Blind Spot Religion

“It's not often that I let out a whoop of joy when I read a book…this is the book I – and my students – have been waiting for.”

Ari Goldman, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Author of The Search for God at Harvard

Reviews and Interviews

“Verdict: This analysis of antireligious bias in journalism will engage readers interested in current affairs and religious issues. . . The authors share findings of increasing global religious conviction and evidence that “journalists are more secular in outlook than are their readers... The book and its conclusion offer a variety of prescriptions, including a plea for journalistic humility.

Zachary T. Irwin, Penn State Univ.–Erie

Library Journal February 2009

"It's not often that I let out a whoop of joy when I read a book, but I did while reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion. I've been preaching this gospel for 15 years and it's great to see it so brilliantly argued and supported in these pages. The editors have assembled a top-flight team of scholars and writers to build the case brick by solid brick. It is now an unassailable truth: without an understanding of religion, a journalist can miss the greatest stories of our time. This is the book I – and my students – have been waiting for."

Ari Goldman

Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life,

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Author of The Search for God at Harvard

God Is a Problem, Sources Say

How secular newsrooms handle stories with a religious component.

By VINCENT CARROLL

In a jarring misreading of the Islamist mentality, the New York Times last month described a Jewish center in Mumbai, India, as the "unlikely target" of the terrorists who attacked various locations there. "It is not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen," the Times went on to declare, "or if it was an accidental hostage scene."

Paul Marshall would not be surprised by such stunningly naïve statements. In "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion" -- a collection of essays that he edited with Lela Gilbert and Roberta Green Ahmanson -- he notes that similar assertions have been common in the coverage of Islamic terrorism. The book's contributors explore all sorts of news stories with a religious component -- Islamic and otherwise -- showing where reporters have veered off course and discussing the reasons why.

Despite 9/11 and dozens of equally pitiless massacres, some journalists, Mr. Marshall says, are reluctant to accept the "fundamental religious dimension" of jihadist motives. Such journalists concentrate on "terrorist statements that might fit into secular Western preconceptions about oppression, economics, freedom and progress." When terrorists murdered Christian workers while sparing Muslims in the offices of a Karachi charity in 2002, Mr. Marshall observes, "CNN International contented itself with the opinion that there was 'no indication of a motive.' Would it have said the same if armed men had invaded a multiracial center, separated the black people from the white people, then methodically killed all the blacks and spared all the whites?"

But surely journalists do a better job at stories in their own backyards. Actually, no. According to the evidence in "Blind Spot," the coverage is often worse. Jeremy Lott reminds us, for example, of the media hysteria in 2004 that greeted the release of the movie "The Passion of the Christ." Never mind that director Mel Gibson seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of his critics two years later when he spouted anti-Semitic drivel after an arrest for drunken driving. The contempt of journalists was hardly reserved for the director alone. Many confidently predicted that, if by some chance this violent rendition of Jesus' death found an audience, it would unleash a surge in anti-Semitic bigotry or even an orgy of violence. Such forecasts appear delusional in retrospect. They were possible, Mr. Lott maintains, because of "a troubling willingness by journalists to believe the worst of religious would-be moviegoers."

The chasm between a profoundly secular media and their audience was also unmistakable upon the death in 2005 of John Paul II. Although the pope's international legacy was treated with respect in most post-mortems -- reporters could hardly miss his role in the fall of communism -- his influence within the church was described in decidedly less flattering terms. " 'Disciplinarian' was often used," Amy Welborn tells us, "as was 'authoritarian' and even 'monarchical.' "

Most journalists apparently believed that the "only Catholics dissatisfied with his pontificate were those advocating women's ordination or changing Church positions on abortion or homosexuality," yet the pope took positions and made appointments that bothered traditionalists, too. Indeed, the most notable excommunication of his papacy was of the "deeply traditionalist archbishop Marcel Lefebvre." In some respects, Ms. Welborn argues, conservative Catholics may have been even more frustrated by John Paul's papacy than liberals.

The same conservative template was immediately imposed on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he became Pope Benedict XVI. The gentle, complex intellectual the public has grown to know over the past three years was variously described as "polarizing," "hard line" and, in an oft-repeated phrase, "God's Rottweiler" because of his Vatican role, as cardinal, in protecting church doctrine and disciplining theologians.

