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Archive for Friday, March 2, 2001

Reporting on religion

Clergy, journalists weigh media coverage

March 2, 2001

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For the Rev. Paul Gray, his impression that the mainstream national media have an anti-religion bias hardened as he watched the confirmation hearings for U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

Gray, senior pastor at Heartland Community Church, 619 Vt., couldn't believe how Ashcroft was being portrayed in the news.

"That was a prime example. I've met him, I've heard him speak. I don't share the same denominational background, and we vary fairly strongly on some aspects of Christianity, but he is anything but mean-spirited and racially motivated and bigoted," Gray says.

"I do very strongly sense an intentional bias in making people of strong faith convictions look bad, especially on TV. You don't see that exact same kind of thing in the print media. But you do see words like 'zealot,' 'fanatic,' 'fundamentalist' and 'right-wing' used in instances where I don't think that's a fair characterization."

Unable to please everyone

What kind of job do the mainstream media do in covering issues with a religion angle?

Is coverage fair and substantive, or slanted and superficial?

Above all, can a person of faith any faith expect a fair shake in media coverage these days?

Opinions vary.

"The media does a pretty fair job of covering religion. From what I've seen, I think the media tends to handle religious issues the same way they handle the other issues," says Tom Volek, an associate professor of journalism and an associate professor of Russian and East European Studies at Kansas University. "The mainstream press isn't going to cover every side of every issue, but it's not intended to do that."

For the media, ruffling feathers is a natural consequence of the work they have to do.

"The idea that you're going to please everybody it ain't going to happen, as a religion reporter or city council reporter or anything else. It's impossible to appease everybody," Volek says.

John Broholm, an associate professor of journalism at KU, casts a more critical eye.

"I don't think the media does a great job covering religion at all. But that's a common complaint across all beats. You talk to scientists, people in education, various ethnic groups that's pretty much what you hear (about coverage of any interest area)," he says.

"Some of it comes down to how good a job we do of getting reporters out there when they're not already focused on a story. How often do you have a chance to just sit down and talk to people? That's also a common complaint across the beats, not just religion."

One problem is that the mainstream media seem poorly equipped to cover religion stories in any depth.

"Journalists have their degrees in journalism, not theology. They don't always understand the nuances that are present," says the Rev. Vince Krische, director of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, 1631 Crescent Drive. "That lack of understanding sometimes does make the stories superficial."

Missing the subtleties

Deborah Gerner, a professor of political science at KU, would like to see "deeper, more subtle" religion coverage of Islam by the media.

Gerner has visited the Middle East about two dozen times since the early 1980s. She taught at Birzeit University, near the Palestinian town of Ramallah, while on a Fulbright scholarship in 1996.

"What the media do well, I think, are human interest stories about Islam, so every year there will be the obligatory story about what it's like to fast during Ramadan. It's like the obligatory story every year about Easter, Passover or Yom Kipper," Gerner says.

But that's where religion stories about Islam usually end.

"One thing that could be done would be to cover a greater range of Islamic religious celebrations, so that people are able to see the diversity of Islam. And when doing those stories, perhaps even highlight some of the cultural variance in how certain religious holidays are celebrated," Gerner says.

Robert Minor, a professor of religious studies at KU who teaches courses in Buddhism and Hinduism, believes the media can do a better job.

"I would give the media a B minus. I think they still cover these faiths in caricature. They don't recognize the variety of positions that exist within these categories," he says. "When you call someone a 'Buddhist,' the next question (to ask) is, 'What kind?' These traditions are very diverse, much more than one would recognize."

The media have a ways to go in covering stories about Eastern spirituality, he says.

"These other religions (such as Buddhism and Hinduism) are still seen as foreign, even though we have a large religious variety in this region. It's still covered as something foreign and exotic," Minor says.

Rabbi Judith Beiner, who serves the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive, thinks the media have done a fairly good job covering stories about Judaism and faith in general.

"I don't find the media particularly biased one way or the other in terms of portraying religion. If there's something that's inaccurate, I would understand that as a lack of knowledge rather than attempts to portray a certain bias," she says.

"Religion is always personal. No matter what a reporter says or does, they have so many more opportunities to step on people's toes."

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