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University of Wisconsin–Madison

God, Disasters, and the Media

The Haitian earthquake coverage raises many issues of media coverage – its quality, limitations, the graphic images, the attempt to report amid chaos.

It also raises another issue: What is the place of God in the coverage?

Why God? Because with every disaster, too many journalists, aware of their religiously inclined viewers, fall over themselves to agree with, and to repeat, clichés about the need for prayer; or they report how God performed miracles in allowing some people to emerge unscathed from the rubble.

Such “miracle stories” conflict conspicuously with the horror and tragedy around them. God only knows why impoverished areas of the world are burdened further by horrific disasters, like Haiti. So why do journalists think they can read God’s mind, or invoke his help?

Easy piety

Recently, I watched uncomfortably as an overtly sympathetic CNN anchor listened to, and agreed with, a spokesman for a religious humanitarian agency who stressed the need for belief in God and prayer to help the Haitians.

This is only one example.

Across American television, a supposedly secular news media goes soft whenever anyone mentions religion in connection to a tragedy. Reporters, anchors, talk-show hosts – most adopt a pious look and speak in hushed tones when God and prayer are invoked.

Why? Isn’t it possible to express compassion for disaster victims without sentimentality or without supporting particular religious beliefs about how God acts in the world?

Why didn’t the CNN anchor pursue the discussion of religion by asking: If praying to God means God can intervene in the world, why didn’t God intervene to prevent this disaster?

Why don’t journalists ask pious religious spokespersons:  If God spared some people through miracles, why these people? What does that say about the dead folks? Isn’t this winnowing of survivors arbitrary?

Journalists tend to analyze any and every interpretation of major events, so why not specific religious interpretations? Often the interpretation is a very simplistic view, which depicts God as a deity who goes about picking winners and losers among the rubble.

If people want to bring religion into the media’s discussion of disaster, fine. But let’s bring in many theological viewpoints and treat the topic critically and intelligently. Let’s probe the difficult question that always arises whenever terrible events happen: How can such events be squared with a religious or theological approach to the world?

I am not arguing against coverage of the religious dimension of a disaster story. I am not saying reporters should callously challenge distraught victims when they speak devoutly of God. If citizens gather at churches to pray for divine help, reporters should cover such events. My perspective is not based on a denial of the existence of God. I believe my point is valid, whether of not one believes in God or in the power of prayer.

I am questioning journalistic acquiescence in an easy piety and a superficial religious sentimentality that is far from reality. At times, this religious piety is just another case of the media’s manipulation of emotions to sell the news, or to ingratiate themselves with audiences. I want journalists to maintain their critical and independent approach to stories, even during tragedies that tug on their emotions.

No one wants to take away the belief in God from desperate people in a disaster. That’s not the point. The point is that the journalist’s job is not to join the pious.

The journalist’s job is to report the facts of the story, the human pain and struggle, and what can be done about it, here on earth.

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