Thinking Out Loud

September 3, 2019

In Religion Reporting, There’s a Tradeoff Between Objectivity and Accuracy

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:37 am

I’ve said before that only insiders can report a news story in Evangelicalism.

I realize this means that there is a certain loss of objectivity that a reporter borrowed from the business beat or the political department would have, but I believe it’s worth sacrificing that aspect of objectivity if it means getting the report mostly correct.

The reason is simply that there is so much terminology, so much nuance behind our stories that an outsider simply can’t appreciate. In the name of objectivity, it would be possible to get the story wrong.

I wouldn’t consider writing a piece about a Muslim cleric or a Buddhist community any more than I would consider writing about NASCAR, South African politics, or gourmet cooking.

Fortunately, there is the website Get Religion, which keeps us abreast of the missteps by (mostly) print media in attempting to cover stories of (mostly) Christianity. Usually these include things like wrong terminology, poor theological understanding, unawareness of the full history of the story, or missing entirely the sub-strands of the story being covered.

I was reminded of this on the weekend reading some tweets from religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey, made, as it turns out, in reference to an item I now also see covered on Get Religion.

She wrote,

I’ve been reporting on religion, especially the inner workings of U.S. evangelicals, for 12 years now. I’m fully aware of the skeletons in the closet. I have fun stories to share! BUT if your publication can’t write a fair piece about them, you risk alienating 25% of the country.

I was inspired to become a religion reporter after Bush’s re-election, when reporters were baffled by what many of them portrayed as stupid evangelicals willing to vote for a buffoon. I thought perhaps I could explain. 12 years later, I don’t think the media has woken up.

I’m tired of watching the media botch religion coverage, whether news or opinion.

If you see your faith poorly covered, you will instantly distrust the rest of that outlet’s coverage.

That last sentence is key. Can you truly put your faith in a media outlet if their coverage of the subject that is perhaps closest to your heart is being rendered carelessly?

For Sarah, I suspect it’s doubly discouraging, knowing she could have been asked to write the piece and done a better job. Full disclosure: In this instance, the piece in particular at the New York Times was an Op-Ed — an opinion piece — and not hard news. But I know for writers and reporters like Sarah and others like her this is a constant frustration.

I’ve had the privilege of writing some print pieces for nationally distributed media outlets. But for 30 years I’ve also lived in a small town, doing a somewhat visible ministry that interacts with all the churches and parachurch organizations. In all those years, I’ve never once been interviewed as a source to help the local newspapers clarify a religion story, and often it means they’ve missed the mark almost to the point of getting the story completely wrong.

It leaves the public misinformed, and leaves the media outlet looking less than they would desire.

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