Blind to the Spirit

By Rene Q. Bas
The Manila Times [Philippines]
Downloaded September 24, 2003

THE September 20 ZENIT analysis, “Blind to the Spirit: How the Media Treat Religion, Reporters Just Don’t Get It,” is a must read.

The ZENIT report begins with Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US episcopal conference (like the CBCP here), speaking at a conference of journalists about problems in the coverage of the sexual abuse scandals. Bishop Gregory said, “The media have helped to provoke sorely needed reforms in how the abuse problems are handled” by the Catholic hierarchy. But he also rightly complained that “the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community.”

Against the media’s rejection of these complaints as “shooting the messenger,” Zenit reports in-depth studies of—and expert observation about—religion and the press.

From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press, by Doug Underwood, a journalist for many years and now a professor of communication at the University of Washington, is the result of his extensive research on journalists and religion and their deeds in the newsroom.

Zenit reports: “His surveys discovered that religion does play a part in shaping journalist’s views and that it is a mistake to write off the profession in general as irreligious or unaffected by religious values. But, he adds, a common attribute in the journalistic profession is a skeptical and empirical mentality that can blind them to the importance of the spiritual dimension so important in many people’s lives.”

Underwood also found that the good journalists’ drive to search for “hard facts” was naturally antithetical to churchgoers’ insistence on “spiritual values and religious beliefs.”

“Underwood noted that it is difficult to find commentators in the national press who can tackle the subject of religion in a way that demonstrates an understanding of the topic beyond its political implications.” Underwood urges his former colleagues in the press to “learn to treat religion with greater sympathy, understanding and sensitivity.”

This is ironically very true here in the Philippines—despite this country’s packed Catholic Masses and mainstream Protestant Church services.

Under the subhead “Terrorists and pedophiles,” Zenit cites how Underwood’s conclusions find support in an “investigation by 29 religion majors at the University of Rochester.” The researchers found that “nearly half of all 314 religion stories studied from 12 newspapers were actually about political, legal or criminal activities. . . . Only 28 percent of the stories treated religion exclusively in terms of beliefs and values.” (The Washington Times reported on this research on July 2.)

Says Zenit: “Notably, coverage of Islam was mostly associated with crimes and violence, and one-third of all Catholic stories referred to crimes. A February 14 obituary of a priest in the Boston Globe, for instance, included many details about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, even though that priest had nothing to do with them.”

Curt Smith, who directed the Rochester study, said: “Coverage of Catholics and Islam was unbalanced everywhere. If you were from another planet, you’d think all Muslims were terrorists and all Catholics were pedophile priests.”

As in the Philippines, one cause of this lack of balance and understanding of the religious standpoint “is that only a handful of university programs prepare journalists for the religion beat.”

It’s even worse. Here, many reporters and correspondents, except the handful who have earned a good reputation for knowledge, depth and writing ability, are ill-prepared to cover their beats—whether it’s religion, the Church and the Protestant Churches, the industrial estates, the cabinet departments, the judiciary or the houses of Congress. They are not only ill-informed in general, unread about the subject matter of their beat and ignorant of its vocabulary. They also do not have the basic equipment of logic and sound thinking, let alone command of the language—neither Tagalog nor English—they write in.

In America “many journalists feel an ‘aversion’ toward matters of faith.” Another researcher, Mark Schneider, who teaches an eight-week summer program on religion writing at Northwestern University, found this. This is true here in the Philippines as well.

Earlier this year, on March 4, The New York Times’ op-ed writer, Nicholas Kristof, gave an unexpected boost to critics of the US media’s handling of religion. Zenit says Kristof wrote that the American national media “treat the religiously and politically conservative evangelicals through the filter of the Northeast educated elite.”

Kristof does not agree with evangeli­cals. But he observed that “liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable.”

Kristof also wrote that “liberals sometimes show more intellectual curiosity about the religion of Afghanistan than that of Alabama, and more interest in reading the Upanishads than in reading the Book of Revelation.”

The US-style Philippine media’s coverage of the Vatican’s acceptance of Cardinal Sin’s resignation and its appointment of Lipa City’s Archbishop Rosales to replace him at the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Manila emphasized Cardinal Sin’s “political interventionism” and Archbishop Rosales’s being a reputedly “less political” prelate. The media even speculated about intrigues in the hierarchy. They had nothing to say about the religious aspect of that so-called passing of an era event.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.