by Erica Salkin
There’s a growing body of research about media and religion that suggests reporters struggle to cover issues involving faith. Some say it’s because journalism has long been aligned with political life, leading media professionals to believe they should not get involved in issues of religion (on the “state” side of church/state). Others believe it’s a hesitance to appear to take sides between competing lines of religious thought – dueling truths, so to speak.
To me, the biggest challenge appears to lie in journalism’s commitment to verification and source skepticism. The drive to get a second source, to get confirmation before embracing a “fact” to be “true” is near and dear to a profession that strives for objectivity. How better to check your biases than to force you to verify that which you already suspect is true?
That approach to truth, though, doesn’t work well with faith. There really isn’t any second-sourcing the word of God. Perhaps the best way to envision the difference is this:
One of the oldest journalism adages:
One of the first phrases learned in Sunday School:
“Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
Understanding the tension between journalism and religion makes me read articles that touch on faith with new eyes. For example, at the end of July, Slate.com ran an article titled ““ In it, Mark Stern explores that suggest “exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction.” Children ages 3-6 from religious backgrounds and nonreligious backgrounds were told three different versions of the same story, with one version featuring a biblical character performing a miracle with the help of God, one version describing the same miraculous event but with no reference to God, and the third telling the story “realistically” with no miracles and no God.
Stern describes the results as follows:
“Children raised with religion thought the protagonists of the miraculous stories were real people, and they seemed to interpret the narratives—both biblical and magical—as true accounts. Secular children, on the other hand, were quick to perceive that these stories were fictitious, construing them as fairy tales rather than real-life narratives. They had a far keener sense of reality than religious children, who failed to understand that magic does not exist and believed that stories describing magical details such as ‘invisible sails’ could be real.”
The studies came to the conclusion that children who are raised on stories of faith have “wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.” On first read, that sounds like a good thing. People who question the impossible are responsible for innovation, exploration and discovery. After all, “ordinary causal relations” would say that an airplane made of metal and weighing thousands of pounds could not defy gravity and fly from Spokane to Denver, and yet I did just that last month because a pair of Ohio brothers believed the impossible could happen.
Stern doesn’t read that the same way:
“When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit. Religious children are told these stories from an early age, often as though they are unquestionably true.”
Here’s where I see Stern’s reporter instincts following the research on journalists and religion. The ability to accept and embrace stories of miracles without authentication or validation seems unrealistic from a reporter’s perspective. What Stern misses, however, is that the “verification” of stories of faith, including miracles, is faith.
Faith is not the same as “belief” – if you believe something to be true, you can pursue verification to confirm that belief. That is the essence of journalism. But faith is self-verifying, a knowledge of a fundamental truth that doesn’t need another source to confirm it. Faith is not naïve or a failed grasp on reality. It may not fit neatly into the journalist’s paradigm – after all, a miracle is a miracle because it defies conventional explanation – but that does not make it any less of a stable and real part of a person’s view of the world (not just their world, but THE world in its stark and real majesty).
One does not need to share in faith to accept that it plays this role in many people’s lives. Such acceptance would, however, bring a new lens to a story such as Stern’s. Instead of “failed to understand that magic does not exist,” this story might have discussed how children raised in religious households “see miracles where others do not.” It reframes the issue in terms of what the children see, rather than what the reporter does not, and lessens the bias by recognizing that reality-by-verification is not the only path to truth.
Dr. Erica Salkin is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Whitworth University. Her academic interests include media law, scholastic journalism and media as modern storytelling. The rest of her life is filled with family, good books, quality sci-fi and one spoiled cat.
Image from Spirituality & Health.