Religiously Ignorant Journalists

By Christian Smith

Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about “Episcopals,” about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention’s approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect “Episcopals.” What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no “Episcopals”? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn’t even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.

What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance. As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university’s PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.

“Evangelicals” is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as “evangelists”—as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau—or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. Hey, aren’t all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them—scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce “evangelicals” at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at “evangelics” and “evangelicalists” they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as “them.” These are the knowledge-class professionals who are supposedly informing millions of readers about religion in America.

But my experience suggests that mispronunciation problems are only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, with few exceptions—such as Newsweek‘s Kenneth Woodward during his long tenure as a regular writer there—most “religion journalists” actually seem quite ignorant about religion generally. Which is precisely why they are calling me. It is not because they have an informed background and close familiarity with religion, and are simply looking to pick up a few good quotes to add color or an air of authority to the story. No. They call knowing almost nothing about what they have been assigned to write on and are essentially asking me to take the good part of an hour to educate them about it. I know for a fact, too, that usually they are also calling Bob Wuthnow, Roger Finke, Rod Stark, Nancy Ammerman, John Green, and so on to ask for the same education from a different angle. Having gotten their free hyper-crash course in whatever religion subject they are asking about, they then write up their article as best they can figure it out, publish it, and move on to the next story. Even then, in my experience, they often don’t really “get” many of the ideas we have discussed, sometimes to the point of positively misreporting on religion in their stories.

I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the “Democrizer” or “Republication” parties, or about the most recent “Supremicist Court” ruling. Surely reporters covering business and markets do not call economists asking 45 minutes of elementary questions about how the business cycle works or what effect it has when the Fed drops interest rates. So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?

Part of the answer is likely the residual effect of the knowledge class presuming for most of the 20th century that religion was simply irrelevant to anything that mattered. Why gain a background depth of knowledge about things insignificant? As a consequence we now, in this post-9/11 era, have a knowledge class scrambling to figure out religion with little collective accumulated knowledge of it on which to rely. Part of the problem, too, may be that few magazines and papers have “religion beats” comparable to their coverage of sports or politics or entertainment, staffed by seasoned experts. And no doubt there are other reasons to explain religiously ignorant religion journalism which a longer treatment could explore.

The fact that news writers and editors are often ill-informed about religion also helps to explain why they incessantly project their own biases into their religion coverage. When much of the secular knowledge class thinks about religion, here are the sorts of associations that often naturally come to mind: fundamentalism, violence, scandals, homophobia, dying churches, repression, exotic rituals, political ambition, cults, trivia.

Is it any wonder, then, that, of all the possible important and interesting stories about American religion that reporters could cover, about the only one they could seem to imagine reporting on last year was the Catholic priest abuse scandal? If I hear another solemn story about sex-abusing Catholic priests on NPR’s All Things Considered or Morning Edition I am going to tear up my pledge card and start listening to country radio.

Or is it any wonder that a major newspaper recently assigned a reporter to write a story about how some religious figures coincidentally have religiously related names? Like, isn’t it funny that Cardinal Jaime Sin, the archbishop of Manila, is named “Sin”? And isn’t it interesting that the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, is a Christian? Now that’s important religion coverage!
It came as no surprise, then, that when by chance I turned on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air several months ago, she was interviewing the author of a book about how some “Mormon Fundamentalist” brothers murdered their sister-in-law and her daughter because they believed God told them in a vision to do so. Gross listened attentively while her guest explained that his book raises grave questions and concerns about the “dark side” of religion. Indeed. Now I know not to fly American Airlines through Salt Lake City.

It is good that newspapers and radio are covering religion more these days. And, to be fair, occasionally some of them can be quite good. Last summer, for instance, Barbara Bradley Haggerty aired a thoughtful and appropriately sympathetic npr story on the life and death of Bill Bright, evangelical entrepreneur best known for his leadership of Campus Crusade for Christ and his “Four Spiritual Laws” evangelism tracts. But wouldn’t it be nice if good, well-informed, and balanced stories covering a variety of important and interesting religious people, organizations, issues, and events were the norm? Wouldn’t it be good journalism if reporters assigned to religion stories began with more in hand than their own personal impressions and biases? Why should Americans have to put up with all-too-often religiously ignorant and biased journalists and editors? It is high time that things changed.

I propose, for starters, that from now on editors assign religion stories only to reporters who know religion just as well as their publication’s political reporters know politics and their sports reporters know sports. If they don’t have any on staff, too bad. Time to invest in competent religion reporters. I further propose that all news reporters and editors go on a retreat to search their hearts in order to discover why when it comes to religion they are simply obsessed with sex abuse and violence, and what the answer might mean for more balanced, representative coverage of religion in the future.

I also propose that, from now on, if they won’t take the time and effort to learn what they need to know on their own, religiously ignorant journalists should start paying for the crash-courses in religion that we scholars provide them. I admit crass self-interest here. But maybe the imposed cost would provide an incentive for reporters to learn and remember something substantive about religion themselves.

Okay, those are my beginning recommendations. If anyone wants to hear more, just give me a call anytime and I’ll freely explain anything else you want to know.

Christian Smith is Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Associate Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This essay was first published in Books & Culture, and appears hear with the gracious permission of Dr. Smith and Books & Culture.

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