Blind Spots and Biases in Media Coverage
By Father John Flynn, LC
VATICAN CITY, (Zenit.org).- Accuracy and objectivity are traits often lacking in the media's coverage of churches and religion in general. A case in point is the recent Newsweek article on same-sex marriage.
The magazine published a cover story by Lisa Miller in the Dec. 15 issue arguing that we can't take the Bible as a reliable source on what marriage should be like. Miller also affirmed that neither the Bible nor Jesus explicitly defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Miller's article was widely criticized for its selective quoting of Bible passages and for simply ignoring much of what Scripture does say about marriage. Newsweek itself acknowledged that her opinions drew thousands of critical e-mails.
The ignorance displayed in the Newsweek article is, however, far from an isolated case. On Dec. 15 the reader's editor of the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper had to admit that they had confused Mary's Immaculate Conception with the virgin birth of Jesus in a story published, no less, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The editor also had to admit that, as one priest who wrote to them pointed out, this is a frequent mistake. In fact, seven times in the last 10 years the Guardian has had to publish corrections on this topic.
Another glaring mistake was made July 7, this time by FoxNews, when it was reported that Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, smuggled a consecrated host out of a Mass. The reporter misstated that the host is believed by Catholics "to symbolize the body of Christ."
Commentators quickly pointed out that the Catholic Church does not believe the Eucharist to be a mere symbol, but to be the true Body of Christ. FoxNews did correct the story, but even so the current version, while acknowledging that Catholics believe it to Christ's body, says that this comes about when the host is "blessed," instead of the correct term, "consecrated."
Trying to understand why the media so often get it wrong on religion is the aim of a collection of essays just published: "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," (Oxford University Press).
Edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Roberta Green Ahmanson, the book's foreword starts by noting that many journalists are simply illiterate when it comes to knowing what the Bible contains. Unfortunately, the foreword commented, a journalist with secular blinkers will simply miss out on many of the most important events and trends of our time.
In his contribution, Allen D. Hertzke, professor of political science at Oklahoma University, accused the mainstream press of missing out on one of the great developments in foreign policy in recent times.
Hertzke explained that a new human rights movement arose in the mid '90s to defend religious freedom and human rights. Important legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress, including the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
He made an in-depth study of the media coverage during the years that the major legislative bills were passed and concluded that the role of the faith-based alliance of groups that were a major force in the process was often misunderstood.
The professor noted, for example, that the New York Times often seemed to struggle to make sense of the legislative processes, often simply characterizing the push as a cause of the "Christian Right," thus ignoring the role played by the diversity of groups ranging from Jews to Tibetan Buddhists.
Likewise, Hertzke added, the campaign against trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation is another area where religious groups played a pioneering role, only too often overlooked by the media.