Samuel Freedman, a journalist and journalism professor at Columbia University in New York City, told about 135 people that news media tends to simplify religious movements to their general political affiliations, without attention to religion itself and political diversity within movements, at Landmark Centre in Beachwood Sept. 7.
The Case Western Reserve University Siegal Lifelong Learning Program talk addressed what the news media typically gets wrong when reporting on religion, and why.
Freedman said, “The questions journalists always arrive at (on religious people and institutions) is, ‘Is it liberal or is it conservative? Is it Democratic or is it Republican?’ And that’s one of the major failings of (journalism) in grappling with religion in America.”
He used the example that Evangelical Christians are often assumed to vote Republican and labeled as conservative across the board, however, he cited diversity within the religion, especially across generations, on issues like immigration and LGTBQ rights, and that news media often fails to consider such differences.
Freedman said journalists are reluctant to delve deeper into actual religious experiences and all facets of religious identity because they prefer information that is quantifiable and attributable, like voting statistics, rather than delving into the complexity of portraying subjective experiences, like religion.
“What (journalists) are trying to do is research, observe and verify, and to deeply doubt and distrust anything that doesn’t pass muster in that three-way test,” he said. “We don’t need religion to replicate what we can get out of secular ethics or scholarly study, we need religion to build some other place in our psyche and some other place in our soul, and that’s exactly what makes it very difficult for journalists to reckon with.”
He also discussed the changing media industry, noting religion reporters were among the first let go from many major print journalistic institutions when the industry began to suffer relative to accessibility of information online. That meant journalists inexperienced with reporting about religion were then charged with doing so.
On the other end, the increased number of news outlets and the rise of niche journalism, or increased specialization topic and angle-wise of news organizations, makes it easier than ever to access information one is looking for on any topic by visiting a range of sources. In that sense, Freedman said readers can consider publications that report on religion well, like The Washington Post’s religion section, “Acts of Faith,” or Religion Dispatches, a news website that covers the intersection of religion, politics and culture.
“Every news organization does not need to be a department store anymore,” he said. “You begin to get clusters in the journalistic universe of really deeply informed reporting.”