Soon after the founding of GetReligion -- we’re talking Feb. 1, 2004 -- the leaders of The New York Times did a remarkable and candid thing.
Responding to a series of stunning setbacks (see the classic book “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin), including a plagiarism scandal that forced the resignation of the Gray Lady’s top editors, the newspaper set up an independent panel to investigate what went wrong. The result was a document called “Preserving our Readers’ Trust” that, in my opinion, is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 2005.
A major theme in the panel’s work was the need for more cultural and intellectual diversity in the Times newsroom -- especially when covering complex topics such as religion. For example, when most of the professionals in a newsroom share what they believe is an urban, tolerant, informed view of the world, they may not see their own blind spots.
Consider, for example, the power of labels. Here is a passage from the Times report that your GetReligionistas have shared in the past. This is not the only passage in the document that links religion-news coverage with this issue and others related to it:
Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.
We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.
The term "moderate" is especially crucial when used in coverage of religion. Ask Muslims what they think of some of the labels that are often attached to their community.