BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
BLIND SPOT: When Journalists Don't Get Religion
, June 26, 2010
Knowledge gap in mainstream media
BLIND SPOT: When Journalists Don't Get Religion
Edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Roberta Green Ahmanson
(New York: Oxford University Press)
Paperback: 240 pages
Rec. price: AUD$39.90
Reviewed by John Barich
For years I have been looking for a book that exposes one of the big gaps in our media. Blind Spot is it.
It explains how much of the media are not able to interpret many world events because they have an inadequate knowledge of the world religions.
They have a predilection for secularism, which G.K. Chesterton called "a taboo of tact or convention, whereby we are free to say that a man does this or that because of his nationality, or his profession, or his place of residence, or his hobby, but not because of his creed about the very cosmos in which he lives".
CNN political analyst William Schneider has said: "On the national level, the press is one of the most secular institutions in American society.
"It just doesn't get religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction. The press is not necessarily contemptuous of serious religion. It's just uncomprehending."
The authors claim that the "purpose of this book is not to make journalists or others into believers, or to convince them or anyone else that religion is good: in fact, most of the authors think that religion can be good or bad. Their concern is to emphasise that religion is important even in secular news, so that it is vital for journalists to take religion seriously and to know about it in order to properly report the news.
They also want to emphasise that religious beliefs and practices are usually varied and complex, which means that learning about them will take some work, but such work is indispensable to good journalism."
The left-wing Indian historian K.N. Panikkar predicted that Christianity throughout Asia and Africa would collapse once the coercive pressures of Western colonialism were removed.
Ten years later, devout Catholic Solidarity workers in Poland and Kalashnikov-wielding mujahideen in Afghanistan helped defeat atheistic Soviet communism, leading French political scientist Gilles Kepel to observe that it was more accurate to talk about the "revenge of God" than about the death of God.
After yet another decade, 19 hijackers transformed world politics and the strategic priorities of the world's most powerful state by crashing passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, crying "Allah is great!" as they did so.
At the beginning of the 21st century, nearly 64 per cent of the world's people belonged to one of the four major religious groups.
The World Value Survey and the European Values Survey suggest that levels of religiosity are not only high but increasing in most of the world.
Religious issues and individuals are increasingly shaping the public agenda in "secular" Japan and Canada as well.
In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced in 2005 that it would try to change the constitution to relax the traditional separation of religion and state - mostly in order to deflect domestic criticism of the prime minister's regular visits to Yasukuni, the controversial Shinto shrine for Japanese war dead.
In Canada the country's prime minister since January 2006, Stephen Harper, is an evangelical and arguably the country's most openly religious politician in decades.
Prime Minister Rudd and Tony Abbott have not been exactly ashamed of their religiosity.
Far from stamping out religion, modernisation has spawned a new generation of religious movements - Wahhabi Islam, evangelical Protestantism and the Catholic lay ecclesial movements, Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation (CL).
Contrary to the influential scholarly theories of the 1950s and 1960s, religion plays an independent and powerful role in how people view themselves and how states conduct their affairs.
Contrary to the assumptions behind recent US foreign policy practice, promoting democracy may actually increase the role of religion - including extreme religious beliefs - in politics throughout the world, as has been seen recently in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Religion is winning in global politics. And modernisation, democratisation, and globalisation, paradoxically, have only made it more potent.
Al Qaeda has often referred to Americans as Crusaders, but the media rarely mention this, preferring to refer to radical Islam's attack on Western values. Al Qaeda also once called for East Timor, which is 80 per cent Catholic, to remain Indonesian and Muslim.
In reporting events focusing on Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the secular media have been hampered by their reporters' lack of knowledge or long-term immersion in the subject as well as reliance on a template which sets the events in political rather than spiritual categories.
The media's failure to grasp the importance of John Paul II's pioneering work on the theology of the body, which integrates sexual behaviour, marriage and fertility and the comprehensive teachings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, makes their reporting seriously inadequate.
Amy Welborn, who has written for the Catholic press for many years, contributes a chapter on the media's treatment of the Catholic Church. She provides case studies, identifying new movements which have sprung up within the Catholic Church - Opus Dei, the Community of Sant'Egidio, Communion and Liberation, the NeoCatechumenate Way and Focolare - and with, of course, the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and our own National Civic Council still soldiering on.
A major failure of the media was the negative reporting of Mel Gibson's 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, which was an astounding commercial success.
One veteran journalist has admitted that mainstream reporters are different from mainstream America.
The media, in reporting that as a rule Catholic priests are not married, have failed to mention Eastern Rite Catholic priests who are allowed to marry, not to mention former Anglican priests who remain married when they become Catholic priests.
The media have also mistakenly reported that paedophilia is abnormally high amongst the clergy, when in fact it is much lower than in other professions, e.g., teachers, lawyers, social workers, youth leaders and so on.
When Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards, the media had not expected this to happen despite increasing tension between the Indian Government and Sikhs.
Blind Spot argues that, for roughly a half-century now, leading journalists and top media outlets, print and electronic, have frequently missed or misconstrued just about every significant story about religion in everyday life, about religion and science, about religion and politics at home, and about religion in world affairs.
This at a time when scholars, including Pennsylvania State University's Philip Jenkins, have documented that traditional Christianity is the world's fastest growing religion. Secular Europe is the exception in the 21st century, not the rule.
John Barich is Western Australian state president of the National Civic Council.