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Religion 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 on Judaism 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 get it."

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 or birth 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 generally satisfactory.

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 getting covered."

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 religion well.

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 unexplained.

"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 or Sikhs 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, Central America or South Africa.

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 denominational."

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 of it."

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 topics."

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 learn that:"

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 that vision.

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, Summer 1986

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.

 



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