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Book shows how journalists often have a 'blind spot' about religion
February 12th, 2009
We at The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle believe that we “get” religion.
Not all of us on the editorial staff are observant or even synagogue members; but we examine Jewish life, holidays, observances, values, and principles, and write about them every week; and we understand how powerful a force religious belief can be in people’s lives because we see it.
But journalists in the general news media often do not understand this; in fact many of them may be suspicious or even hostile to the very idea.
“For many journalists … religion is not a credible explanation for human behavior,” writes Roberta Green Ahmanson. “Reporters often look for motives for actions in money, sex, ambition, and power, but not in religion, not in what people believe about God.
“Religion is thought to be properly private, having nothing to do with wider realities, and when it does intrude on those realities it is usually perceived as dangerous.”
Ahmanson — a journalist and co-author of “Islam at the Crossroads” — wrote these words in a recently published book she co-edited, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” (Oxford University Press, trade paperback, 224 pages, $19.95).
She and her editor colleagues Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, and freelancer Lela Gilbert have assembled 10 essays purporting to demonstrate how journalists’ ignorance or underestimation of religion caused them to misunderstand or just miss important news.
The book thereby sends an important message to the profession and is worth reading by journalists and anybody interested in the relationship between religion and news media. I just wish it were better written throughout.
As with many anthologies, the individual items are uneven. Indeed, some of the more clotted and involved cases may thereby show another reason besides ignorance why so many journalists miss the point.
Religious matters are often incredibly and discouragingly complex. Michael Rubin’s essay “Three Decades of Misreporting Iran and Iraq” strives to explain the intricacy of Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim communities and thinking.
But it is such a tough read that one can understand why journalists fall into relying on one or two sources and on formulaic and oversimplified summations. Any more might make readers’ eyes glaze over.
This problem doesn’t just exist in the exotic realms of Islam or Hindu vs. Sikh clashes in India. Amy Welborn’s “The Popes” explores how lack of deep understanding of Catholicism caused journalists to misunderstand the influence of John Paul II on the church and the thinking of his successor, Benedict XVI.
Only one of these cases explores a topic of direct interest to the Jewish community, the controversy over Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.” Jeremy Lott’s essay on this, “Jesus Christ, Superstar: The Passion of the Press,” describes how “news coverage of the movie was bad, the opinion writing was clichéd, and the movie criticism was worse.”
However, in his analysis of how much of Christianity the journalists missed about the film, Lott apparently didn’t notice the deep reason why the Jewish community was worried about the film’s alleged anti-Semitism — the history of Christian Passion Plays used in the Middle Ages and after to ignite anti-Semitic violence. Yes, Gibson’s film didn’t do that, but the fears that it might were not based on fantasy.
There is something else missing in the book. Today, print journalism appears to be an endangered profession, with newspapers and magazines closing or struggling all over the country.
Most of the blame for this is laid at the feet of new technologies like the Internet. But I have read arguments that one reason for the decline in print journalism’s readership is a perceived disconnect between the providers and the audience, particularly when it comes to religion.
This issue is only alluded to in passing in “Blind Spot.” One journalist is quoted as saying, “we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America… We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens.”
I wish the book had included an essay exploring this subject. Still, what it does provide is valuable and worth reading and pondering.