Misreporting Religion

Blind Spots and Biases in Media Coverage

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Father John Flynn, LC

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 21, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Accuracy and objectivity are traits often lacking in the media’s coverage of churches and religion in general. A case in point is the recent Newsweek article on same-sex marriage.

The magazine published a cover story by Lisa Miller in the Dec. 15 issue arguing that we can’t take the Bible as a reliable source on what marriage should be like. Miller also affirmed that neither the Bible nor Jesus explicitly defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Miller’s article was widely criticized for its selective quoting of Bible passages and for simply ignoring much of what Scripture does say about marriage. Newsweek itself acknowledged that her opinions drew thousands of critical e-mails.

The ignorance displayed in the Newsweek article is, however, far from an isolated case. On Dec. 15 the reader’s editor of the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper had to admit that they had confused Mary’s Immaculate Conception with the virgin birth of Jesus in a story published, no less, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The editor also had to admit that, as one priest who wrote to them pointed out, this is a frequent mistake. In fact, seven times in the last 10 years the Guardian has had to publish corrections on this topic.

Another glaring mistake was made July 7, this time by FoxNews, when it was reported that Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, smuggled a consecrated host out of a Mass. The reporter misstated that the host is believed by Catholics «to symbolize the body of Christ.»

Commentators quickly pointed out that the Catholic Church does not believe the Eucharist to be a mere symbol, but to be the true Body of Christ. FoxNews did correct the story, but even so the current version, while acknowledging that Catholics believe it to Christ’s body, says that this comes about when the host is «blessed,» instead of the correct term, «consecrated.»

Getting it

Trying to understand why the media so often get it wrong on religion is the aim of a collection of essays just published: «Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,» (Oxford University Press).

Edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Roberta Green Ahmanson, the book’s foreword starts by noting that many journalists are simply illiterate when it comes to knowing what the Bible contains. Unfortunately, the foreword commented, a journalist with secular blinkers will simply miss out on many of the most important events and trends of our time.

In his contribution, Allen D. Hertzke, professor of political science at Oklahoma University, accused the mainstream press of missing out on one of the great developments in foreign policy in recent times.

Hertzke explained that a new human rights movement arose in the mid ’90s to defend religious freedom and human rights. Important legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress, including the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

He made an in-depth study of the media coverage during the years that the major legislative bills were passed and concluded that the role of the faith-based alliance of groups that were a major force in the process was often misunderstood.

The professor noted, for example, that the New York Times often seemed to struggle to make sense of the legislative processes, often simply characterizing the push as a cause of the «Christian Right,» thus ignoring the role played by the diversity of groups ranging from Jews to Tibetan Buddhists.

Likewise, Hertzke added, the campaign against trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation is another area where religious groups played a pioneering role, only too often overlooked by the media.

Papal focus

Catholic journalist and author Amy Welborn dedicated a chapter in the book to the media’s coverage of the papacy. She reflected on the coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II, the election of Benedict XVI, and the first couple years of the latter’s pontificate.

Frequently, Welborn commented, the secular media’s coverage has been marred by two flaws: first, a lack of knowledge on the subject; second, a reliance on a template for reporting that frames events in the language of contemporary political categories.

One profile of John Paul II published after his death by the Boston Globe described his rule as «authoritarian,» and «disciplinarian.» Many of the journalists, Welborn observed, portrayed John Paul II as «conservative,» and ignored, for example, the pioneering contributions he made in areas such as the theology of the body.

When it came to the election of Benedict XVI, Welborn noted that only too often the media characterized the new Pope as being a hardliner and a disciplinarian. Only as time went by did the secular media get around to presenting a fuller picture.

Welborn did acknowledge that reporting on the Catholic Church is quite a challenge, given the historical depth and complexity of the subject matter. Deepening their knowledge of the Church would be a step forward for journalists covering Catholicism, she argued. This does not mean losing objectivity, but reporting on events in their proper context.

Resisting the temptation to portray every Vatican-related story as a battle between «conservatives» and «liberals» would also be a step forward, Welborn noted.


Terry Mattingly, a reporter and director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges, wrote on the topic of getting religion into the newsrooms.

He also commented on the amazing ignorance by some of the reporters who cover religion. Mattingly observed that he could not imagine that basic mistakes such as those committed in stories on religious matters would be permitted in other areas, such as politics.

Among the examples given by Mattingly were stories that could not even correctly describe the names of churches or denominations, blanket labeling of diverse Christian groups as «fundamentalists,» and completely misunderstanding religious terminology.

This isn’t a religious problem, Mattingly argued, but a journalistic one due to newsrooms often being tone-deaf when it comes to religion — hearing the words but not understanding the music.

Mattingly quoted a posting by the editors of the Washington Post back in 1994, when they were advertising for a religion reporter. The «ideal candidate,» it said, is «not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.»

Of course, he acknowledged, a reporter covering religion should not be chosen on the basis of religious beliefs, but to be a good professional reporter you do need to know the subject matter you are covering.

He recommended a number of things that can be done to improve coverage of religion. Mattingly’s suggestions ranged from editors ensuring that reporters who cover religion receive better training to a need for more diversity in terms of background and beliefs of those who work in newsrooms.

«The media must avoid becoming spokesmen for economic materialism and ethical relativism, true scourges of our time,» wrote Benedict XVI in his message for the World Communications Day celebrated on May 4.

«Instead, they can and must contribute to making known the truth about humanity, and defending it against those who tend to deny or destroy it, » the Pope urged. An essential part of communicating that truth is to get the basic facts right about religion and the Church.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation