Inside Medill News: Symposium Speakers Demand Deeper, More Accurate Coverage of Religion in the Press

Religious groups are often misrepresented by the American news media who tend to focus solely on hot-button issues and frequently get the facts wrong, according to the four speakers at a “Religion and the Press” symposium held July 25 at Medill.

Co-sponsored by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern, the event was moderated by Sheil Catholic Center director and chaplain Rev. Kenneth Simpson. NBC5 reporter Mary Ann Ahern, MSJ82, Bernie Tafoya, a reporter for WBBM Newsradio 780, Chicago Tribune reporter Manya Brachear and Robert McClory, Medill professor emeritus and an instructor in Medill’s Reporting Religion, Spirituality and Ethics Program served as panelists for question and answers.

Speaking to a full house in the McCormick Tribune Center, Edith Blumhofer, Cardinal Francis George, Michael Kotzin and Safaa Zarzour all discussed the responsibility of the media to report the facts accurately and the ramifications of erroneous coverage and stereotyping.

Blumhofer, director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and a professor of history at Wheaton College, talked about the misconceptions surrounding coverage of evangelical groups and the media’s heavy focus on the “megachurches” and their high-profile leaders. Quoting various news stories, she cited the press for their tendency to describe evangelicals as a “power hungry and contentious lot, always on the lookout for the next political fight.” She explained that because of the media’s focus on the financial gains and marketing efforts by the larger groups, the most important story has gone unreported, and that is the smaller, more diverse and growing population of “today’s evangelicals.”

“The media has missed the biggest change of all, and that’s the changing face of American evangelicalism,” Blumhofer said. Citing the influx of immigrants into the United States, she explained that the evangelicals of today are “not the Anglo evangelicals featured in the media.”

Instead, she said, “They are a multi-ethnic population providing economic support to their home countries who also care about human rights, poverty and fighting AIDS.”

“Modern evangelicalism can’t be equated with political agendas, celebrity, clever marketing campaigns or equated with the National Association of Evangelicals,” she added.

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George’s critique of the press varied somewhat from Blumhofer’s. According to George, in the media’s effort to tell a compelling story, certain aspects of the truth are often overlooked.

“The media looks for conflict so you need a good guy and a bad guy,” he said. As a result, “The facts that support the story are reported and the facts that don’t are swept aside. You need to report the whole story.”

Worse, said George, media coverage of the Catholic Church is regularly riddled with mistakes. Despite the fact that the stories are well-reported overall, he said, “I haven’t read a single story [about the Catholic Church] that was free of factual error.”

Though he admits that the sexual abuse scandal affecting the church in the last several years is deeply disturbing and “a scandal that shapes us all,” he said that the media’s preoccupation with it has overshadowed other important topics. He went on to explain how while once speaking with a reporter from a large news organization he offered several alternative story ideas that focused more on the church as a global entity.

In response, “The reporter admitted that she had been ordered only to report on the sexual abuse scandal and nothing else,” he said.

There is an issue with secrecy, George admits. For example, in a Time magazine story describing what went on in the conclave while the new pope was being selected, George said that although the information was absolutely wrong, they were partly to blame.

“It was wrong, but it was our fault because we weren’t going to give them anything.”

Representing the Jewish community at the symposium was Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. He agreed with Cardinal George on numerous points.

“The very use of the word ‘story’ by the media is utterly revealing [vs.] ‘news report,’” Kotzin said. “When did that [word] become a label for what journalists are producing?”

For Kotzin, one of the biggest issues with regard to reporting of Judaism is the abundance of stereotyping and the media’s fascination with the unusual. For example, he says, photos in the press covering Judaism often gravitate toward the ultra-orthodox and the fringe groups such as the Messianic Jews.

In addition, the media’s relentless focus on the Holocaust takes precedence over other, equally compelling stories, he said and that “even sympathetic news stories run the risk of portraying the Jew as a victim.”

Kotzin used the dissemination of press releases by his organization as an example of the media’s tunnel vision. Though he and his staff regularly offer up other multi-faceted images of Jews and Jewish culture, “only when it is a Holocaust topic do we get an immediate response,” he said. He added that the media coverage offers little or no “exposure of the Jewish communities connection to Israel.”

“Conflict is at the core of much news coverage but it can create distorted and even inflammatory coverage,” Kotzin added.

Last to speak was Safaa Zarzour, an attorney and chairman of CAIR-Chicago, a nonprofit organization committed to advocating Muslim civil rights and promoting a positive discourse on Islam. He echoed the sentiments expressed by George and Kotzin, particularly with respect to the stereotyping of Muslims in the press and in the American mindset. By equivocating Islam and terrorism and even using the phrase, “Islamic terrorists,” the problem becomes far more serious than just chastising the media, Zarzour said.

“I appreciate that we are in unusual times and that just a few years ago there was a terrorist attack, but how we deal with the subject has far-reaching consequences” that are more fundamental than just the media coverage, he said.

Zarzour talked about the responsibility of the American press to help educate the American public about Islam and go the extra mile to provide accurate and true definitions.

“Mainstream America has no other source of information [on this topic] other than the media,” Zarzour said. “They aren’t going to do the research on their own about this religion that they don’t understand.”

He added that there is “very little challenging of the people spreading misinformation by the media.”

Above all, Zarzour said, it is the connection of Islam to terrorism that is the most damaging.

[What we are dealing with] “is a small, problematic faction that is despised within the Muslim community. It exists, but to take that leap of folly and say that group is Islam is something we have to deal with seriously,” he said. “The press needs to start separating terrorism and the attacks with the religion that is Islam.”

Andrew Bossone, MSJ05, is a student in the Reporting Religion, Spirituality and Ethics program and attended the event.

“I found it interesting to hear the perspectives of the press from religious leaders,” Bossone said. “They seem to view the media as either an adversary or a public relations tool. In either case, they sought to dispel their percieved inaccuracies pervading media coverage. I think they all use the mainstream media, especially newspapers, as their primary source for current events.”

Chicago Sun-Times

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