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Understanding the Media When It Comes to Religion

Panel of experts discusses relationship between religion and media
By Willy Thorn
Catholic News Service

The media have a difficult time reporting on religion because, as Rabbi Jack Moline explained at a July 1 panel held at the National Press Club, "journalists are professional skeptics, while the religious community are professional believers."

Mix that dichotomy with events as severe as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and the warring and upheaval in the Middle-East, and the result is a recipe for conflict.

That topic was explored by the rabbi and four other panelists at a discussion on "Reporting Religion," sponsored by the Freedom Forum's Newseum and the press club.

Rabbi Moline was joined by Ibrahim Hooper, communications director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco, secretary for communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as journalists Hanna Rosin, national enterprise reporter at The Washington Post, and Larry Witham, religion reporter for The Washington Times.

They critiqued the national media's coverage of terrorist attacks, the sex abuse scandal and the crisis in the Mideast and came to some conclusions regarding what is an oftentimes harried relationship between religion and the media.

"Part of the struggle is adapting vocabulary reporters themselves may not be familiar with," Rabbi Moline said. Religions have their own jargon and phraseology, he pointed out, and problems can arise when reporters unfamiliar with the tradition's tenets have to report on them factually, as was the case with many reporters covering Islamic affairs.

"It will continue to be a problem until we're all more educated," Rabbi Moline said.

Rosin said that as a reporter, she thinks writing about religion and issues concerning religion is difficult because one rarely covers "just religion." Most work is done on religion within the context of something else, she said.

"Religion is not a pure thing," she said. "Zionism, for instance, is a religious-political hybrid."

Witham agreed, adding that the media often use this symbiotic relationship to "sell" another story.

"Often, religious stories are actually geopolitical stories," he said. As an example, he referred to the case of the Franciscan-run Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was occupied at length by Palestinian soldiers earlier this year.

"That was actually a military story colored by a situation involving religion," he said. "It sells well," he added, "but it's not good journalism" to promote it as a religion story.

Rabbi Moline labeled the entire situation in the Middle East "political and not religious."

"You'd be hard pressed to identify either Middle Eastern leader as a religious leader," he said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "Both are secular leaders in secular governments."

Hooper quickly pointed out that both leaders often use religious rhetoric, though, and added that "when one side says 'God gave me the land,' it's hard not to frame it as a religious conflict."

He hinted at another problem the media face, when he pointed out that followers of specific faiths tend to look unfavorably upon criticism of their respective institutions.

"There are restrictions on how far you can go in criticizing Israel here in the U.S," he said. "The spectrum of debate is wider in other parts of the world."

Rabbi Moline noted that this conundrum arises because religious people tend to view their church as a perfect institution, run imperfectly by inherently flawed human beings.

Yet another factor that plays into media coverage of religion is what many call a "herd mentality" among media outlets.

Witham said that because the media are so aware of one another, with the average newsroom regularly monitoring the broadcasts of four or five networks during working hours, "it's getting harder to have checks and balances in the newsroom because there are forces that compel the herd mentality" prompting editors and decision makers to ask, "How can we not have it?"

According to Msgr. Maniscalco, that concept played into the media's coverage of the sex scandal currently facing the Catholic Church.

The priest said that although many of the incidents of clergy abuse recently brought to the forefront happened during the '80s and '90s, it was not until the Boston Globe began a series of investigative reports on the issue in January that much of the rest of the media followed suit.

John Geoghan, a defrocked pedophile priest with scores of victims, was tried, convicted and imprisoned for fondling a child in Boston.

"My main complaint is with the historical perspective," Msgr. Maniscalco said.

Witham agreed, asking, "Why was the story broken now and not in 1985 or '90?"

Rosin said she thought "the court situation (with Geoghan) led to the blow-up." The stories were "tabloid news" then, she said, generally about priests.

"Now," she said, "it's a story about the hierarchy and bishops" and how abuse cases have been handled.

All was not lost, though, according to Msgr. Maniscalco.

"We did manage to bring forth the debate on whether those with pasts can be returned to their ministry," he said. "The problem is, we didn't follow up on the news media that did cover the scandals."

Or, as Hooper said, "It's difficult to rearrange the furniture when the house is on fire."