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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Reporting on religion: When neutrality and faith collide


Religion and journalism might seem incompatible. One lurks in the murkiest mysteries of the spirit; the other’s a no-nonsense broker of fact and action. 

But Columbia University professor Ari Goldman makes the case that there’s no better union out there. 

“I think the best beat in journalism is religion,” he declared recently at a lecture at the University of B.C.’s School of Journalism.

Goldman, former religion reporter for The New York Times and author of The Search for God at Harvard , explained that writing on faith gives journalists a chance to delve behind news stories and into the inner motivations of subjects. It’s also a beat that allows incredible versatility, he said, from features to hard news stories on politics, social issues and world events.

“You can’t cover the presidential election in the United States these days without knowing a lot about religion,” Goldman explained.

From Mike Huckabee’s Southern Baptist roots to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism to the conservative media-stoked confusion over Barack Obama’s religious past, it’s crucial reporters know what they’re talking about when they throw around terms like “evangelical” and “madrassa”. 

Only after Goldman’s lecture did questions from the audience highlight some of the real struggles of reporting on religion. Taking on an intimate and controversial realm like faith can put journalism ethics to the test, and Goldman’s strategies range from the traditional to the radical.

Balance

Asked whether news media are perpetuating Islamophobia in America, Goldman answered with an unequivocal yes. 

“The press has not done a good job and needs to do a better job,” he said. Although there are plenty of moderate Muslims attempting to get their messages out, Goldman said journalists tend to ignore these perspectives in favour of reporting on radical theologies. With such sensational coverage, it’s no wonder that 35 per cent of Americans express a negative view of Muslims, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2007.

“The media often falls into extremes, and not the mainstream because they’re boring,” he said. “The press isn’t interested in Muslims that say ‘we condemn violence.’”

Ignoring the middle-of-the road in favour of the sensational is an inherent and oft-criticized bias in the media. But when it comes to coverage of beleaguered minorities, it’s particularly crucial for journalists to examine whether their coverage is representative of popular sentiments or just the squeakiest wheel.

Neutrality

The religion beat tests the limits of a reporter’s neutrality perhaps more than any other. Journalists everywhere strive to put their own political and philosophical commitments aside when they’re on the job. Some go further than others to demonstrate their “objectivity” by declining to vote or join a political party. 

Although the ideal of objectivity in journalism has lost much of its luster in North America lately (neither the Canadian Association of Journalists nor the Society of Professional Journalists include the term in their ethical codes), most journalists still try to keep personal biases to a minimum and assure sources and readers of their neutrality.

Religious commitments are one of the most powerful identity markers around. So how does a religious journalist like Goldman, raised an orthodox Jew, impartially report on his or another faith? When posed this question, Goldman seemed confident he could put his Jewish identity aside when necessary. “It’s hard, but I think it’s possible,” he said. “I think you can say, ‘I’m a Jew, but I’m not here as a Jew.’”

Goldman said in most cases he discloses his faith to his sources. It’s a telling decision. Not all religion reporters follow his rule of thumb: I know one journalist who keeps secret his church affiliations for reasons of privacy.

Religion reporter Julia Lieblich, writing for the Religion Newswriters Association, notes the tricky situations reporters can find themselves in when interviewing an proselytizing source. 

“Most religion writers eventually encounter sources who believe their souls need saving or at least improving. And most have their own informal rules on when and how much to reveal about their own religious roots and deeply held beliefs,” she writes.

Lieblich passes along the advice of a colleague, who, when asked, “Are you a Christian?” replies, “I don’t like to talk about my religion when I am working. But if you are wondering whether I will be sensitive to the beliefs of Christians, the answer is yes.”

Lieblich notes that, “This kind of response is particularly valuable for reporters whose atheist or agnostic beliefs would elicit a strong reaction from some believers.”

Advocacy

Perhaps Goldman’s deeply held religious identity is a clue to his willingness to discuss his beliefs with his sources. He said he often tells interviewees that being of faith makes him “better equipped” to understand their religion. 

The debate over who should write about faith – an insider, an outsider, an atheist or an agnostic – is echoed in academic studies of religion. An insider or a person of faith is perhaps better able to explain the phenomenological side of faith, while an outsider or skeptic would be more ready to inspect religious commitments as an often-destructive social phenomenon.

There is no doubt where Goldman stands in this divide. He said he tries to write from the perspective of the believer, and sees his role as facilitating communication and empathy between faiths. “Most Americans know a lot about our own faith…but they don’t extend themselves and learn about the faith of their neighbours,” he said. “I hope that I’m teaching them that other people aren’t scary.”

Goldman said he avoids criticizing any religious belief, except in the most extreme cases of violence or danger. “I see my role as to tell the story and not put a value judgment on it,” he explained.

Goldman went so far as to say that in his religion writing, he feels comfortable transcending one of the taboos of journalism. “I feel as a religion journalist, I can be an advocate,” he told the audience, explaining that he aims not to champion Judaism, but “faith in general.”

At a time when atheist manifestos like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation condemn commitment to faith as a divisive and dangerous phenomenon, Goldman’s advocacy position makes quite the statement. By coming out in favour of faith, he allies himself with the vast majority of his compatriots, but most certainly takes a side in public discourse.

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