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Reporters Just Don't Get It

SEATTLE, Washington, SEPT. 20, 2003 (Zenit) - Complaints about how the media treat the Catholic Church and religion-in-general aren't new. In a speech to a journalism convention here, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. episcopal conference, pointed to problems in coverage of the sexual abuse scandals.

Bishop Gregory admitted that the media have helped to provoke sorely needed reforms in how the abuse problems are handled, the Tacoma News Tribune reported Sept. 6. Yet, he contended, "the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community."

Many in the media reject such accusations as an example of "shooting the messenger." However, an in-depth study of religion and the press published last year points to serious deficiencies in media coverage.

In his book "From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press," Doug Underwood looked at religious attitudes in the newsroom. Underwood, for many years an active journalist and now associate professor of communication at the University of Washington, carried out extensive research on journalists' religiosity.

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. As well, there is a natural tension between the search for "hard facts" by journalists and the proclamation of spiritual values and religious beliefs by churchgoers.

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. "Journalists must learn to treat religion with greater sympathy, understanding and sensitivity," he recommended.

Terrorists and pedophiles

A study published this summer backs up Underwood's conclusions. The investigation by 29 religion majors at the University of Rochester showed nearly half of all 314 religion stories studied from 12 newspapers were actually about political, legal or criminal activities, the Washington Times reported July 2. Only 28% of the stories treated religion exclusively in terms of beliefs and values.

Notably, coverage of Islam was mostly associated with crimes and violence, and one-third of all Catholic stories referred to crimes. A Feb. 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.

"Coverage of Catholics and Islam was unbalanced everywhere," said Curt Smith, an English-department lecturer who co-directed the study. "If you were from another planet, you'd think all Muslims were terrorists and all Catholics were pedophile priests."

One cause of the problems is that only a handful of university programs prepare journalists for the religion beat. Mark Schneider, who teaches an eight-week summer program on religion writing at Northwestern University, added that many journalists feel an "aversion" toward matters of faith.

Critics of media coverage on religion got support from an unexpected quarter earlier this year. A March 4 article by Nicholas Kristof, editorial-page writer for the New York Times, observed that the national news media treat the religiously and politically conservative evangelicals through the filter of the Northeast educated elite.

While declaring his personal disagreement with evangelicals, Kristof acknowledged: "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."

He added 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."

BBC bias

Across the Atlantic, media coverage of religion is no less problematic. London's daily Telegraph observed that BBC's denials of unfair treatment against Roman Catholic ring hollow. The denials came from BBC's head of religion, Alan Bookbinder, a self-professed agnostic.

The Telegraph on Sept. 10 commented that the BBC's lack of respect for the Church comes out clearly in the disproportionate airtime given to Catholic dissidents. A case in point is the Sept. 2 "Woman's Hour" program about priestly celibacy.

The program centered on the ...

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