journalism fails to reflect religion today
Dignitaries, crises predominate
By Noelle Boughton
FOR MANY in the media, religion
is nothing more than a parade of faithful church-goers who weekly
dress up to attend a service. But for many in that parade, and others
who are no longer part of it, religion is much more. It is a way
of life, a framework within which they play out their options. It
is the basis of how they treat their families, do their work and
spend their money.
But if you judged religion's place in people's
lives by how the mass media dealt with it, you'd never know all that.
You would only know the highlights of a dignitary's visit, the tip of a
denominational crisis or the announcement of a political statement. You
would be confined to surface tokens and never know the substance of an
integral part of many people's lives.
"By the very nature of the press, they pick certain highlights
of the Jewish calendar and have a picture of a kid lighting a candle;"
comments Rabbi Benjamin Friedherg, senior rabbi at the Beth Tzedec
Synagogue in Toronto. Noting he has not seen an in-depth article
in the mass media, he adds, "whether the press is equipped to do
something in-depth, I really don't know."
That is a sad comment on the information process
by which many of us know our world. Much of what we know beyond our
experiences comes from newspaper stories, magazine articles and
television. So, if the knowledge coming from those is superficial, how
do we learn about substance?
Some media and religious people wrestle with that
question, trying to define what is wrong and what can be done to
improve things. But many others, particularly in the media don't even
know there's a problem. Or, if they do, they don't know the extent of
it. They think their portrayal of religion is generally good enough.
Typical of Canadian dailies in this respect is the
Toronto-based Globe and
Mail, which covers religion in a weekly religion page and
its regular news coverage. Geoffrey Stevens, the Globe's managing
editor, is not fully content with the religion page. But that is
because of its existence and not because of what it covers. "I'm not
sure it's a good idea to have a church page once every week;" he says,
"because it tends to become a bit of a ghetto. You tend to hold stories
for it which might have gone to the front page:"
Unlike many Canadian papers, the Globe usually
has a reporter covering religion as a beat (although it did not in the
Spring because its reporter was on a fellowship). Stevens is happier
with a beat reporter because, as with other beats, "whenever we have a
full-time religion reporter, there's a stream of stories. There's lots
of news in religion. The problem is you need someone who knows it to
Stevens is typical of many mass media managers who may want to
fine-tune the way they cover religion, but generally believe their
way of treating it is good. John Coleman, vice-president of planning
and development for CTV Television Network Ltd. is another. CTV
also treats religion as any other topic and covers it through its
regular news and public affairs shows. The ordination of self-declared
homosexuals as ministers is a news story; stories on abortion
control may include a church leader's response.
CTV has no religious programs because, says Coleman, it tries to
maintain a "balance of all interests" on its general-interest network.
Its affiliates provide whatever religion programs CTV telecasts.
Coleman claims CTV has "a large volume of religious related programming:"
CBC covers religious news the same way - with news stories and
religious reactions to stories on its Journal and news programs.
But CBC goes beyond that. Its national network has two regular religious
programs. Meeting Place broadcasts a different religious
service each Sunday morning. Man Alive, explains Darce Fardy,
head of CBC's television current affairs, deals more with morality
than religion. But, he says, "it does very well in the ratings and
our religious advisory committee is satisfied with it."
CBC is unique in its religious advisory committee.
Established 30 years ago to help the network cover religion, it has 16
Christian and non-Christian members from across Canada. They meet with
CBC programming people and executive producers for one and a half days
four times a year. They suggest ideas, critique programs and have left
Fardy with the impression CBC deals well with religious matters. "We're
not aware that there's much we should be covering," says Fardy. "So we
don't plan to expand coverage in that area."
Media representatives generally feel good about
their religious coverage; so do a few religious representatives. "It's
becoming more and more evident that religion is being looked upon as
almost a legitimate newsworthy event and being respected more;" says
Margaret Long, associate director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of
Toronto's office of communication. Citing reports of church comments on
social issues and more religious news appearing on news rather than
religion pages. she notes the progress of media coverage of religion as
But Long is rare. Many religious representatives
and some media people are unhappy with how the media portray religion.
