The Difficulty of Religion in Journalism

Why reporting on religion is one of the hardest topics to journal-ize about, I believe, is because religion transcends national boundaries, and people know their own religion (most of the time). So if a reporter says something wrong or a little bit offensive, there will be more people who know about what that reporter said and the negative ramifications domino after that.

I think Mike Wallace did an excellent job of reporting on religion when he interviewed President Gordon B. Hinckley. In fact, this video clip I found was really interesting because of the way it went about “investigating” the Church. The thing I found most intriguing however, is that (as Wikipedia reports) Mike Wallace is Jewish. How does he effectively stay out of the religion argument himself? He doesn’t mention his own religion, number one. Number two, he asks honest questions to the people who are actively participating in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Third, he accepts their answers and moves on; he doesn’t stop to interrogate them or try to prove them wrong. That’s what makes reporting on religion effective and news-worthy.

Another difficulty with reporting on religion is defining religion. In a BBC article on the census and people who reported their religion, “academic Eric Kaufmann [said] there are three dimensions of piety: affiliation, belief and attendance.” To define a person as being Christian could vary from person to person. C.S. Lewis brings this debate up in Mere Christianity. There are some who live their lives according to “Christian” morals as outlined by Jesus Christ, but who don’t necessarily believe in Jesus Christ. Are they Christian? Are those who do believe in Jesus Christ, but don’t necessarily live by “Christian” morals considered Christian? Although I do understand that Christianity itself isn’t a specific religion, the same concept applies to particular faiths, too. Reporting on religion, then, is difficult because of the number of ways one can offend people.

Journalist William Lobdell published a book on how he lost his religion by reporting on it for the Los Angeles Times. He felt like religion reporters weren’t doing a very good job, so he desired to be a part of that reporting. After he uncovered a story of child molestation involving a Catholic priest, he doubted more than he believed in religion. But he had to report the story. It was fact. This brings up another hard aspect of religious reporting: uncovering a truth that will embarrass or upset people’s belief systems which are valuable to the individual.

If I were a journalist given a chance to report on a religious story versus a different story, I might light away from the religious story just because I don’t trust myself right now to be completely unbiased, and I recognize that I don’t know all that much about many religions. This could potentially lead to a lot of negative feedback. I respect, therefore, the journalists who are able to effectively report on religion, or who can mention religion without bias. It’s a hard thing to do.

Carli Hanson

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