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    Media Sensationalism and Its Effects PDF Print E-mail

    Larry Moffit, Tiempos Del Mundo

    delivered at the
    International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
    "Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
    October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

    As Chairman of Vanderbilt University’s Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Jimmy Carter’s statement that he was a "born-again Christian" disturbed millions of Americans who, like the unknowing political reporters, wondered, "whether the former governor of Georgia was some sort of religious nut." They wondered, "Did Carter think that God spoke to him? Did he think that his born-again experience gave him a relationship with God that other believers did not have? Did it mean that he thought he was saved and that others who were not born again were lost?" They didn’t know how to handle his declaration and they asked him foolish questions like, "Approximately how many times a day do you think about God?" Mr. Carter’s answer was 25 or more.

    Journalism’s discomfort around religion, sometimes drifting to outright disdain, is embarrassingly pervasive throughout our profession. The Washington Post, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Washington DC, on their front page, characterized evangelical Protestants as being largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command. Syndicated newspaper columnist Cal Thomas makes reference to religious people being given "intellectually pre-assigned seating on the back of the bus" and decries

    a raging, unforgiving, imposing, intolerant, arrogant, secularism that claims that any idea or authority that comes from the source higher than the mind of humankind is to be a priori overruled as unconstitutional, immoral, illegal, and ignorant.

    What theologian and author Richard John Neuhaus calls the sensitivity patrol, that is those who are ever vigilant to protect the image of races, classes, and sexes in the media,

    turn a blind eye when it comes to beating up our religions. Not all religions, mind you. [Mainline] Protestantism escapes bashing because it is deemed to be neither interesting nor dangerous. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is both interesting and dangerous. They have all these wonderfully spooky things: candles, confessionals, masses, exorcisms, saints, nuns, monks, and a Pope who claims to speak infallibly about something called absolute truth.

    For all its self-promotion about being a land of the free, the United States has a disturbing history of religious intolerance, particularly for the Catholic Church.

    As an example, how the Catholic Church was portrayed in the US media was the focus of an extensive study covering three five-year periods, extending from 1964 to 1988. The study showed that the press tends to cover theological issues the same way they do secular political stories, that is, externally, pro and con. As a result, there emerged a clear pattern of portraying most of these issues as external, political conflicts between an old calcified church hierarchy and young, fresh, vibrant voices of dissent. It was the Pope and bishops versus the lower level clergy, lay Catholics, and non-Catholics. The television medium has proven to be terribly limited, unfortunately, in that it tends to boil things down into information bites easily digested by the eyes and ears. This is a problem especially regarding religion, whose issues are rooted in centuries of tradition and are often too esoterically layered to render very well on television.

    The bite-sized format of the electronic press invites participants of opposing views to play to the camera with one-liners that foster intractability. Rather than being a disinterested observer, the press or media news coverage better serves to exacerbate each side’s intolerance of the other side’s position. Television journalists in South Africa, before apartheid was repealed, told me all they had to do in order to get footage of civil arrests on a given day on demand, was to show up on certain street corners in Soweto with a video camera and a microphone. A crowd of children would gather and immediately start pelting cars with rocks or setting old cars on fire. They knew what television wanted.

    In 1980 doctors Robert Victor and Stanley Rothman interviewed 240 journalists working for seven major media organizations in Washington and New York. Eighty-six percent of those interviewed said they seldom or never attend religious services. The implication is that journalists are overwhelmingly less inclined toward religious beliefs than the general population. On the other hand, another survey of journalists conducted a decade after Victor-Rothman takes serious issue with the earlier study. John Dart, the religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, and Jimmy Allen, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, criticized the Victor-Rothman study as being a too small sampling of but one breed of journalist, that is, those at the pinnacle of the national level in the United States.

