Does the Media Need to Be Schooled in Religion?
Religion & Liberty Online

Does the Media Need to Be Schooled in Religion?

Nobody can know everything about everything, but in the age of the internet, fact-checking isn’t too tough. It’s one thing for a high-school student to attempt to slide by on “facts” in a research paper for sophomore social studies, but another when professional journalists make errors about easily investigated pieces of knowledge.

Lately, the media has been getting blasted for getting the facts wrong about religion. Carl M. Cannon:

The upshot during Holy Week this year was a spate of news reports so inaccurate and off-key that they comprised a kind of impromptu “Gong Show.”

In the not so distant past, the installation of the first-ever pontiff from the Americas would have been hailed in the press — and not only by Catholic reporters — as a momentous breakthrough. There was some of that coverage when Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio ascended to the papacy last month. There was also this: a Huffington Post headline blasting the new pope’s opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and contraception — longtime Catholic doctrine, in other words — accompanied by this kicker: “Accused of Conspiring with Murderous Junta in Priest Kidnapping.”

In the new media environment, a sole source who alleges that Pope Francis was too cozy with the murderous generals who controlled Argentina in the 1970s gets equal billing with persecuted priests who were actually aided by that future pope and a Human Rights Watch report dismissing the allegation against him as untrue.

These days, even when the best news organizations attempt to cover religion insightfully and sensitively, Bible illiteracy taints the effort. On Easter, “CBS Sunday Morning” aired a deeply respectful 7½-minute segment on the Virgin Mary. But that report was marred by the erroneous declaration by the reporter that John the Baptist was present at Jesus’ crucifixion.

Easter Sunday was also flummoxing editors at the New York Times. In its coverage of Francis’ first papal address, the Times wrote the following paragraph:

Easter is the celebration of the resurrection into heaven of Jesus, three days after he was crucified, the premise for the Christian belief in an everlasting life. In urging peace, Francis called on Jesus to “change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.”

The first sentence, perhaps added by an editor in the home office, is wrong, as numerous readers pointed out. If three major theological errors in a 27-word sentence isn’t a record, it ought to be. And in its ensuing correction, the Times’ corrected only one of them, thus opening itself to ridicule.

One used to be able to say that such things were “common knowledge”, but in our increasingly-secular society, this is not true for anyone, including journalists. Only about half of Americans know that the “Golden Rule” is not one of the Ten Commandments, the name of Islam’s holy book, or what religion the Dalai Lama is identified with. That doesn’t let journalists off the hook for reporting errors; it just means that they are on track with everyone else in society.

Would hiring more people who practice a religion be the answer? Probably not; personal religious commitment doesn’t necessarily correlate with religious knowledge in general, meaning that even if a reporter is a practicing “anything”, it wouldn’t necessarily mean he’d be a better reporter on religious topics. What does help with religious knowledge? Reading, studying and talking about religion (stunning, isn’t it?)

The answer for journalistic integrity in reporting on religion is the same for every other topic: do your homework, check your facts,  remain professional, and study the topic you’ve been assigned. Do it again. Then write your story. That way, journalists won’t be telling us that Easter is about the Ascension or that the pope is “cracking down” on American nuns. They’ll get their stories straight.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.