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Questioning Coverage of Religious Topics

By Father John Flynn

ROME, APRIL 9, 2007 (Zenit) - Media and religion often have an uneasy relationship. It's not that journalists ignore religious topics, it's just that quality coverage is frequently lacking. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, recently called certain discrepancies to the media's attention.

During an interview with a French magazine, the cardinal criticized how the press covers the Catholic Church, Reuters reported March 31. Often, he stated, the media concentrate on controversial subjects such as sex and abortion, while ignoring charitable work carried out by thousands of Catholic groups around the world.

"The Church's messages are subject to a type of manipulation and falsification by some Western media," said Cardinal Bertone.

The cardinal also said that Benedict XVI's Regensburg address last September was falsely reported, with undue attention given to a quote by the Pope of what a Byzantine emperor said about Muslims. The speech was really a discussion of the role God plays in society.

"Commentators who take phrases out of context in a misleading extrapolation are exercising their trade dishonestly," Cardinal Bertone said.

The cardinal also found fault with all the attention given to the Discover Channel documentary "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." He said that the publicity given to such specious arguments weakens the faith of people.

The documentary, which aired March 4, is a case in point of how media reports can give a false impression of the facts. James Cameron, the film's director, said there was solid statistical evidence that the ossuary found in a Jerusalem suburb in 1980 may have contained the bones of Jesus and other family members, the Associated Press reported Feb. 26.

The extensive attention given by the media to the documentary was soon scrutinized. The Washington Post reported Feb. 28 that Biblical archaeologist William Dever said of the hype surrounding the documentary: "I just think it's a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated."

"It's a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don't know enough to separate fact from fiction."

Doubtful assumptions

The allegedly solid statistical evidence behind the documentary came under scrutiny by Carl Bialik, who writes a column on statistics for the Wall Street Journal. In an article dated March 9, Bialik looked at the claim that finding a tomb with the names of Jesus and other family members was so statistically unlikely that it was proof that it was really the tomb of Jesus.

The documentary's statistical claims were based on work by a University of Toronto statistician, Andrey Feuerverger. His work supposedly showed that there is just a one-in-600 chance that the names on the tomb would have come together in a family that didn't belong to Jesus of Nazareth.

But, Bialik pointed out, this calculation is based upon many assumptions. There are differences of opinion on how the inscriptions on the tomb should be interpreted. Choosing interpretations different from those of the documentary severely weakens the statistical proof that it was the tomb of Jesus, he said.

In addition to problems with the interpretation of the names, there is also only partial evidence regarding the frequency of these names in the population at the time. Ivo Dinov, assistant professor of statistics at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Bialik: "I wouldn't be comfortable coming up with a number like this, because the general audience will not understand that it is very, very subjective."

The documentary's alleged revelations form part of a pattern about media coverage leading up to Easter, explained Charlotte Allen, an editor at Beliefnet, in an opinion article the Los Angeles Times published March 4.

"All these 'revelations' are part of a continuing cottage industry of constructing alternative versions of Christianity to the one we already have," commented Allen. Often the newly discovered "gospels" or other documents respond to a need by persons or groups to find an alternative doctrinal form that fits in with their personal ideas of how Christianity should be, she added.

"People who find notions of sin, salvation, atonement and an afterlife incredible or distasteful can banish them from their personal cosmologies by finding an ancient document where they are absent," noted Allen.

Further revelations

As if on cue, a headline in the the London-based Times newspaper reported March 21 that "Jesus was no miracle worker."

The article reported on the content of the book written by Benjamin Iscariot, with Jeffery Archer and Francis Molony, entitled "The Gospel According to Judas." Times readers were assured that the book was "published with Vatican approval," and that it showed "Jesus did not turn water into wine, nor did he calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee or walk on water."

As the Guardian newspaper pointed out in its March 21 report on the book, Archer is better known for writing novels, and recently served a prison term for perjury. Moreover, the article made it clear that the Vatican did not support the book.

Speaking at the book's launch, Father Stepen Pisano, rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, said that his participation in the event did not mean "the institute, the Vatican or the Pope endorses this book."

More was to come as Easter approached. On April 3, just in time for Passover, the New York Times published an article arguing that there is no archaeological evidence for the exodus of Jews led by Moses from Egypt. Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist, reportedly said that the story of the Exodus is "a myth."

The context of the story by the New York Times was curious. Hawass was leading a group on a tour of a newly discovered fort in northern Sinai, and his comment on the Exodus came as a result of a reporter's question on the subject.

This remark, seemingly made in passing while presenting archaeological findings of a different nature, then became the basis for a 900-word article in the New York Times. Moreover, the article was notable for not including any contrasting opinion or reaction regarding the historical veracity of the Exodus.

Presenting the news

Questions over media coverage also arise in the way events are presented and interpreted. An interesting case in point was how newspapers reported protests in Turkey to the Pope's visit last
November.

A Nov. 27 report by a Spanish Web site that examines media coverage of the Church "La Iglesia en la Prensa" (The Press in the Church), looked at the difference in newspaper headlines in Spain and Italy.

During the visit, groups hostile to the Catholic Church and the presence of Benedict XVI organized a protest march. The Spanish papers highlighted the hostility to the Pope and the presence of thousands of protesters. By contrast, the Italian press headlines noted that the number of protesters was much lower number than the forecast numbers.

Reports in the days previous to the protest spoke of up to a million people who would take to the streets. Only around 15 to 20 thousand actually turned up. The Spanish newspaper titles, nevertheless, deliberately ignored the failure of the protest.

The lesson here, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, is that "users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media" (No. 2496). Those who make use of the mass media, it continues, "will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences."

The Catechism rightly warns the faithful to guard against passivity regarding the media, and recommends being "vigilant consumers of what is said or shown." Given the recent behavior of the media regarding religion in the news, this is a wise recommendation for modern times.

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