"They (newspapers) devote 18 pages to sport and digest it from every possible angle and yet they don't
address some of the most meaningful questions everyone's asking, such
as what's it all about, where are we going" comments Tom Harpur, a
former Anglican church minister and now a freelance religion columnist
for The Toronto Star, "There are more people going
to church on Sunday than attend all paid sports, but they are not
Harpur was the Star's religion
editor from 1971 to 1983 and generally liked the freedom the paper gave
him to cover what he considered worthy. But he says that interest is
still rare in Canadian newspapers. He says only two other papers -
the Edmonton Journal and Kitchener-Waterloo Record - cover
To some extent, Steve Rhodes, managing editor of the Brampton
Times, would agree. The Times, published from Monday
to Friday in a city of 150,000 just outside of Toronto, has a daily
circulation of 7,000. Like the Globe, the Times publishes
a weekly religious page and runs noteworthy religious stories or
local religious leaders' reactions to them in its news section.
But Rhodes feels it is not enough: "I think probably religion does
not get the play that it deserves. I don't, think we do a had job,
locally. But it tends to be the sidebar story, let's get the reaction
to war or that sort of approach:'
Brampton is becoming more multi-ethnic and
multi-religious and Rhodes notes that could affect the news. East
Indian and Portuguese Catholics could, for instance, have a view
different from other Catholics on such questions as public funding of
private schools. "From our point of view," says Rhodes. "the whole
question of ethnicity and religion is something we do touch on, but
probably not to the extent that we should. Much of that is a lack of
understanding of it and the role religion plays in most of their lives:"
Many in religious circles agree with Harbor and Rhodes. They commend
such programs as CBC-TV's Man Alive, the independent religious
radio public affairs show, Godshow, and particularly documentaries
such as Man Alive's Good Friday program on an ecumenical
visit to the U.S.S.R. But they are generally dissatisfied with the
nature and extent of religion coverage in the media.
" There is no consistent coverage, no consistent
interpretation of what has been happening," says Des McCalmont, a
United Church minister of 27 years who now is director of
administration at the Toronto-based Jesuit Communication Project. It
was established about a year ago to foster better relations between the
media and religion. What is covered, says McCalmont, are the crises or
whatever interests a particular editor.
"One of the real problems is that there's no attempt to deal with
something with religious depth," says Rabbi Friedberg, one of Toronto's
130,000 Jews who speaks for himself as his religion has no central
office. Only crises are highlighted and, he adds, "Judaism
is presented in an esoteric presentation, much like "Ukrainian Easter
eggs." But then he adds: "I'm not saying be very helpful in assisting
Canadians to that in a complaining fashion, because I don't think
the media cover anything else in depth either."
David Eley, the Jesuit Communication Project's
executive director, says the print media at least acknowledge such
religious occasions as Easter or such theologians as the Catholic Hans
Kung. But he feels television has moved far from its early job of
reflecting community concerns and, as it battles for audiences, "there
seems to be a homogenization of programming each night of the week."
That homogenization is secular. Yet, Eley says, "the religious facts
about Canada are not going away and they should be reflected. Yes,
certain religious populations are declining, but there still is a large
number of people who go to church every week."
