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The greatest story never told

At a time when belief plays a critical role in world affairs, religion reporting is being exiled to the margins of the mainstream media

By Samantha Rideout

On a December night a few years back, CBC reporter Liz Faure was assigned to visit a Montreal mosque that was preparing a Christmas dinner for the men at a nearby homeless shelter. “It was a feel-good little story for an admittedly slow news day,” she says. “Even though it wasn’t their holiday, [the congregants] wanted to spread some cheer to their neighbours who did celebrate Christmas.”

Faure arrived to find the mosque volunteers in the midst of last-minute meal preparations. Also present was a photographer from another news outlet, who asked if everyone could kneel on the floor as if in prayer. The Muslims resisted this request, saying that it wasn’t one of their five daily prayer times. “And obviously this guy didn’t know what an intimate thing prayer can be; how it’s not necessarily something people would want to act out for a photo op,” Faure says.

This was just a minor misstep, but it illustrates how tricky even the simplest religion assignments can prove for the unprepared reporter. “It’s sort of like if you’re a complete hockey neophyte, and I throw you into covering the Stanley Cup finals,” says Joyce Smith, a journalism professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “If you don’t know the rules or the players or anything, you’re going to struggle.”

Smith teaches a course on religion reporting for advanced Ryerson journalism students. After debuting in 2011, it will be offered for the second time this winter. The interim semesters saw a rotation of courses on other news topics such as business, sports, the arts and politics. But religion is probably the most neglected of all these subjects.

“My joke,” says Smith, who has been interested in faith issues ever since she wrote a PhD dissertation on the coverage of religion surrounding Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa, “is that one of my students will become an editor and hire me to cover the beat.” She then adds more seriously, “I wish there were more people on it.”

Religion and spirituality have been marginal journalistic topics in Canada for decades. Although many North American newspapers had “church pages” in the first half of the 20th century, these generally ran only on weekends and consisted of what the Encyclopedia of American Journalism describes as “simple stories about local people and events such as announcements of the topics for Sunday sermons.”

With religion scribes relegated to writing about congregational activities, “reporters from other beats covered national and international stories about religion, but usually only on those relatively rare occasions when religion inserted itself into issues in such a way that it could not be ignored.”

Perhaps this ongoing gap in coverage is the reason why Canada has a rich tradition of religious media. There are currently dozens of religiously affiliated broadcast shows and publications, The United Church Observer included.

Meanwhile in the mainstream media, the church pages are gone, along with most of the religion reporters, such as they were. In their place, the CBC has Tapestry, a Sunday-afternoon show about the search for life’s meaning, while the Globe and Mail has an occasional “faith exchange,” where a panel of religious leaders and thinkers weigh in on topical issues. Within the hard-news arena, Douglas Todd at the Vancouver Sun and the National Post’s Charles Lewis are among the few staff reporters who cover the beat full time.

Yet religion plays as great a role as ever in world events. To see this firsthand, says Smith, take a highlighter to any of Canada’s major newspapers. Mark all the stories that have a religion component, and you’ll end up with a sizable chunk of the headlines in yellow.

An ordinary news day last fall bears out this prediction. There’s Pope Francis’s meeting with anti-fracking activists, the latest opinion pieces about Quebec’s controversial charter of values, a story about Israeli settlers setting fire to a Palestinian home, a Catholic school board in Ontario debating whether to admit non-Catholic elementary students, reports on a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, and even a mention of scientology in the celebrity gossip pages.

Most of these stories, however, skim over the religious component. Few pieces on the Charter of Quebec Values, for example, consider why some citizens feel strongly about wearing hijabs or turbans in the first place. The Israeli West Bank settlements that continually get in the way of the Middle East peace process are more often described in geopolitical terms than as the direct result of the beliefs of religious hardliners. And more than 12 years after 9/11, the religious motivations of Islamic extremists remain vague to the general news consumer. “Reporters tend to be more comfortable covering stories from an economic, political or soft news angle,” says David Haskell, a journalism professor at Wilfrid Laurier University with a research interest in Christianity and the media. “If you’re not personally interested in something, it’s going to get less attention in your story.”

This gap is unfortunate, because faith often plays a role in answering the question why, one of journalism’s “five Ws.” “Religion shapes people’s actions and reactions . . . across the range of news and features,” says a manual published by Religion Newswriters, a North American professional association based in Missouri. “Without it, you’re often not getting the whole story.”