No less revealing has been coverage of the faith-based effort to deploy U.S. foreign policy on behalf of victims of persecution. An alliance that included conservative evangelicals, the Catholic Church, Jewish groups and a variety of other organizations prodded Congress into passing four watershed measures: the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002 and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. "Any one of these initiatives is a major story," Allen D. Hertzke writes, "but together they represent the most important human rights movement since the end of the cold war."

Not only was this story underplayed in the press; it was often miscast as merely a crusade of Christian conservatives and reported with patronizing, skeptical references to their claims -- as if the persecution of Christians abroad was a matter of debate. Too many journalists apparently have trouble treating with respect any movement in which Christian conservatives provide what Mr. Hertzke calls "crucial grass-roots muscle."

Such attitudes no doubt explain the media's double standard in the coverage of the 2004 presidential election. As C. Danielle Vinson and James L. Guth observe: "The Bush campaign in evangelical churches was portrayed as unusual and certainly questionable, whereas [John] Kerry's outreach through black churches was seen as routine." Ms. Vinson and Mr. Guth maintain that "the most significant problem is not media bias but media ignorance," but their own evidence suggests that the problem is equal parts of both.

Many journalists, it would seem, equate modernity with secularism. Yet God refuses to retire, not only in this country but in most of the rest of the world. Terry Mattingly offers a prescription for better coverage: "Editors do not need to try to hire more reporters who are religious believers," he says, but they do need to hire more journalists "who take religion seriously, reporters who know, or are willing to learn to hear the music." At a time of newsroom cutbacks, such advice may fall on barren soil. If so, the news media will continue to miss a vast dimension of mankind's story.

Vincent Carroll

Mr. Carroll is editorial-page editor of the Rocky Mountain News
Source: Wall Street Journal December 22,2008

"The causes and consequences of this chasm are the subject of an admirable new book, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion (Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Roberta Green-Ahmanson, Oxford University Press, 2009). Its claims about what journalists with secular blinders (that is, blinkers) will fail to see relate particularly to American life, but have Australian counterparts. First, those with such blinders will miss the main sources of reform and hope in the American story, from abolitionism to desegregation, to the pro-life movement and concerns with global poverty.

Second, they'll miss the theological dimensions that explain present concerns such as al-Qa'ida, the demoralisation of Europe, the rise of Christianity in the global south and some seemingly mysterious but utterly predictable outcomes in domestic politics.

Finally, "a journalist with secular blinders ignores some of the deepest views and moral convictions of Americans".

Christopher Pearson

The Australian March 14, 2009

Sacred Mistrust

God is not in the details of reporting religion.

A little over four years ago a group in Iraq affiliated with al Qaeda and calling itself "One God and Jihad" released a video via the Internet showing the grisly beheading of a kidnapped American engineer. In the video, a man in a ski mask made a statement during which, the New York Times reported, he called President Bush "a dog."

A dog? In his essay for this slim volume, of which he is a coeditor, Paul Marshall takes the Times to task for failing to report that Bush was called not "a dog" but "a Christian dog." In fact, the latter is what the jihadist said, if translations of his statement were correct, and there is no reason to believe they weren't. As it happens, Reuters arranged for one of those translations, and other news outlets followed Reuters in reporting that Bush was called "a Christian dog." So of those outlets' coverage it may not be said, as Marshall does of the Times's, that "the religious dimension was obscured, even obliterated."

Yet Marshall's point--and indeed, that of the other contributors--is not that the media invariably botch stories that have something to do with religion. It is, rather, that enough important news organizations miss or dismiss or misunderstand or otherwise get religion wrong on enough occasions, and in enough important ways, to constitute a problem for the news business. That's what the title, Blind Spot, is meant to capture: Journalists may be said to have a blind spot in their field of (reportorial) vision when they fail to see and pursue religious elements of a story that are plainly there and critical to its understanding.

Of the nine chapters, six are styled as "case studies," meaning studies or reviews of this case of media coverage or that, in which blind spots are identified and discussed. What mostly interests the contributors to Blind Spot is "secular" news, such as the war in Iraq and the 2004 presidential election. But two of the case studies deal with the journalism on clearly religious subjects: Pope John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI; and Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ.