Rev. Bill Lowe, director of communication for the
General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, has more specific
complaints. He is frustrated that the media can state their views of a
story but churches have no means to present either sides or facts
except through letters to the editor. Also, while media people try to
fairly represent the church and its work - "and I think by and large
the coverage of church events is done with competence" - he notes they
don't understand a denomination's history or beliefs, so news reports
are often skewed. They also focus on scandal, ignoring other parts of a
church's work, and they often leave the background of an issue or event
"I applaud what's being done but it's not enough,"
says Lois Wilson, the 1980 to 1982 moderator of the United Church of
Canada, complimenting the CBC's various shows and The Globe
and Mail's printing of a text by theologian Kung. Now a
president of the World Council of Churches and codirector of the
Ecumenical Forum of Canada, which prepares missionaries for overseas
work, Wilson can compare religious coverage in Canada to that in other
countries. "We don't get substantial material in the press, just
snippets," she says, noting that even the Pope's visit was treated as a
royal one with little substance behind the show. "I wish there was more
of substance so religion would be treated as part of life rather than
as one show or news item." Aware of how media do work, she says
coverage is "all based on news (value) only and that's very difficult
for non-sexy subjects like faith:"
Like Rhodes of the Brampton Times, Wilson believes the media
could cover Canada's pluralistic society better. "The life of Muslims
could be explained so that people would not come to believe all
who follow these faiths are extremists such as those shown on the
news. "It's important in a secular society that religious communities
be understood," she says, "why they do this, their raison d'etre."
Religions around the world could especially be better covered.
"That's not even reported . . . " she says. Because those things
are not reported, opportunities to explain the church's role in
Cuba or Russia and the religious implications of the Iranian war
are missed. And it usually takes the media years to discover social
facts churches have known and been working with in, for instance,
America or South
Religious groups are trying to improve coverage.
They are trying to move beyond their own magazines, newspapers and low
budget local television programs all of which usually have select
audiences - and reach out to the mass media's wider audiences.
One move some denominations have made is hiring
more public relations people. Long, a communications director for the
Archdiocese of Toronto, says "the bishops are beginning to get the idea
that communication is important." The result is they are trying to
establish media contact people in each of their 33 English-speaking
Canadian dioceses. Each contact person can then be in touch with local
reporters and editors, giving the journalists local contacts. Long says
this will help because "in many cases the media don't know who to call:"
Another step was the establishment a year ago of the Toronto-based
Jesuit Communication Project by the Upper Canada Province of the
Society of Jesus. Affiliated with a University of Toronto college,
its job is to look at the relationship between the media and all
religions. It involves people of many religions who teach, research
or act as contact points for those both inside and outside of the
church who want information. In fact, one of the early roles that
Project's executive director David Eley played was religion consultant
for Norman Jewison's recent film, Agnes of God.
Perhaps the most ambitious project lately,
however, has been the start of the Canadian Interfaith Network
(C.I.N.). Fourteen Christian and non-Christian groups - from United and
Anglican Churches to Hindus, Buddhists and Salvation Army (but not
Roman Catholics) have joined to form a television network to offer
religiously-based programming. David Nostbakken, C.I.N.'s executive
director, says the network is being formed because "religion really has
not had an opportunity to have a presence on television, certainly not
on network television." . C.I.N evolved through the 1980s after the
C.R.T.C. indicated it would accept a proposal for a religious network
if it included a range of religions. The C.R.T.C. has not yet approved
the project, but Nostbakken says C.I.N plans to begin broadcasting four
hours a day, five days a week in January 1988. Its $7.7-million
start-up and first year of operation cost will come mostly from the
religious groups since advertising will be half that of other networks.
It hopes eventually to broadcast around the clock and be a legitimate
T. V. alternative, providing religious programs which appeal to many
people. "It will be a presence in people's experience;" says
Nostbakken. "Having a program once in a while is not enough:"
Half C.I.N.'s programming will be provided by the
network, half by denominations. C.I.N will broadcast
children'sprograms, news not usually covered by other networks, public
affairs, drama, music and talk shows and in-depth programming. These
programs will have to appeal to all C.I.N members - from Sikh to
Unitarian. Eley of the Jesuit Communication Project says: "They will
have certain basic religious values, but not be churchy and
The other programs, however, will be more
religious as they will be produced by the religious groups. But
Nostbakken says one-third of C.I.N.'s budget is for helping these
groups learn how to produce good programs. The result, he hopes, will
be a more representational view of Canada: "We talk about Canadians
being a mosaic but we don't know what that mosaic is."
