Faith and media in dialogue
By Sue Careless
Does faith matter to the media? Does religion get the ink or air time in Canada that it deserves?
Media bosses and faith leaders wrestled with these issues at a "Faith and the Media" conference held at the Carleton University School of Journalism, June 7-9.
The topic proved to be a hot one. The first national conference of its kind attracted 270 participants—double the expected enrolment.
Toronto's Roman Catholic archbishop, Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, noted that the Church claims truths and makes demands which are absolute, while the media tends to be liberal, and, as such, opposed to absolutes.
"(The) media are adept at showing the ills of society, but not the remedies.... Most of our media are not interested in Christ's self-emptying death, only in sweating and weeping Madonnas. The media love religious kitsch."
The cardinal, who has not always come off well in the media, acknowledged that "We, the religious professionals, are not very forthcoming sometimes, perhaps out of a fear of sensationalism. Nor do we always explain ourselves well. At other times we kowtow to the media when we should question its mind set."
"Media is not the mouthpiece of religion," observed Reuven Bulka, rabbi of the Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, "but media should have the sensitivity to "see things from the perspective of the ‘other.'" Rabbi Bulka is a religious leader with media savvy. He hosts a weekly radio call-in show, Religion on the Air, and a television series, In our Hands.
"My faith helped me become a better journalist," said Mohammed Azar Ali Khan, for many years foreign affairs editor for The Ottawa Citizen. His Islamic faith demanded he tell the truth, do justice and fear no one but God, he explained. "I had to leave Pakistan because of these beliefs."
Khan left his native country because of government censorship. After immigrating to Canada, he received pressure from powerful lobby groups and embassies in Ottawa, because he opposed the death sentence imposed on novelist Salmon Rushdie and the hostage-taking in Iran. But he "was not going to defy martial law in Pakistan, only to surrender in Canada," he said.
Shahina Siddiqui, coordinator of community relations for the Manitoba Islamic Association, expressed concerns about the way the media portray Muslims: "We hate women. We love to kill. We are all terrorists." "I am at the receiving end of your product," she said. "You (can) dehumanize a population. Journalists have a great and awesome responsibility to educate."
Dr Jamal Badawi, professor at St Mary's University in Halifax, said Canadian Muslim leaders speak out against atrocities practiced by certain extremist Muslims in other countries, but their own moderate comments are not reported by the Canadian press.
Evangelical Christians also expressed sensitivity about labels. "Be fair to us. We are part of the mosaic of this culture," urged Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale College and Seminary. "Faith is not extraneous to life but has an impact on formal public life. Call us what we call ourselves."
Stiller was instrumental in having Canadian Press change its style book so that evangelicals were no longer refered to by the pejorative term "fundamentalists."
Peggy Wehmeyer is a rare creature—a broadcast journalist who is spiritually literate. As a reporter for ABC's World News Tonight, Wehmeyer is the only correspondent who reports full-time on religious issues for a major U.S. television network.
"It amazes me that we still have to fight to get other journalists to see that religion really is news.... A lot of people in the media are uncomfortable with faith issues," Wehmeyer told the conference in a keynote address.
"I see myself straddling this huge monolithic media on one side and the religion world on the other. I'm just trying to create some understanding between the two." Wehmeyer said she does so by being "bilingual."
"Many issues dividing us are moral, and to fully understand them we must explore the religion angle," Wehmeyer believes. Issues like homelessness or refugees are being addressed by religious groups. "What are the beliefs driving these people?"
When the media is numb to spiritual sensitivities, people of faith become more "fortress-minded, more tribalized." Wehmeyer urged religious literacy among journalists to avoid stereotyping. "Tell stories so the audience can empathize, not demonize."
Wehmeyer has a trained eye for the spiritual, even when she is sent out to cover an education, health, business, or political story. One of her editors exclaimed, "No matter what we send you out on, you come back with God!" She shot back, "How come you keep missing Him?"
A fellow journalist asked Wehmeyer how she could be a fair religion reporter if she attended church. She asked him how he could be a fair political reporter if he voted in the last election.