One chapter that is not a case study bears a provocative title, "God is Winning." This essay, by Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft, functions as an introduction of sorts to the case studies, its purpose being to demonstrate how religion, so far from yielding to the forces of modernization and withering away (as was often predicted) has, instead, become "increasingly vibrant, assertive, and politicized the world over." What has emerged, they say, is a "prophetic politics" in which "voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests." The voices are diverse, including--and this is only a partial list--"Islamic radicalism, evangelical Protestantism, Hindu nationalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhist revivalism, [and] Jewish Zionism."

These developments provide a powerful reason for news organizations to take religion seriously, and report on it just as they would any other part of a story. But Blind Spot shows that this task may be more easily spoken about than done.

After all, a reader here learns from Marshall about journalistic failures to adequately describe the nature and goals of Islamic terrorism; from Michael Rubin about widespread press ignorance of Shiite and Sunni beliefs and practices (in Iraq); from Allen Hertzke about simplistic takes on the faith-based quest to advance human rights through American foreign policy (as witness the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998); and from Danielle Vinson and James Guth about media mischaracterizations of George W. Bush's religious beliefs, on the one hand, and on the other, failures to examine John Kerry's during the 2004 campaign.

Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list. I would note, for example, that journalists writing about religion and politics in the United States often use labels that are woefully imprecise. Take "evangelical," which is often employed to refer to a range of Christian adherents so broad in terms of their theological beliefs and churchly practices--or non-churchly, as the case may be--as to beg the question of the term's definition.

Then, too, there is the problem of accepting at face value what our politicians say about matters of faith when more questions may fairly be asked. Take, for example, Bush's belief that civil freedom is a gift of God and that its spread throughout the world is "inevitable." Bush attributed his belief to a "theological perspective." Okay--but where were the journalists who asked him about a theology that contemplates the inevitable spread of political liberty? What is the theology that teaches such a certain human outcome?

Likewise, where were the journalists who pursued candidate Barack Obama about the black liberation theology of his onetime church, and asked him about his evident sympathy with that theology, as indicated by passages in Dreams from My Father. And where were the journalists who asked him what he meant by his stated desire (in South Carolina before its primary) to build a Kingdom of God on earth? Merely a metaphor, this reference to a "Kingdom," or did its use indicate something grandiose (in any of the word's definitions) about Obama?

As might be expected, the editors of Blind Spot would like to see less of the blind spot that is their focus. They would like more journalists to "get religion." These are worthy goals. And in his essay Terry Mattingly, a veteran religion reporter and media critic, offers some sound recommendations: He urges greater care in handling religious language and in using labels, and he shows by negative example how news organizations should not go about hiring religion reporters (a lesson, by the way, for those outlets still in business and able to hire).

Mattingly recalls how, some years ago, the editors of the Washington Post put up a notice in the newsroom for a religion reporter, hoping to find someone on staff. The "ideal candidate," said the notice, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."

The latter half of that conjunction was problematic, Mattingly writes, correctly observing that it's hard to imagine Post editors "seeking a Supreme Court reporter and posting a notice saying that the 'ideal candidate' is one who is 'not necessarily an expert on legal issues,' or similar notice seeking reporters to cover professional sports, opera, science, film, and politics." He makes a compelling case that news organizations should seek to improve their coverage of religion by "taking precisely the same steps they would .  .  . to improve coverage on any other complicated, crucial theme: hiring qualified specialty reporters and giving them the resources to do their jobs."

This may seem like urging the obvious, but sometimes it's the obvious that most needs doing.

Terry Eastland, publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the editor of Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate Over Church and State.

Terry Eastland

THE WEEKLY STANDARD 04/06/2009, Volume 014, Issue 28

"Much of the major media will continue to miss these stories, because they are embarrassed by religion and treat it as a quaint phenomenon of backwoods America when people with no teeth handled snakes, fell on the floor and never went to school. That is a dangerous stereotype that ill-serves the dwindling number of people who read their publications, in large part because of their inattention (and when they do pay attention, a mocking revulsion) to beliefs many Americans hold dear. The latest of several works on this subject is "BLIND SPOT: When Journalists Don't Get Religion."

It would be nice to see the media focus more on the positive contributions believers make to cultural and civil life, rather than always looking for the bad and ugly. Doing so would help dilute the cynicism that permeates so much of society to our mutual detriment."