    It may be, however, that being a survey of the media elite is exactly what made the Victor-Rothman sampling such a revealing piece of research. The study shows a startling lack of religious orientation among a handful of people at the top of America’s media pyramid. These are the people who create the national agenda of issues and who significantly shape the opinion of journalists and other organizations. Furthermore, their written articles and broadcasts are archived in electronic retrieval systems. Whether accurate or false, they assume immortality as the information they contain, is used again and again, year after year, by other reporters.

    Dart and Allen actually end up being somewhat supportive of Victor-Rothman, although perhaps unintentionally so, in that they further substantiate significant gaps separating journalists and clergy. Dart and Allen found that an unhealthy distrust exists between religionists and journalists, even a fear of each other in many cases. Religious figures fear being misunderstood and misrepresented. Journalists fear making mistakes and incurring religious wrath. The resulting apprehensions inhibit the free flow of information and only add to misunderstanding.

    How devout is the average person in the United States? A lot more than one would think. If one can believe the findings of Gallup and other polling organizations, Americans are certainly more devout than the impression gleaned from a perusal of the movies and music of US popular culture

    According to Dr. Thomas Reeves, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, in 1988 the highly respected Gallup organization reported that nine Americans in ten said they never doubted the existence of God. Eight in ten said they believe they will be called before God on judgment day to answer for their sins. Eight in ten believed that God still works miracles, and seven in ten believe in life after death. More than 90 percent prayed. Eighty-eight percent believed that God loves them. A mere eight percent of Americans were without a religious preference. Yet even these eight percent, according to Gallup, expressed a surprising degree of interest in religion and religious belief. Dr. Reeves concludes by asking, "How can that much faith exist in a secular society?"

    Obviously, one needs to read between the lines on opinion surveys. In spite of overwhelming lip service to moral values as expressed in the various opinion polls, religious leaders such as the Protestant, Baptist evangelist Billy Graham, Roman Catholic theologian Father Avery Dulles, and Jewish scholar David C. Stalinsky have declared on numerous occasions that the United States is definitely not a Christian or religious society and that a festering spirit of moral decay infuses our popular culture to an extent that endangers the safety of our lives and even of democracy itself.

    President Bill Clinton said on a religious cable television interview program, "If I didn’t believe in God, if I weren’t a Christian, my life would have been much more difficult." The difficulties in President Clinton’s life have greatly increased precisely because of the problem of deeds being inconsistent with words. But if you were to judge him solely by his answers to any one of these surveys, President Clinton would, without a doubt, show up in the ranks of the most devout, praying, Jesus-committed, faithful, judgment day-expecting, church-attending Christians. A paradox, a cognitive disconnect of enormous proportions, begins to emerge.

    So next time you come across a survey that proves how faithful we members of the media are, and how much we cherish the sacred, say to yourself, "That is fine, but does it manifest into anything meaningful in the real world?" In the real world priests and clergy are routinely portrayed by the media in movies and television as clearly less than pious, often comic figures. All without much of a cry of protest being raised by Gallup’s praying and worshipping 90 percent of the population. Those 80 percent who expect to have to answer to God on judgment day are seemingly without power in the face of television sitcoms which portray them as victims of a dementia called religious belief that is at best naive and at worst dangerous and life threatening.

    So what does this teach us? It teaches us that the news media doesn’t deal very well with things that don’t show up on film or that can’t be verified with receipts. People of faith, on the other hand, routinely traffic in things they understand to be true but can’t see, hear, smell, touch, or taste, and whose existence cannot be proven. Religion is complex, filled with inconsistencies, paradoxes and schisms. It is highly intuitive and is slightly different to each person. It is not hard to understand why the simple teachings of one man, Jesus of Nazareth, could spin off to 400 or 500 different Christian denominations and sects in 2,000 years.

    The search for news and the search for God use methodologies that couldn’t be more opposite. Religion’s ongoing mission to judge sin, redeem lost souls, lift up the poor in spirit is difficult for a journalist to cover to the satisfaction of that religion’s practitioners without it looking like the journalist is advocating that faith. Since every story has two sides, the journalist feels compelled by his professional training to interview at least one or two dissatisfied and resentful former members or other critics of whatever the church claims. Religious people who look for media coverage need to learn to live with journalism’s methodology and understand that it is intrinsic in the culture of the media that they would look more askance at a President like Jimmy Carter who thinks about God 25 times a day than at a President like Bill Clinton who thinks about other things 25 times a day.

