with intensity – Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks or The Autobiography of Malcolm X. With Fanon, people were willing to follow recondite musings on negritude and with Malcolm to juggle complex African and Islamic loyalties. But it seems too much to ask a journalist to read the Bible (of all things) in order to understand a Jesse Jackson or Pat Robertson – or even a Dr. King. I know from experience that it is considered a little kooky for a journalist even to know what “premillennial dispensationalism” is – though that is the most important concept in modern fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are not so numerous as evangelicals, but they are a part of the larger evangelical family….and no group making up a fifth of the population can be safely ignored by anyone trying to understand America.”

  • ari

    good post. It catches on some of the deeper arguments you have made, but the Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Sacks has an excellent article out entitled, The Limits of Secularism.
    http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/4264/full

    “Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? We will always ask those three questions because homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal, and religion has always been our greatest heritage of meaning. You can take science, technology, the liberal democratic state and the market economy as four institutions that characterise modernity, but none of these four will give you an answer to those questions that humans ask.

    To summarise 120,000 words in a single sentence: “Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

  • Vincent Mohan

    Editors stopped hiring knowledgeable reporters in favor of creative writing majors long ago. Plus, all reporters want Robert Redford to play them in the movie. Knowledge takes a back seat to that.

  • Fenster Moop

    I must study religion that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.

  • Eurydice

    Well, there certainly is an “eww, icky” attitude when it comes to religion, but I think the greater issue is that, in the current and now traditional MSM structure, there is little time or incentive for journalists to be thoughtful and knowledgable. The system as it stands can only support tabloid-type reporting and opinions 24/7.

    It seems to me that your blog and others like it sre developing the new world of journalism, with sites that encourage thoughtful reporting and analysis within a structure which allows easy access and dissemination.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Euridice: We are trying, anyway. The blog format really is an improvement over the legacy press. It is cheaper, more flexible, faster and more responsive to readers. Web journalism is still in its infancy; it will be fun to watch it grow.

  • http://www.theparenttrigger.com Bruno Behrend

    Isn’t it true that reporters, like teachers, come from a statistically deficient (based on test score like SAT, ACT) cohort?

    Our education and information come from a generally biased, low quality, and intellectually lazy group of people.

  • Anthony Esolen

    I’d like to see the average journalist wrestle with two pages of Thomas Aquinas (who?) or John Duns Scotus (who?) or Hans Urs von Balthasar (who?) or Christopher Dawson (who?) or Rene Girard (who?) or Romano Guardini (who?) … And then wrestle with two pages of Frederic Bastiat (who?) or David Ricardo (who?) … And then two pages of Orestes Brownson (who?) and Eric Voegelin (who?) … And recite five lines of a poem by Milton (who?) … Bad education all the way from K through graduate school, and it’s not only the journalists that suffer from it, though they’re an unusually dopey bunch.

  • Andrew X

    I’ll never forget coming across an article by an ABC reporter (online) which made reference, either in football or as a generality, to throwing a “Hail Merry”. Hail Merry??? I’m not even Catholic, and you sure as heck don’t have to be to know what a Hail Mary is, you just have to know the most basic of facts.

    “Hail Merry”. Please.

  • Koop

    Don’t forget to have them read Locke. Require the Federalist Papers for covering politics. Understanding Madison even a little bit would do them a world of good.

    Now if we only taught our citizens the basic working philosophy of our system of government and its functions, they would actually be informed enough to wield their votes well enough to know the consequences of the choices they are making.

  • http://www.twitter.com/johncfarrier John Farrier

    Shoot, religious people don’t know much about their own religions.

    I was a Christian when I started seminary and found that I didn’t know much about Christianity.

    And that just scratched the surface. There’s a world of difference between formal theology and popular theology, not to speak of how adherents actually live their lives. Any statement that begins with “Adherents of this religion believe…” will surely end with a vast oversimplification.

  • Porkov

    Highly recommend “How to Be a Perfect Stranger” to begin learning some manners.
    http://www.amazon.com/How-Perfect-Stranger-Essential-Religious/dp/1594731403

  • Rob Crawford

    Journalists, by and large, don’t go into journalism to understand the world. They go into it to CHANGE the world.

  • grichens

    “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.”

    …assuming that Editors are principally motivated to do so. On the other hand, if an editor already has decided as to what he/she wishes to be said, a knowledgeable reporter can only be an impediment.

  • Hatless

    I interned as a photojournalist some time ago for a major metropolitan newspaper when I was in college and was shocked to discover the fact that journalists are people who don’t know much about anything (but worse yet, take pride in their ignorance in that they’re not “dirtied” by being in business, government, etc.). They’re above all of that, you see.

    I was a PR major for two years (before seeing the light and switching to finance where factual reporting is not only valued, but its absence leads to jail time in public corporations) and was constantly surprised by all the J-majors who had an attitude of superiority. These were the same losers who got beaten up for lunch money in elementary school and decided to join the newspaper staff so they could write crap about those who picked on them.

