Laurie Goodstein, of the New York Times, talked about the dearth of religious literacy in journalism and how this hurts both people of faith and society as a whole.
She spoke at the Religious Literacy in Journalism Symposium at Harvard Divinity School on December 8th. The symposium was part of a series spearheaded by Diane Moore of Harvard Divinity School, intended to improve religious literacy across many professions.
The sense of urgency surrounding religion journalism has emerged from the rise of fake news and the ascendance of Donald J. Trump, who has pioneered a “post-truth politics” that places a premium on narrative over fact. Perhaps more than ever, people are beginning to care less about the factual truth of the news they consume, and more about whether it speaks to their experience of the world. All journalists in attendance appeared to agree: journalism has to change not only in order to better challenge false conceptions about religion, climate change and immigrants—to name a few topics—but also to simply survive.
How can journalists keep their readers without pandering to them, as viral fake news sites do? While the speakers at Harvard found no simple answer to that question, Ms. Goodstein recommended that journalists start by tackling the misconceptions about religion. “We don’t have any solution—yet—to fake news,” she told her audience, “but we can do something about the shoddy and misguided reporting on religion that is all too commonplace.”
Ms. Goodstein drew attention to several misunderstandings of Catholicism in highlighting the need for better religious literacy. “[Many] journalists don’t know the difference between an archbishop and a cardinal; they think [Catholics] worship Mary; they conflate homosexuality, chastity and pedophilia; they assume priests and nuns all live in monasteries; they think the pope controls what every bishop and priest says and does; and when some bishop somewhere pops off somewhere on some topic it gets reported as if the Vatican has spoken.”
Muslims are also frequently misrepresented in the media, Ms. Goodstein noted. In the current U.S. political climate, Muslims are far more likely than Catholics to experience fallout from this misinformation in violent and life-threatening ways. Muslims are repeatedly attacked by people who take the actions of a small number of Muslims who commit terrorist attacks to represent all 1.6 billion Muslims living in the United States and abroad.