Bridges of understanding
When Lois Sweet applied for the position of religion and ethics reporter at The Toronto Star, a number of her colleagues took her aside and asked, "Are you really prepared to throw your career away?"
"It was the multicultural and multifaith aspect that attracted me to this beat." The media avoid dealing with the other except in times of conflict, but stories can be written as bridges of understanding, Sweet argued. The "why" behind people's beliefs is absolutely fundamental, she said. "Ask, ‘What is it about his faith that leads him to take that point of view?'"
Unfortunately, Sweet admitted, this doesn't always happen. "Many faith groups have a deep sense of distrust of the media. They fear being ignored but fear even more being misrepresented or trivialized." Sweet recommended that faith groups develop an ongoing, face-to-face relationship with journalists, to avoid a victim mentality.
Faith groups should also have spokespeople available for comment and analysis, Sweet says. She argues the Roman Catholic and Jewish communities get more extensive coverage partly because they have their own organizations monitoring the media and correcting errors.
Sweet described how an informal survey of 26 daily newspapers in 8 provinces during three weeks chosen at random in early 1998 revealed that Roman Catholics and Jews received the most ink. (Israel had just turned 50 which would explain some of the focus on the Jewish faith.) Protestants got little ink and Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus got virtually none, except in international stories carried over the wire service.
"Substantial coverage needs to be given to faith groups over time, not just in moments of conflict," Sweet stressed, adding faith groups should not be treated as a curiosity, or in ways that will reinforce stereotypes and trivialize.
"Faith coverage," she said, "should be neither patronizing (‘What a quaint belief!') nor promotional, but analytical and contextual. Journalists on the religion beat must still ask the tough questions. And religious leaders, just like politicians, may not like the added coverage they get."
Globe and Mail editor William Thorsell expressed reluctance to cover religion unless it affects public policy. "I'm not inclined to focus on the faith aspect of values.... I see religion as just one part of sociology."
Thorsell also argued that newspapers have trouble covering religion because it represents faith instead of logic, adding, "Magazines can do it better."
Veteran journalist and broadcaster Peter Desbarats said he feels the media no longer recognize the authority of religious leaders and look instead to academics for "sanitized ethical opinions." Desbarats raised some ire by suggesting the media are "rationalist," while faith groups are "fundamentalist."
ChristianWeek editor Doug Koop responded, "God has endowed us with faith and reason; the two are not irreconcilable." Bert Witvold of the Christian Courier agreed, saying it's possible to be a person of faith and intelligence.
Andrew Grenville of the Angus Reid Group warned that some faith groups set themselves apart and are not actively engaging the media. As a result, he argued, only sensational news gets covered. "You have to be open to analysis and criticism," he advised.
On the other hand, the media miss the story when they fail to understand what motivates people of faith to hold certain moral positions and behave in certain ways. "Religion is not fading away as the chattering classes might have us believe," said Grenville.
Noted University of Manitoba researcher Reginald Bibby concurred. While the numerical strength of the main denominational players may change, he argued, conservative groups are holding their own. Moreover, faith at an individual level is very much alive.
Maclean's magazine editor Robert Lewis said, "The media cannot underestimate the place of religion and faith in the lives of Canadians.... The religious story is the human story. Religion sells."
Reflecting the same understanding, Neil Reynolds, the new editor of The Ottawa Citizen, reported that the most successful part of his paper's recent overhaul has been its increased religion coverage. Reynolds eliminated the weekly religion and ethics page because he believed the topics deserved front-page attention. In the first nine months after the change, religion and ethics reporter Bob Harvey had 45 front-page bylines, as compared to five in all of 1996.
Harvey and The Ottawa Citizen broke the hottest religion story in Canada in the last year, with Harvey's front-page interview of United Church moderator Bill Phipps. The leader of the country's largest Protestant denomination told Harvey he doesn't believe in the divinity of Christ.
Editor Kirk Lapointe has made changes at The Hamilton Spectator similar to those made at the Citizen. Lapointe has urged faith groups to call with stories, and to "storm in and yell when we get it wrong" and write letters to the editor.
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