There has been some opposition to C.I.N. Tom Harpur has lashed
out in his Toronto Star column against the endeavour. "I'm
not impressed with C.I.N he says, "because I believe you have to
mix it with all the others rather than having it in a ghetto."
McCalmont, a United Church minister who helped launch C.I.N now
works at the Jesuit Communication Project, says' he might once have
agreed religion should not be ghettoized on a separate network.
But, in the late 1970s, he was part of a United Church effort to
put a national special on CTV. The church spent months designing
the program, assembling a promotion package and working with CTV.
Two months before the air date, CTV's board without even seeing
the program - refused to air it. The church finally bought air time
from individual stations. But because that was more expensive and
its budget was fixed, it could only show its national program to
two-thirds of the country. With that vivid example of the church's
obviously limited access to broadcasting, McCalmont says, "now I
say we're already in a ghetto and now we have to fight to get out
Those involved with C.I.N. have big hopes for the
network. Nostbakken hopes its programs about life, death, values and
relationships with other people and countries will help to change
people's view of religion. "Religion has a bad name. It's not a hot
item in this country;" he says. C.I.N is going to bring about a change
of people's perception of religion."
Others hope C.I.N will not abolish other media's
responsibility for religion coverage, but will show them how to change
their treatment of that. "I don't see for a moment why CBC and CTV and
the others should feet any more reason to absolve themselves of
producing religious programming;" Eley says. That may happen though.
White discussing whether CTV might introduce religious-based programs,
Coleman noted the advent of such new options as C.I.N and said, "there
is an increasing volume of alternative options in a wide range of
Developments such as C.I.N., the Jesuit Communications Project
and the appointment of some good religion editors are useful steps.
But religions and media could take other ones too. Religious groups,
for example, need a better understanding of how the media work.
"I think religious institutions have to be more realistic in what
they expect or ask of the media," says former United Church Moderator
Rev. Lois Wilson. "They have to understand what the media are about
. . . selling papers and viewing audiences. But I don't think that's
incompatible with substance."
Religious groups could hire more communication
people who understand the media and are willing to spend time with
reporters and editors. Media people would be helped to update their
views of religion and be introduced to some international issues and to
people religious groups in Canada know well.
Religious groups also could learn more about
introducing issues to the media so they can help set, rather than
always react to, the media's agenda. And they could teach their clergy,
lay people and bureaucrats about what interests the media. "From the
media's point of view;" says Wilson, "a lot of what church people think
is church news is not. I think people within the institution need to
Several people think religious groups should also look more at
what is already being done. McCalmont says they could be more involved
with religious public affairs shows like Godshow. Harpur
adds they could "adopt a much more open and educational kind of
approach to what's already there" - such as David Suzuki's The
Nature of Things. They could also pressure media to cover religion
better and encourage people in their ranks who are good at communication
to become religious journalists.
The potential for change isn't all on one side. Newspapers could
hire religion editors who are "quite competent in religion topics
and good journalists as well;" suggests Eley. Media people should
make greater efforts to understand religion today. McCalmont suggests
churches could assist by establishing training programs for journalists.
Journalists could better learn the differences between television
evangelism and other religion. They could learn how missionaries
in all but the evangelical churches now go overseas to provide technical
or professional help, not to convert masses.
These are all important points and they are ones
both religious and media groups should be struggling with. There's
value in doing that. Religion as many reporters think of it may not
seem an appealing topic. But religion as many people live it is.
Religious groups are trying to explain that vision to the wider world.
Most media are showing only the tip of that struggle and a corner of
Religious groups are moving into a new age and
trying to bring that message to the wider public themselves. The
question is whether the mass media will join them or whether the
traditional newspapers and broadcast outlets will be left behind as
religion and its followers move into the 21st century.
Published in Sources,
Noelle Boughton is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto.
Her recent book, Margaret
Laurence: A Gift of Grace, is available from
the Women's Press imprint of Canadian Scholars' Press, Inc., at
www.cspi.org, or by calling toll-free to 1-866-870-2774.
Sources, 812A Bloor Street West,
Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
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