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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August 17, 2017

Skye Jethani on News Media; Then, and Later, and Now

Skye Jethani ran this as a series of 20 Twitter posts on Thursday morning. I thought he’d post it to his blog, but in the absence of that wanted to make sure more people got to see it.

by Skye Jethani

Here’s what’s on my mind: Cultural division, the media, and the Civil War. Does 19th century media explain what’s happening today?

Newspapers before and during the Civil War were hopelessly biased in both the North and South. Many twisted facts into “fake news.”  There’s no doubt a steady diet of biased news fueled the divide between North and South and contributed to the profits of a media industry fueled by the new technology of the telegraph allowing for much faster reporting then ever before. Part of the problem was that neither side engaged reporting from the other. Media was highly regional with the opposing point of view rarely presented fairly. It was a fragmented and siloed media landscape that made generative dialogue difficult if not impossible.

The media landscape changed dramatically in the 20th century again due to tech. Radio and then TV created for the first time a national media that could speak to the whole country instantly. It was also an age of external threats where the country rallied together to fight WWI and WWII. The focus on external enemies continued with the Cold War. For much of 20th century regional media differences were overshadowed by a united national media. A handful of outlets spoke to all of us. Remember when Cronkite was the most trusted man in America?

A new wave of tech, this time digital, has erased the unifying media landscape of the 20th century and my childhood. Instead, we’re returning to the pre-Civil War fragmentation where we only hear the voices that agree with us, and where opposition voices are silenced or mis-characterized. The divide is not geographic this time but socio-graphic as social media curates our ‘friends’ and ‘networks’ into like-minded bundled for marketing purposes.

Many look at what’s happening today and the divisions splintering the country as an abnormal, new development. I worry the relative media unity of the 20th century may have been the abnormality, and America is simply returning to the fractured existence that has plagued us since 1776. Without a serious external threat (King George III, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, USSR), and without a common national and trusted media, we may be returning to the unsustainable conditions of the 19th century that ultimately led to civil war.

When we’ve faced such existential threats in the past it was the virtue of great leaders that has kept us united. Washington galvanized thirteen colonies into a single nation. Lincoln preserved the Union with deft leadership and uncommon wisdom. We need that kind of executive vision, virtue, and resolve no less in these times. God help us, we have none.

God help us.


Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant and ordained pastor. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Phil Vischer Podcast and writes the With God daily devotional, emailed to subscribers worldwide. Skye is a former editor for Christianity Today and Leadership Journal magazines. skyejethani.com  @SkyeJethani

October 16, 2010

Canada’s Largest Newspaper Doubles Horoscope Space Allotment

The Toronto Star, the largest circulation newspaper in Canada has upped its commitment to readers of the daily horoscope to just under a half page.    That’s right, a half page of editorial (as opposed to paid advertising) space for people who believe that the day of your birth dictates the path of your life.  And all this at a time when other ‘religious’ space allocations are being cut.  (The paper once published over two pages of “church” copy and advertising each weekend, and then priced it so high that churches could no longer afford to advertise.)

Can you imagine the outcry if the paper printed a half page of Bible promises?   Or wisdom from the book of Proverbs?   Or how about a half page each day from various Evangelical pastors on knowing God’s will for your life?   (With the pastors receiving payment for so doing, as writer Jonathan Cainer undoubtedly does.)

This isn’t the first time this has been mentioned here, however; so I want to simply reiterate what I wrote in March of this year…

Their followers maintain religious devotion to their every pronouncement. Their right to millions of dollars of free newspaper space around the world is never questioned, in fact many of those papers pay them for inclusion in their print and online editions.

These same media outlets are very cautious about granting space of any kind to Jewish, Christian or Muslim faith groups because that would be “sectarian” and they don’t want to be seen as promoting this or that religion. So why is an exception made for this one group?

They, of course are astrologers and their daily encyclical is usually called “Your horoscope.” Their belief system is secularized predestination — Calvinists, take note — believing that our lives are guided by the stars, in various ways, depending on the star (or Zodiac) sign in place at our time of birth.

My usual tongue-in-cheek reply to this is, “I don’t believe in astrology, but then again, we Geminis are natural skeptical.”

Kidding aside, why does one faith group get preferential treatment? And how can any media outlet turn down any request from any religious group when they already grant one unfettered access to their readers?

Comments: This is a piece about press discrimination or media favoritism. Comments as to the merits of astrology will be deleted.

March 6, 2010

One “Religion” Gets Preferred Advertising Worth Millions Daily

Their followers maintain religious devotion to their every pronouncement.  Their right to millions of dollars of free newspaper space around the world is never questioned, in fact many of those papers pay them for inclusion in their print and online editions.

These same media outlets are very cautious about granting space of any kind to Jewish, Christian or Muslim faith groups because that would be “sectarian” and they don’t want to be seen as promoting this or that religion.  So why is an exception made for this one group?

They, of course are astrologers and their daily encyclical is usually called “Your horoscope.”  Their belief system is secularized predestination — Calvinists, take note — believing that our lives are guided by the stars, in various ways, depending on the star (or Zodiac) sign in place at our time of birth.

My usual tongue-in-cheek reply to this is, “I don’t believe in astrology, but then again, we Geminis are natural skeptical.”

Kidding aside, why does one faith group get preferential treatment?   And how can any media outlet turn down any request from any religious group when they already grant one unfettered access to their readers?

Comments:  This is a piece about press discrimination or media favoritism.  Comments as to the merits of astrology will be deleted.

November 12, 2008

To The Publisher of the Free Magazines/Newspapers I am About to Trash

newspapers

To the publisher…

I am very sorry that I was unable to distribute all the copies of your magazine you sent to me, but try as I may I can’t get people to pick up things from the rack inside the door.   Personally, when I visit a church or a Christian bookstore or something like that, I always look for those free newspapers and magazines, because I am a person who likes to know what’s going on in the Christian world, as well as being a bit of a newspaper and magazine junkie.  Even when far from home, I’ll still pick up local ministry publications, and missions things, because I like to read the kind of thing you publish.  But I will be the first to admit that I seem to be a bit of an exception.

I’ve even tried tricks like inserting some of your back issues inside your current issues.   I’ve stuffed copies in bags at our store before people knew I was doing it; trying to target people I thought might enjoy your articles.

Still, it really hurt to have to throw all this stuff out in the recycling bin today.   I feel bad for your advertisers, who were probably told that you print and distribute “X” number of copies.    Their message simply didn’t get out to our area.   But I know that you also receive donations, and I feel bad for your donors, because some of the money they donated toward your printing and distribution costs is now going into the garbage.    All in all, this is a great waste of ministry resources.    It’s not good stewardship.

recycling-binBut I have to end this by saying something that is going to hurt:   I never asked you send this stuff in the first place.   It was your decision to not to be a controlled circulation publication; it was your decision to mail copies in bulk to places you’ve never seen and organizations you never spoke with in advance.   Again, we never asked for all these things to be dumped on our doorstep.  And we have so many other things to think about, that getting your magazines or newspapers distributed wasn’t at the top of our list.

We were simply trying to make the best out of an awkward situation.    But after hanging on to these things well beyond their street date, I am afraid they are off to recycling.

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