Let’s try to get it right

By  Michael Higgins
  • June 14, 2007
It seems increasingly odd that we should have difficulty getting informed news reports and commentary on religion in the mainstream media. After all, as virtually everyone concedes, religion is news, although largely bad news it would seem.
{sidebar id=2}Over the last year The Toronto Star began a serious makeover of its religion or faith beat — initiated by Giles Gherson before his purge — and the reason advanced was not without merit: religion should be incorporated into national and international coverage and not hived off as a niche interest. My sentiments entirely. The problem appears to be that they have yet to find the right mix of competence and opportunity to bring this about.

The Star isn’t the only paper undergoing a change of focus and personnel. The Globe and Mail fairly recently announced through its energetic and creative Editor-in-Chief, Edward Greenspon, that it too has a number of alterations to make. And, indeed, it has followed through with these promises. A stronger emphasis on life and education issues — as well as the ever-present business focus — can be clearly seen in the pages of the new Globe. The problem here, too, seems to be one of intelligent attention and resourcefulness. If anything, religion in the new Globe era seems to be even less pronounced than in the past. If religion isn’t a life issue, what is?

Although the estimable Michael Valpy can be relied upon to bring both a working intelligence as a journalist as well as a general sympathy for religion to his features and reportage, he is just as likely to be given a political assignment as a religious one. And that leads to some interesting if not infuriating results: either religion is seen as a curiosity item and compartmentalized or trivialized; or it is the subject of derisive dismissal by the likes of Russell Smith. He is an interesting writer with many fine qualities but lamentably devoid of even a minimalist understanding of the religious sensibility — and yet he pontificates.

I appreciate that there are many who read The Catholic Register who have concluded that the media are simply hostile to faith — full stop. I disagree. The media are not hostile, although there are undoubtedly exceptions, just as there are those who have a declared sensitivity to religion in all its myriad forms. But the media are unforgivably uninformed.

What is tolerated on the religion beat would be categorically expunged on any other beat.  Could you imagine a business or sports reporter getting the facts wrong, regularly and comprehensively? Could you imagine a film critic not getting his directors straight?

Let me quote a passage from Christopher House’s Presswatch column, which appears in The Tablet of London. Howse is an editor of The Daily Telegraph and an amusing if not eccentric writer in the conservative British mode: “The Economist ran a curtain-raiser to the Pope’s visit to Brazil. Like the two big American news magazines, the dear old Economist is so keen to make things comprehensible that it can boil out the sense. Its largely off-beam choice of language produces a fog of near-comprehension: ‛liberation theology ( a kind of Christian socialism)’; ‛the Vatican’s chief theologist, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’; ‛the Latin church’ meaning the church in Latin America; and, as a cross-heading on the charismatic movement, ‛The church turns to charisma.’ ”

We don’t need to turn to the Brits for howlers of this order. We can easily match them on this side of the ocean.

But it is not enough to complain, to fantasize that there is a media legion of anti-religious types resolved to effect our ruin, or to retreat to a cocoon wherein we can insulate ourselves against the animus of an unbelieving world. None of these are compelling options. We need to change the landscape. And one way of doing that is by establishing positions in schools of journalism and departments of communication to be filled by able academics schooled in  the debates, the nomenclature, the rituals and systems of thought of religion. Informed commentators and reporters on politics — local, provincial, national and international — as well as in the health and entertainment fields, to name just a few, don’t appear out of nowhere.

If we are genuinely concerned about the state of coverage for religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, then we, as Canadians, need to put our money where our witness is and stop the whining.

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