Recently, Terry Mattingly wrote USA Today’s Monday editorial “On Religion.” In his piece he argued that journalists need to “get religion.” He meant that journalists need to learn more about religious beliefs so that they can properly and accurately report religious events, developments, and leaders’ comments. He talked about reporters who don’t know the difference between Episcopalian and Episcopal, who confuse evangelicals with evangelists or even “evangelicalists,” a word that does not exist. In Mattingly’s view, while bias against religion may exist in media, the far greater problem is lack of experience, apathy, or outright ignorance about religious topics.
I agree with Mattingly. On a number of occasions I’ve been asked by reporters what could only be charitably described as ignorant questions—and I work in a locality where religion still plays a fairly prominent role in public life. I’m not alone. Nationally known, highly regarded, and established television broadcast journalists struggled to find the right vocabulary—and frequently failed—to ask Mel Gibson questions about “The Passion of the Christ.” Diane Sawyer of CBS clearly demonstrated she knew very little about biblical theology in her interview with Gibson.
Reporters too often seem more interested in possible controversy, as in “Do you kick out gay students?” than on the facts of a matter. I hear this question each time a reporter interviews me in the wake of a gay student-related story from some neighboring institution of higher learning. Potential or real controversy sells papers and news broadcasts, as in “Cornerstone Considers Dropping Ban on Faculty Vices.” This was the headline last February when CU evaluated its personnel lifestyle statement. No one had used the term vices in the interview, but someone other than the reporter created the headline.
Before I come down too heavily upon journalists, I must add myself to the mix. I don’t, for example, know enough about Islam. I’m reading, and I’m learning. But I have a ways to go.
What journalists first need to grasp is that religion is not just a cultural form like eating, clothing, or dating habits. Religion is not one of the components of a culture. Religion defines a culture. The best definition of culture is Henry Van Til’s from years ago: “Culture is religion externalized.” In other words, a people’s religious paradigm or worldview creates their culture.
Journalists, like many other contemporary Americans, need a couple of crash courses in religion and history and the history of religion. They need to learn that religion is not what a secularizing American culture has claimed during the past four decades. It’s far more resilient, powerful and influential, and permanent. Religion is spiritual, emotional, intellectual, practical, and, yes, political.
Mattingly captured the problem in a nutshell. In a Post-9/11 world, religion is playing a more influential role than ever, so journalists need to “get religion,” perhaps in more ways than one.
Cornerstone University is taking this challenge seriously. CU’s new Media Studies program includes coursework in journalism and broadcasting and, of course, Christian worldview. We want to graduate students who understand the Word of God and understand their times, and who therefore know what they should do.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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