The specific consequences of omitting the religious angle from the news were explored in the 2008 essay collection Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion. One chapter describes how the media analyzed Saddam Hussein’s military resources extensively during the lead-up to the Iraq war but failed to examine the country’s religious landscape until after the American invasion was well under way. This oversight prevented them from predicting some of the tensions and violence that followed.

Charles Lewis sounds gruff over the phone when asked why he has so few counterparts at other Canadian mainstream news outlets. He points to his blog on the National Post’s website, where he has written, “I think religion has been largely neglected as a serious topic of journalism out of an anti-religious bias. . . . Today there are two billion Christians in the world and one billion Muslims. . . . Religious people vote, pay taxes, work, contribute to society, volunteer and run many of the world’s great social agencies. To say that their views have no place in ‘secular society’ is seriously misguided.”

Joyce Smith has a differing theory: that the religious component of stories is neglected not so much out of scorn for religion as out of a failure to notice it at all. “Many people who don’t have any religion background in either academic studies or personal experience find it hard to recognize religiosity when they see it,” she says. “So I’m helping my students develop an antenna for it — to observe, say, a decoration in a home or to ask a source why they used the word ‘miracle.’”

The goal is not to make value judgments or to enter theological debates about unseen realities, both of which fall outside the scope of secular news reporting. But it should be considered perfectly legitimate, Smith says, for journalists to ask what people believe, why they believe it and how it affects their behaviour.

Last July, a Globe and Mail editorial actually applied these questions to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with interesting results. Harper belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, but he “has not pursued a strong social conservative agenda, undercutting the notion that his government is beholden to theocons,” wrote columnist Lawrence Martin. However, “the Conservatives’ positions on research, statistics, environmental assessment, pipeline opponents, climate change and so on leads many to wonder . . . [if Harper shares] evangelicals’ climate skepticism, their distrust of mainstream science and their view of libertarian economics as God’s will.”

Some might feel that Harper’s religious views are too private for the news. When U.S. President Barack Obama left a handwritten prayer at the Western Wall in 2008, an Israeli newspaper was heavily criticized for retrieving and publishing it. “The notes placed between the stones . . . are between a person and his maker,” said Shmuel Rabinovitz, the rabbi who oversees the Jerusalem holy site.

Martin agrees that there are times when religious privacy should be respected, but also argues that if journalists always treat religion as a purely private matter, they’ll inadvertently hide the influence it has in society, preventing citizens from making fully informed assessments. If policy-making “is being motivated by religious faith . . . it is cause for debate,” he insists.

Silvet Ali knew she was entering hot-button territory when she took up a story last summer at the CBC Radio show Daybreak Montreal about arranged marriages in the city’s South Asian communities. But the young Pakistani Canadian reporter was motivated to take her listeners past any knee-jerk reactions.

“I grew up in a sort of bubble,” she says, “where everyone seemed to be familiar with Islam. But obviously once I got out into the world, I discovered that even a lot of highly educated people know next to nothing about it. So it’s been a goal of mine ever since 9/11 to help people understand my community better. Not to proselytize, but just to make others see that these are regular people who happen to have religion.”

Ali’s sources for her story included a woman who quoted the Qur’an in explaining why she had let her parents choose a husband for her. There was also a matchmaker who offered some secular justifications for the practice, a happily married arranged couple and a woman who felt “used” by her marriage. “The listeners wouldn’t necessarily come away thinking that arranged marriage is a great thing,” Ali says, “but their opinions would now be informed ones.”

And that’s the point of such reports. Canadians can benefit from understanding the various religious ideas and actions within society, according to Smith — even those they find unpalatable. “As an analogy,” she says, “I might really hate what certain political parties stand for, but if I don’t understand them and the reasons why they hold their positions, then I can’t, for instance, argue effectively against them.”

As Smith’s example suggests, bolstering the amount of religion reporting in secular media would fulfil a different function from that of religious media. The latter are vital for letting people know what’s going on in their own faith communities. But the wide reach of the mainstream media has the potential to keep us all at least modestly informed about one another’s communities.

The Religion Newswriters manual cautions journalists against seeing themselves primarily as peacemakers, though. Their first duty is to the truth, which isn’t always a story of love and harmony. But “in presenting reality . . . honestly and realistically, sometimes the press can advance understanding, and even respect, between groups,” it concludes. “And that can’t be a bad result.”

Samantha Rideout is a journalist in Montreal.

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