    Coverage of new religions, "cults" to many, is also something the media doesn’t do particularly well. Sometimes an entire body of believers runs afoul of the law in a dramatic and sensational manner. We saw this with the mass suicides of Jonestown, Guyana, the Branch Davidians of David Koresh of Waco, Texas, and the suicide of the Heaven’s Gate group in Southern California. It doesn’t take many of these episodes for the public to view any religion whose founding prophet is currently living as being one of these dangerous ilk.

    Today’s news media would have enjoyed covering the ministry of Jesus at its beginning. Footage of his cult of devotees laying down palm trees for him to walk over as he entered Jerusalem would have been the lead story on the 6 o’clock news. When he started a one-man riot at the temple, driving out the vendors—people, by the way, who had a perfectly legal right to be there—it would have made sensational television. A sound bite to enrage the world would have been recorded if television could have been there to tape Jesus telling his followers,

    Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword, for I came to set a man against his father. He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

    If God gives you a revelation to start a new religion, you would be well advised to buy your own television station, start your own newspaper, create your own forum. The mainstream mass communication media are not your friend. Under normal conditions we will not help you. Even for you mainstream leaders of long-established faiths, we in the media have a disturbing predilection to begin our newscast with the account of the one in ten thousand of your clergy who steps outside the bounds of law or human decency. Why? Because we know what sells newspapers and what attracts viewers, who in turn attract advertisers, who attract money.

    Sad to say, but the surest way to avoid having the media create a sense of stigma about your religious beliefs, and further separate you from society, is for them to ignore you completely and let you quietly be about your Father’s business. Unfortunately, ignoring you also hurts, because religion in the information age needs mass media. The communication media are the highways to the marketplace of ideas, and religion is, first and foremost, ideas. In the modern world it is essential for religion to have fair and widespread media coverage in order for a society to maintain and place a high value on the freedom of religion. To paraphrase the well-known philosophical question: if the tree falls in the forest and there is no television news team to film it, does it make any noise? The answer in the age of information is, no, it doesn’t.

    There are perhaps some signs that media and religion recognize the value of one another if one wants to interpret things positively. ABC television news anchor Peter Jennings is one of the many leading journalists who now realize the media’s shortcomings in reporting on religion. He said, "I have only recently come to understand how complicated and inadequate and occasionally horrifying media coverage of religion has been."

    I would venture to say that in the overwhelming majority of newsrooms in America, there is an appalling ignorance of religion and faith.

    Occasionally, to our credit, we in the mass media will run a story of a believer like Father O’Malley turning a hardened street gang of boys into St. Dominic’s choir. There are plenty of those people out there, the good shepherds. As the networks and outlying stations continue to yield to pressure to assign religion as a full-time beat, it is hoped that reporters will spend more time telling their stories. Journalism school should require their students to take a few courses outside the traditional journalism curriculum, like comparative religions, constitutional law, philosophy, and accounting. Theological seminaries should require basic courses in electronic and print journalism. Most still don’t, but they are at least talking about it.

    To live and work in a public forum without polished media skills is to invite public misunderstanding through commission of the information age’s mortal sin, the failure to communicate well. Realizing this, the administrators of some religious organizations are finally beginning to allow their public information offices to budget for the training of spokespersons in sound bite 101, the art of looking and sounding credible on camera and in print.

    Now these hopeful indicators are not meant to suggest that the mutually alien life forms of religion and media are ready to start their honeymoon. Or even that tension between the two will disappear. These are at best small steps forward. At the end of the day, however, there is some confluence of the two, if only stemming from the fact that there is at least one shrine in which they do cohabit. Media and religion both embrace as their sacred mission the search for truth.