Internet years are like dog years.  Way back in 2003 when The Revealer was founded as a joint project between NYU’s Journalism Department and The Center for Religion and Media, we placed a more traditional emphasis on educating future journalists about how to report about religion: with links to academic and reporting resources, explicit examples of how journalists get religion right and wrong, and by debunking hypocritical or imbalanced, precious or erroneous reporting.  While our emphasis on that aspect of our mission has varied over the past eight years, we’ve always paid close attention to what tools institutions use to school journalists in religion’s means and ways.

For instance: there’s a cool new online course about Islam, created by Washington State University and Poynter News University.  Designed by Lawrence Pintak (who will be speaking at an event co-sponsored by The Center for Religion and Media on October 5th), the course is meant:

as a tool for journalists who want to be accurate in educating their audience about the religion and culture of Islam, Muslim communities in the U.S., and the distinctions between Islam as a political movement and the radical philosophies that inspire militant Islamists.

Smart and necessary!  But that’s not what the Culture and Media Institute (CMI, part of Brent “that’s indecent!” Bozell’s family of non-profits) has to say about the project:

[it] tries to minimize the impact and importance of ”jihad” by comparing it to the number of murders in America each year. That same course claims ”right-wing activists” tried to tie American Muslims to terrorism and doesn’t mention examples of Islamic attacks on press freedom.

the course adds ways to put ”jihad” into perspective, attack conservatives, and provide a list of liberal groups that can be contacted for expert advice and quotes

and

One of the more offensive statements is that ”context is essential in covering this global story in a way that does not amplify fears of jihad.” Journalists ”are far more likely to report on jihad-related incidents than other violence’ which gives people a ”skewed impression of the prevalence of jihad.”

The CMI article was picked up by Fox News today, and given the headline “Course Instructs Journalists to Take Note That Jihad ‘Not a Leading Cause of Death.’” As of now, it’s got more than 3,000 comments.  Clearly funding for the report, provided in part by George Soros, has been a lightening rod for those who oppose, ahem, context in news reporting. (Disclosure:  The Knight Foundation is credited for some of that funding; I’ve received a Knight Grant via USC’s Annenberg School for Journalism.)

It’s a great and timely project, very much of the spirit with which The Revealer was founded.  I only wish the press release for the course were less apologetic about its purpose.  “We have no ax to grind,” states Pintak, “other than a desire to see accurate, balanced reporting of this topic.”  There’s no shame in wanting to get religion right, regardless of which religion you’re writing about or which country you’re posting your story from.  Grind the ax, I say.  Particularly when everything from our national budget to the safety of our citizens to our role in the world depends on it.

Having overseen, as one of my first projects as editor of The Revealer, a series of articles on how Shari’ah is used, misused, and misunderstood, I recognize the challenges reporters often face when writing about Islam.  Few resources exist that don’t fall prey to political or denominational influence, that make freedom of conscience and the first amendment paramount.  Too many other factors can get in the way.  We’re all prone to losing site of larger contexts when reporting emotional stories about life and death; and religion tends to be the bluntest ax in a journalist’s woodshed. The online course is a great way to hone skills in reporting on a faith and culture so many new journalists know so little about.

But what about the numbers?  More worldwide deaths occur because of malaria, cancer, and violent crime than from jihad.  Is that news?  Apparently.  Is it worthy of a course like this?  Apparently.  And yet the course is a lot more than its funding or purported narrative about proportion (take note, Fox News commenters). Numbers never tell the whole story–which is why liberal pleas to rely solely on science and facts carry so little weight–but they do help a reporter to remember to lift his or her head up from daily mucking in the trenches.

There are no absolutes when you’re writing about religion, foreign policy, culture, or even human rights.  But when, as an institution, journalism is held to the standards of truth, accuracy, and fairness, and as a country we hold ourselves to the exercise of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, we can at least have a working knowledge of the slippery definitions of these words, if not their relative ideologies and permutations.  Journalists aren’t always going to do good reporting but they can start off with good intentions.  Trying to understand Islam with freedom of conscience and freedom of speech in mind is a good place to start.

Looking up from my own mucking, it’s nice to see that while The Revealer may be something like 56 in internet years, we’re in good company.

–Ann Neumann