As editor-in-chief of Religion News Service, Jerome Socolovsky understands the reasons behind the Boston Globe’s recent decision to cut its financial ties with Crux, its 18-month-old website dedicated solely to covering the Catholic Church.
Cutbacks of staff or types of coverage are common in newsrooms today, as is the lopsided nature of readership (Crux’s online audience was robust at about 1 million visitors a month) vs. revenue (not enough for the Globe to continue supporting it — as evidenced from Globe editor Brian McGory’s staff email announcement).
But what Socolovsky hopes news consumers and other journalists understand is what they could lose if faith-focused coverage continues to dwindle.
“(When we lose faith coverage) we lose having a finger on the pulse of what our society values and believes in,” Socolovsky said. “While mainstream outlets do cover religion, religion reporters are tasked with asking deeper questions core to our being. Why are we here? What do we believe in?”
As mainstream media outlets like the Boston Globe or the Huffington Post cut back on religion coverage and faith-focused outlets have to partner with the churches they cover to survive (Crux will partner with the Catholic church’s fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus), the public could lose a deeper understanding of different religions.
And that is problematic, because understanding religion is key to understanding just about anything in today’s world — from the complicated origins of terrorism to the 2016 presidential race, said Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project director Diane L. Moore.
“A better understanding of religion is incredibly important to understanding the state of affairs, but most media have the same general lack of knowledge most citizens have around world religions,” Moore said. “The complexity of religion is important to promote and explore because without it, we wind up promoting this ‘us vs. them’ mindset that is, frankly, ripping our democracy apart.”
‘Caricatures of faith’
The reason many media outlets tend to generalize religious beliefs (and, indirectly, perpetuate religious stereotypes) is because most media look at the world through a secular lens, priding itself on facts and proof rather than the mysterious nature of belief of faith, says religious tolerance and faith scholar Jill Carroll.
“Mainstream outlets like the Boston Globe or the New York Times sometimes do well in covering religion, but often they don’t and it’s simply because they aren’t literate about religion. Most of us don’t get any education about religion outside our own faith group,” Carroll said. “When they get it wrong, they’re disseminating inaccurate information that leads to stereotyping and an uninformed public.”
Usually, journalistic distance from an issue is a good thing, Socolovsky said, but not in this case.
“Journalism is a craft where it’s often better not to know too much because then you ask questions with more informative answers,” Socolovsky said. “But religion journalism is different. There are nuances people need to understand that ordinary reporters don’t always know how to get to if they don’t have a good understanding of the institutions they’re covering.”
Former Huffington Post religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem says most secular media outlets do little to help their readers understand the complex beliefs that make up the world’s faith groups, even when they cover issues related to religious beliefs.
“We see this a lot right now in the election, especially with Evangelicals — when reporters don’t have experience with religion, you get caricatures of faith groups,” Kaleem said.
Yet even when media outlets try to be more accurate to avoid generalizations, the results are often confusing. Carroll points to media outlets adopting the term “Islamist” vs. “Islamic” to differentiate between post-9/11 terrorist groups from the greater Muslim population as one example. “Islamist” refers to a specific political philosophy among some Muslims, while “Islamic” is a descriptor for the entire Muslim population, their culture and the countries where Islam is the dominant religion. An important distinction, but not one readers are likely to notice or understand.
Moore says faith-focused media outlets naturally promote religious literacy and tolerance because they aren’t so focused on separating religion from other parts of life.
“We have this notion that religion is in this separate sphere from other parts of human experience,” Moore said. “But people don’t leave their religion and beliefs at the door when they leave the house every morning.”
Where ignorance about religion goes, bigotry usually follows, Kaleem said — another reason the more nuanced faith coverage from religion publications is so needed.
“Understanding religion is key to understanding people,” Kaleem said. “When you don’t understand your religion or the religion of others, things can get really bad. The best example right now is ISIS.”
It’s a problem Carroll has encountered countless times since 9/11 while on the lecture circuit — people whose knowledge of the Muslim world ends with articles about terrorist groups who claim their violence is a justified cornerstone of Islam.
“Why is Islam so violent? What god does Islam worship? Why did Mohammed preach violence — I get it all the time,” Carroll said. “You get these stereotypes going and that’s how you get really intelligent people who just don’t know anything about the world’s religions.”
The issue of ignorance about religion leading to intolerance extends beyond Islam. There’s plenty of religious intolerance surrounding Christians, especially Evangelicals.
“Based on (mainstream secular) political coverage, you’d think America had never seen an Evangelical Christian before Jerry Falwell — but they’ve been a political force for all kinds of causes since the 19th century and even before that,” Carroll said.
“There’s a tendency to say, ‘Evangelicals believe this, they oppose this’ — They, they, they, as though there’s this Christian monolith,” Moore said. “When we do that, we do a terrible disservice to them, but also a terrible job of recognizing the richness of some ideas behind the political issues of our time.”
Moore and Carroll know that the problem of ignorance and stereotyping surrounding religion isn’t limited to secular media outlets. They agree that religious education should start in the classroom — something many Americans are vehemently opposed to.
“We expect and look to journalism to help us and teach us what we need to know about the world, but it’s not the media’s job to educate us in a sophisticated way about religion and faith,” Moore said. “Teachers should do that.”
“What we need is for schools to teach about religion, just as you teach about Africa or about Shakespeare or about anything else,” Carroll said. “Religion is a huge part of human life. Life doesn’t make sense if you don’t teach that.”
Moore says anyone looking for proof that America could use more religious literacy need only watch some coverage of the 2016 presidential race, where political issues are boiled down to mere opinion rather than a defending of values that likely, in some way, stem from faith.
“When we give credence to oversimplification, wherever it is, we create these walls and sense of all or nothing with every question,” Moore said. “You cannot function with that mindset in a democracy and you can see we’re not functioning well right now.”