Do you know the name of the author and publisher of the Book of Ephesians? Do all Mormons practice polygamy? What about the two major branches of Islam?
Apparently, many journalists don’t know the answers to these questions either. (That first one was a real question asked by a journalist to Michael Cromartie, of the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.) Given how much religion informs the lives of most people on the planet, and our news, it is a bit astounding to realize that most journalists are only vaguely familiar with religions and religious topics, unless that is their “beat.” The Ethics and Public Policy Center is trying to help close the gap in knowledge for reporters by hosting a series of conferences (entitled the Faith Angle Forum) on faith and media.
Largely the brain-child of Cromartie, the conferences aim to bring together journalists and religious experts, creating what he calls “robust dialogue.”
Theological concepts like sin and repentance, as it turns out, have a very practical application in the news business. Atlantic political reporter Molly Ball asks a pointed question: “How do we afford these people their human capacity for absolution, while also not letting them off the hook?” Jones describes what real atonement looks like, citing Watergate-conspirator-turned-prison-evangelist Chuck Colson as an example.
“I found the session about forgiveness enormously helpful as a human being,” says Will Saletan afterward. A writer on “politics, science, technology, and other stuff” at Slate and the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, he comments that “it was interesting to be exposed to a wisdom that we can all relate to and share, and maybe begin to associate that with religion instead of associating religion with some political movement.”
The Forum tries to stay as current as possible. For instance, understanding the Mormon faith took center-stage in the news business with Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential bid.
Ignorance of religious issues isn’t strictly an American issue. BBC journalist Edward Stourton believes lack of knowledge about religion hurts his nation’s coverage of news both inside and outside of Great Britain.
He highlighted coverage of the Ukraine crisis, the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria as examples of stories which would be covered better with more understanding of religion.
“I do think that there is a problem with British culture… in the way that we treat religion as a sort of curious ‘ghetto’-like thing,” he told Press Gazette.
Stourton cited the death of St. John Paul II as a total “mis-read” of news and religion in Great Britain:
“One thing I noticed when I was covering John Paul II’s death and funeral is that… the BBC’s always full of different strands of opinion, and there was a strand of opinion: ‘Old Pole dead, come home now.’
“And then several million people would turn up to his funeral, and people would say: ‘Oh blimey, this is quite a big story.’”
One of the aims of the Faith Angle Forum is to allow participants time to talk with religious leaders, ask in-depth questions and explore areas in an “intimate setting” that steers away from caricature and focuses on facts. In the United States, we value our free press. We should also value an accurate press, and should hold the press accountable for inaccuracies when reporting about religion, just as we would if they are reporting about a news event or a scientific finding.