    There’s no surprise they’re overwhelmingly progressives; they really aren’t capable of much on their own and require a sovereign to seize from people that actually do meaningful things and give to them. What a shocker that America has fled to bloggers as a news source, given they tend to be people who have specific expertise in their profession.

  • Brian

    The don’t know anything about the military either. Any article having anything to do with the military inevitably screws up ranks, commands, regs, etc.

    “Journalists” are reliable experts on all the aspects of drug legalization however. Curious.

  • http://www.ilike.com/artist/Ritchie+the+Riveter Ritchie The Riveter

    I find it ironic that every public sneeze of an evangelical raises alarms of “theocracy” … when the doctrine of the “priesthood of the believer” is so prevalent in the evangelical community. In accordance with this doctrine, we reserve the authority and responsibility to interpret Scripture directly, and the freedom to act upon it, as individuals … and we will not tolerate anyone encroaching on this freedom, ESPECIALLY if they are claiming to “speak for God”.

    What I find particularly irritating though, are those who act in faith, yet deny that they are doing so … simply because their faith is in their own perceptual ability and not a supernatural Deity … and consider themselves as possessing a higher intellect for doing so. It is the arrogance derived from such a viewpoint, that has poisoned our society and rendered so many — including journalists — clueless when it comes to the effects of spiritual worldviews in a temporal world.

  • Trent Telenko

    Matt,

    The Main Stream Media’s ignorance of all affairs military exceed’s it’s ignorance of religion, economics & business.

    If anything, the MSM’s level of competence exhibited at General Norman Schwarzkopf’s end of the Iraqi War briefing in 1991 has gone down, way down.

  • Dave the Engineer

    Journalists are not very good at simple chemistry either. I have read local accounts of highway truck accidents and fires that prove that simple chemistry eludes many journalists. Caustic soda fires and sulfuric acid fires. Funny but sad.

  • Gringo

    13. Bruno Behrend
    Isn’t it true that reporters, like teachers, come from a statistically deficient (based on test score like SAT, ACT) cohort?

    Like others who have commented, I have contempt for the knowledge of many or most journalists. In general, I would agree with you, especially for those who have only journalism degrees.

    Nonetheless, I would like to offer some contrary, if anecdotal, evidence. Four people who attended my high school around the time I did went into journalism. None of them got a Bachelor’s degree in journalism. All went to elite colleges or universities. Two were Merit Finalists. One won a Pulitzer prize. Their writings are not confined to newspapers or journals, as they have all written books.

    Their orientations as journalists ranged from libertarian to mainstream liberal to moonbat lefty.

    Say what you will, these guys were no dummies.

  • http://www.newsnorthwoods.blogspot.com David Starr

    It ain’t only an ignorance of religion. Today’s newsies are also ignorant of history, science, engineering, business, industry, finance, law, and much else. They see their jobs as advocacy for favorite causes, rather than providing dependable information.

  • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

    Just an added thought: It’s not only what you don’t know, it’s knowing you don’t know and being willing to learn from there.

    On my first newspaper job (25 year ago), I remember thinking after about a month on the job — oh crap, I don’t know anything about anything.

    Things got better after that realization.

  • Harry

    Unless we reach a tipping point where the MSM disappears, they will be around for a long time, often feeding stories to blogs and other new media. How do we get the MSM to care about this issue without being labeled religious fanatics ourselves? It seems Matt Welch’s point in When Losers Write History makes it even more difficult, and there is a spiral in play. http://reason.com/archives/2012/04/08/when-losers-write-history

  • teapartydoc

    Hey Mead! Antony Esolen reads you. I don’t know what to say. To me it would be a big deal. Take it as a compliment.

  • http://thereasonforreason.com Steve Stoddard

    Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?<blockquote

    I am a human being.

    I am here to exercise my right to the rational pursuit of happiness.

    So, then, I shall live by reason.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ritchietheriveter Ritchie The Riveter

    IB Bill, I’ll add to your wise analysis that one must be willing to learn, even from those who have less of a formal education in your field than you do.

    As a young engineer, I learned early-on to appreciate and listen to the assemblers and technicians who had a lot more experience than I when it came to what it takes to build working, salable products, even though they did not have my BSEE and the theoretical knowledge I acquired in getting it.

    Those that fail to do this, and look down their noses at these teammates, are setting themselves up for professional and commercial failure.

    This is a real-world example of the value of what I call Callahan’s Principle of Leadership … a man’s got to know his limitations.

  • Graham Combs

    Many years ago when I worked at Image Books/Doubleday, the art department called us to ask how to depict a Roman collar. This was the 80s. It was also NY trade book publishing.

    FYI: That joke conflating Easter with Groundhog Day is the one that essentially got the old 1960s Smothers Brothers Show booted off the air. Things have changed…

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