The Two Sides of Covering Religion

The joke goes like this: The first fellow says: "I need some legal advice. I wish I could find a lawyer with one arm." The second fellow says: "Why’s that?" The first fellow replies: "So he wouldn’t keep saying, ‘On the one hand,’ and then, ‘On the other hand.’"

Not particularly funny. But particularly appropriate for this column, which is the first I have written without a clear point of view. Perhaps the responses I receive from readers will help me take a stand.

On the one hand . . .

I agree at least in part with those who would like journalists to spend more time covering religion. "Members of the faith community are on target," writes Doug Underwood, in a book called From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press, "when they complain about the incapacity or the unwillingness of journalists to take seriously the importance of the spiritual dimension in the lives of so many people."

Diane Winston, a former religion reporter now with the Pew Charitable Trusts, explains why the spiritual dimension should be taken seriously by journalists: "Whether we consciously recognize it or not, religion has a lot to do with how we think about a whole range of political and social issues, ranging from abortion to welfare. We need to figure out how to have someone in the newsroom think beyond today’s headlines and recognize religion as a social force in both our individual lives and the life of our society."

Failing that, we need to figure out how to have someone in the newsroom treat religion with simple courtesy. In his "Media Matters" column for The Los Angeles Times, David Shaw writes about last summer’s court decision in San Francisco that found the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because of the phrase "under God." Shaw notes that an editorial in The New York Times compared removing the phrase at this late date to "removing a well-lodged foreign body from an organism." The process "may sometimes be more damaging than letting it stay put."

As Shaw himself says, "that ‘foreign body’ formulation seemed, at the very least, an insensitive view of the power and importance of the ‘under God’ phrase to people of faith."

None of the all-news networks has a religion reporter. Neither does ABC, CBS or NBC. Neither do most newspapers, and those who few which employ someone on the "God beat" do not give him much space. The central fact of life to millions of Americans is not even an aside to journalists, except when priests molest children or Islamic terrorists murder innocent men and women. And then it is the perversion of true faith that is reported, not the core values.

On the other hand . . .

A TV newscast is an important forum. But is it a profound one? A newspaper is an excellent medium for relaying facts. But can it with similar aptness convey spirituality? Just because something is significant does not mean it is newsworthy. In fact, one might make the case that religion is too significant for so quotidian a vehicle as journalism.

Winston is right when she says that religion "has a lot to do with how we think about a whole range of political and social issues." But history has a lot to do with our thought processes, too, and history is not a normal component of news. Psychology has a lot to do with our thought processes, and it is not a normal component of news, either. News is a record of public occurrence; faith is the underpinning of private belief and action.

Perhaps reporters should pay more attention to religion, as Winston suggests, when covering stories about abortion and welfare; perhaps knowing the religious beliefs of people will, in cases like these, place their political beliefs in a more comprehensible context.

But as a separate area of concern, a beat of its own, perhaps religion should remain separate from journalism. Perhaps by ignoring it, journalists, however inadvertently, are showing respect more than indifference.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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