The new NYU Revealer site, on religion and the news, is an extraordinary resource that has come along at the perfect time for me. Jeff Sharlet and co are ddoing an amazing job of gathering the serious and the quirky and presenting it all in a rigerous framework that brings context and analysis.
That’s what religion writing has to offer every other aspect of journalism: The focus on belief. That’s missing even from most religion writing. The “faith pages” languish while news stories revolving around real, actual belief, causing events in the world, occupy the front page.
I said they revolve around real actual belief. That’s what they do. They circle it. Nervously. They dip in, but they never get too close. Part of that is that nobody wants to seem like they’re declaring some truth about God. But what we need to report on is not God or the lack thereof, it’s the way people believe in these things, and what they do about them.
What do they about it? Sometimes, they run for president. Sometimes they feed other people. Sometimes they prey on little kids. Sometimes, they fly planes into buildings. Sometimes what they do defines the public sphere, sometimes, it seems to take place far beyond the public sphere’s boundaries. But that idea that belief is outside the public sphere, that it’s private, exists partly because America remains a largely Protestant country, but more importantly, for our purposes as journalists, because we fail to look for evidence of things not seen.
While part of the way religion is treated is to do with the protestant ethos, it also in large part derives from the ideology of objectivity in journalism. This working method allows journalists to give voice to a range of uncritical sources in complex debates such as gay marriage and adoption. The practice of objectivity perpetuates a natural conflict frame for these debates with spokespeople for gay organisations pitted against moral majority/family first spokespeople. Thus those who might have some evidence based comment to contribute to this debate such as child psychologists, legal scholars or sociologists are marginalised in the false two source balancing act of pitting gays against the religious right.
As well as treating religion as part of the complex fabric of belief in society, journalists must learn to treat relgion critically and call hatred hatred and intollerance, intollerance. This too is part of the fabric of belief. This is the ugly side of belief that is rarely covered in mainstream religion reporting, except when it presents in extreme forms such as Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” group, but the more difficult reality is that the “God Hates Fags” message is preached in much subtler and more insidious ways and these are never addressed.