Bias flashback: Should religious leaders risk talking to reporters? (A tmatt response)


The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr. wrote a post that included a very strong dose of opinion from a reader. The headline on that post: "Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader."

As you can tell, this is a topic linked to an assumption, and a safe one at that: Many religious leaders are scared to talk to journalists.

Now, why might that be? Why the fear? Here's that reader comment, once again:

It boggles this Catholic’s mind that you are surprised that any of these pastors would talk to the reporter.
This blog has existed on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion. The hero of these pastors, President Trump, paints the press as the enemy rather than a guardian of the people’s right to know. And then you are surprised when that actually manifests itself in the real world.

Ah, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

You see, no one here thinks that the vast majority of news-media pros are "hostile to any kind of religion." To be blunt about it, many journalists don't care enough about religion to work up a decent case of hostility about the subject. Some journalists love some forms of religion and, well, aren't fond of others.

Also, apathy is not hostility. Ignorance is not hostility, either. Some editors are scared to try to cover religion. That isn't hostility, either.

Well, Bobby told readers that I might want to respond at some point. This is rather ironic, since I am currently in Prague, lecturing at the European Journalism Institute at the historic Charles University. My third and final lecture is relevant to this discussion: "The Four Biases that Shape Religion News Coverage."

The quickest way for me to share my thoughts on this complicated topic is to cut and paste a section of an essay that I wrote long, long, long ago for The Quill, published by the Society of Professional Journalists. So here goes.

After nearly two decades of studying this issue, in academic settings and while working in the media, I am convinced four different forms of bias are to blame for this media blind spot.

Update! Make that four-plus decades of studying this issue!

* The bias of space, time and resources. Simply stated: You cannot print a story if you have little space in which to print it, time to write it, or the money to hire a professional to do so.
An example: In 1983 I received a series of anonymous calls from a PTL Club insider. He offered proof of a scandal involving Jim Bakker, but he said we must meet in an airport far from Charlotte. My editors said there were few, if any, funds for religion travel. The source refused a local meeting and signed off by saying: "Just remember this name -- Jessica Hahn."
Many editors insist resources are too thin to support professional religion coverage. But anyone who understands newsrooms knows budgets are windows into the priorities of those who manage them. Budgets help shape news.
* The bias of knowledge. Fact: You cannot write a story if you do not know that it exists.
Recently, I saw a feature article on prayer based on quotes from three small-church pastors in Denver. The newspaper's region included at least four internationally known groups that specialize in prayer ministries, yet their leaders were not quoted. The big question: Did anyone in the newsroom know these groups existed?
Many journalists work hard to become trained political, arts or sports reporters. But editors do not consider it a high priority to hire professional religion writers. Why not?
* This leads to the bias of worldview. Simply stated: It is hard to write a good story if you don't care that it exists. The result is, at best, a blind spot on religious issues, and the people who care about them.
A now infamous case came in February, when The Washington Post printed a story that said evangelical Christians are ``largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.'' A Post correction bluntly said there was ``no factual basis'' for this statement. ...
Post ombudsman Joann Byrd made the following point: ``When journalists aren't like, or don't know, the people they are writing about, they can operate with no ill will whatsoever and still not recognize that a statement doesn't ring true. It may be even harder to see how deeply offensive a common perception can be.''
What's the problem? In the Lichter-Rothman media surveys in the early 1980s, 86 percent of the "media elite" said they rarely if ever attend religious meetings and 50 percent claimed no religion, at all. Polls indicate about 40 percent of the U.S. population regularly attends worship services, while about 90 percent claim some religious affiliation. [tmatt note: Yes, polls are somewhat different now.]
* Finally, there is the bias of prejudice. It's hard to produce balanced, fair coverage of people you dislike, distrust, or whom you feel are irrelevant.
Yes, many on the right like to blame all poor, negative or shallow religion coverage on this fourth bias. They note surveys indicating that about nine out of 10 journalists back abortion rights and a large majority supports gay rights. Journalists insist this does not affect news, but evidence suggests that it does.
I am convinced that the first three biases play greater roles in shaping religion coverage, with the "bias of worldview" being the most important.
The bottom line: A vast majority of Americans, and this is a proven fact, know more about religion, and care more about religion, than most journalists.
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