Cal Thomas

On Faith December 2008

“It would be wonderful if news managers would take these essays to heart and start treating religion as seriously as other beats. As John J. DiIulio, Jr.,writes in the Afterword, “Every one of America’s Founding Fathers understood about religion what too many educated elites, both secular and religious, in our day do not: religion, whether organized or not, whether old time or New Age, is a powerful and persistent force in moving people and nations, and is uniquely important when it comes to producing individual beneficence and individual brutality, social cooperation and social strife, civil harmony and civil war.”

Former journalist Retta Blaney

The Living Church November 22, 2009

"Blind Spot" is a must read for anyone wishing to understand the role of the press and religion in modern America. The volume is well-written and superbly edited. The style of writing, and subject matter, are cohesive and thought-provoking. This is an important work that should be a wake-up call for reporters in every media. It would also benefit religious people wishing to understand how the press works. It should be stressed that this book is not written from a religious perspective."

W. J. Rayment

Conservative Monitor December 9th, 2008

“Notable for ignorance of religion are the atheist authors of several recent books (Richard Dawkins is one of the crop) who have written against it at length with less knowledge than they’d dare bring to any other topic. Their justifiable disdain for belief in the supernatural blinds them to the importance of this set of ideas that has helped to shape history. But a critic’s scorn is valuable only if he knows what he’s scorning. (If you wanted advice on wines, would you consult a teetotaler?) Atheists can make a perfectly good case for rejecting the idea of a deity without immersing themselves in theology; but if they want to criticize actual religions, they should study them.

Now comes a book by religious authors objecting, with justice, to the ignorance of journalists who fail to see the importance of religion in current world affairs. It is true that journalists don’t know enough about religion. But very few people do, actually, including the religious. Besides, most journalists don’t know much about anything, especially the stories they cover.”

Jillian Becker

The Atheist Conservative December 2008

“A book titled "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion" is important because it shows that most of our journalists simply do not understand religion, fail to take it seriously, or let their anti-religion bias get in the way of their reporting. As a result, they give us an erroneous and incomplete picture of the world. . . .

Whether we like it or not, religion is a powerful and central force in our world and the media better wake up to that reality.”

Herb Denenberg

The Bulletin 7 January 2009

“Blind Spot raises a basic question: Is the blindness correctable by a newsroom resolve to take religion seriously, or is that like maintaining a lily-white newsroom and training white journalists to take forays into black communities—an approach many publications dismissed as inadequate? Since press blindness is one reason for the declining circulations of standard newspapers and newsmagazines, Blind Spot should be required reading for journalists and journalism professors who hope to respond not only to technological changes but to cultural ones as well. "

Marvin Olasky

World magazine February 2009

"Not to put too fine a point on it, but “Blind Spot” has a blind spot or two of its own.

In complaining how popes shouldn’t be described in terms of liberal or conservative, press critics shouldn’t pigeonhole Catholic bishops into those same camps.

And much of the analysis offered is about only the press giants – The New York Times and The Washington Post. Pack journalism admittedly leads to many other newspapers and media outlets taking their cues from the coverage from those big boys, but there are a lot of other newspapers and media across this country, and coverage may very well be different in newsrooms and locales where religion is more understood and appreciated. That would be an interesting study."

Bob Zyskowski

The Catholic Review March 5, 2009

"As far as compiled books about the state of American journalism go, Blind Spot is not half bad. The book includes a dazzling chapter by Middle East scholar Michael Rubin on the value of knowing a thing or two about post-1970s Iraqi and Iranian Sh’ia Islam (“Three Decades of Misreporting Iran and Iraq”), which should make any reader wonder how things have not gone exponentially worse for the United States in Iraq. There is also a valuable insider look at human rights initiatives launched by Christian groups during George W. Bush’s presidency, as told by a former higher-up in the Faith Based Initiatives Office, Allen Hertzke. Amy Welborn’s chapter skillfully reminds us how much we miss when journalists who lack a basic awareness of Catholic theological debates attempt to write about the passing or passing through of a pontiff. The reading is fascinating, and well worth tossing a few bills onto the Oxford University Press donation plate."

Jeffrey Feldman

Religion Dispatches March 6, 2009

“Blind Spot amply documents the press’s failings . . . Yet this isn’t just another media-bashing book. Its authors make a point of praising journalists who do a good job. (There really are some.) And most important, they spend time appealing to all journalists, as fellow professionals, to get the stories right."

Matt Kaufman

Citizen magazine (Focus on the Family) March 2009