Reporting on faith

August 23, 2010

The topic of religion is central to many news stories today, and the subject is always a delicate one. Whether exploring the controversy surrounding the mosque some want to build near Ground Zero or the misunderstandings around President Barack Obama’s religious affiliation, how, exactly, should the media tackle the subject of religion?

In this Q&A, Professor Stephen Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, and editor of the new book "Faith, Politics and Press in Our Perilous Times" (Kendall/Hunt, 2010), offers his thoughts on this complex issue.

How should journalists approach reporting on religion?

My book has some good advice for today’s journalists and those who will practice journalism in the future. Even with the elimination of specialized religion beats at many news organizations, good religion stories are everywhere, awaiting the attention of alert journalists.

Debra Mason, the head of the Religion Newswriters Association, in her chapter counsels reporters to practice a measure of humility and practicality. She writes, "People who report on religion can be sure of two things. Sources will ask about your own beliefs, and you will have to report about people whose beliefs you disagree with." The key lies not in trying to prove or disprove the validity of a particular faith, she says, but in approaching the validity of someone’s faith in a respectful way.

After working with this wonderful group of experts [who contributed to the book], I’ve concluded that the task for journalists today is deeper than simply covering religion. Today, it is much more about understanding religion’s place in regular news reporting.

At the moment, at least four news stories confirm this view: The controversy over the Muslim center proposed for lower Manhattan. The poll that asked Americans whether they believe President Obama is a Muslim. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a subject whose religious complexities are covered in depth by Jack Miles in the book. And the initiative by the Obama administration to find a solution to the Mideast crisis and the question of a Palestinian state, an intricate topic touched on in the book by Rami Khouri.

In the preface, I write: "For journalists, religion is a force to be reckoned with unavoidably, even as it intrigues, informs, confounds, and humbles. It poses a challenge at the very core of their purpose, to understand and explain our world."

What is your take on the coverage surrounding the mosque proposed for a site two blocks from Ground Zero?

The coverage has been generally good if somewhat cursory. One exception has been the politically motivated bellowing that Fox News has allowed Newt Gingrich and other partisans to indulge in without much context or explanation.

This is a very rare instance in the American experience in which the correct thing to do is not necessarily the wise thing to do. It’s very hard for the press to come to this story cold and get all the nuances right. There are differences of opinion among news consumers and opinion leaders, mostly on how best to advance freedom of religion in a society that encompasses competing values and interests. These differences occur even among people who understand the U.S. Islamic community and wish it well. It’s similar to arguments about constitutional law, in which people of good will disagree on whether an important principle should be pressed forward with a test case that may not be the best one.

I believe the proponents of the Islamic center could score important points in their journey toward acceptance and assimilation if they could find a way to move the center to a place not so close to Ground Zero. I say this even as I’m attracted to the notion that the United States could show the world the power of its ideals by advancing them even in the face of an unspeakable atrocity. The United States, for better or worse, knew little about the Islamic world before Sept. 11, and is still on a very considerable learning curve.

And the Islamic community at large did not respond to Sept. 11 with a clear and unequivocal voice, and this has prolonged the process of understanding. In a recent interview with NPR, Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University and the author of "Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam," talked about the experiences of U.S. Muslims and concluded, "The Muslim community and leadership really need to do a much better job of bridging this gap of misunderstanding."

A recent poll found that almost one in five Americans believes that President Obama is a Muslim. What role, if any, has the media played in this perception?

I don’t believe the press is responsible for the confusion out there. The conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager took on this topic recently and appeared to conclude that the problem lies with Obama himself, for not clarifying more directly that he is a Christian.

But even if Prager’s point is correct, we need to remember that we don’t elect a president to be a religious leader and, indeed, many Americans expect him not to venture too far into that arena. Ben Hubbard has a wonderful discussion of the 2008 presidential election in his chapter, and I recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about Obama and religion.

One thing is certain: Obama broke significant ground with his Cairo address to the Islamic world in 2009. Jack Miles in his chapter offers some great points on what a U.S. president can and should say to the Islamic world. For instance: "Ours is a country in which a Muslim could someday be elected president; the same is true of a Jew, a Hindu or a Buddhist."

What is the greatest challenge in writing about religion?

Miles, a former colleague of mine on the L.A. Times editorial board, knows about the challenge of writing on religion. He won a Pulitzer Prize for going through the Bible and writing a biography of the God described in its pages.

In his chapter on Iraq in our book, he has the best observation in answer to the "greatest challenge" question. He writes, "The news media may properly take pride in the extent to which they are reviled for never getting anything right. Their myriad critics betray the high hopes they still entertain for journalism and their dependence upon it. Its only duty is to the truth, the truth pure and simple.

"But as Oscar Wilde wryly put it, the truth is rarely pure and never simple."

For more information, please contact Samantha Fodrowski at 617-373-5427 or at s.fodrowski@neu.edu.

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