How bad journalism is hurting people of faith.

New York Times religion correspondent Laurie Goodstein moderates a question-and-answer session with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City during the annual John Paul II Center Lecture for Interreligious Understanding at the seminary May 6. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

On Thursday, Dec. 8, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, lamented the dearth of good religion journalism in an NPR interview with Terry Gross. “We have a fabulous religion writer [at The New York Times], but she’s all alone,” said Mr. Baquet. “We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better.”

On the very same day, that “fabulous religion writer” Mr. Baquet referred to, Laurie Goodstein, echoed his concerns at the Religious Literacy in Journalism Symposium at Harvard Divinity School. The symposium was part of a series spearheaded by Diane Moore of Harvard Divinity School, intended to improve religious literacy across many professions. (Full disclosure: as a student at H.D.S. I worked as a teaching assistant for the Religious Literacy Project, which Professor Moore directs.) Forthcoming symposia will address the need to further religious literacy in humanitarian action, business and government.

“I’m glad that we’re all here because we now have urgent work to do,” Ms. Goodstein said in her keynote speech. “Religious literacy has probably never been more important, or more of a challenge. The grounds are shaking, the fissures are cracking open all around us, and the faultlines all seem to intersect. Race, class, gender and underneath it all like molten lava: religion.”

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. As a recent report by Georgetown University’s The Bridge Initiative points out, Catholics are one of the groups whose religious literacy about Muslims is in dire need of improvement.

Better religious education is clearly needed for people of all faiths and professions. One way forward, offered by Stephen Prothero of Boston University, is increased collaboration between journalists and academics. “This is an important moment for us to work together,” he said. “Not only to understand religion and the religions, but also to defend our institutional freedom, on which our two professions depend.”

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J Cosgrove
9 months 1 week ago
I agree that most discussions about religion in major new sources are both biased and misleading and thus could be considered fake news. It is interesting how the author morphed from the concept of fake news in religion (routinely practiced by the NY Times) to fake news in general (also routinely practiced by the NY Times). She links Donald Trump with fake news when it mostly a product of the left and their media advocates. The comment about Trump has no place in the article.
Catholics are one of the groups whose religious literacy about Muslims is in dire need of improvement.
I don't agree with Ms Blondiau comment. The average Catholics's minimal knowledge about Islam is probably better than what is proclaimed by many so called Catholic experts on Islam which I have found incredibly misleading. It would be interesting to see just what Ms Blondiau thinks is wrong about the average Catholic's view of Islam.
Joanne Newnam
9 months 2 weeks ago
Bingo, J Cosgrove. Plus lets talk about the faux Catholic web sites exposed by John Podesta and Ms. Palmeri with the purpose to denigrate the church's position on abortion, marriage, etc. This revelation so rattled bishops across America that they finally spoke out. And I do not agree that Trump had anything to do with this. As I have observed everything that the left accuses the right/ Republicans of, they are actually guilty of. There is so much faux news on the MSM but they still don't recognize lies of omission as an obfuscation of the truth. Saw our country descending into a Venezuela until Trump. The only ones seeking a premium of narrative over fact are the left. Donald Trump had to deal in facts every day that he ran his businesses.
Chuck Kotlarz
9 months 1 week ago
Would you give us an example of a state or a major city (over 250,000) where the abortion rate and the divorce rate have declined under republican leadership.
Richard Zeile
9 months ago
Michigan under the Snyder administration has seen decline in the abortion rate, and I believe divorce as well- but this is probably more due to demographic factors than to policy decisions pertaining to the issues of divorce or abortion.
Derrick Weiller
9 months 2 weeks ago
J Cosgrove: please cite clear and compelling empirical evidence for your assertion that "...fake news [is] mostly a product of the left and their media advocates." Thank you.
J Cosgrove
9 months 1 week ago
please cite clear and compelling empirical evidence for your assertion that "...fake news [is] mostly a product of the left and their media advocates
This will probably be cut because it is too long - certainly not complete [Editor's note: a very long list of topics from the commenter at the end of this comment cut, because it took this comment far over the 300 word limit specified in our comments policy. The comment, edited for length, is now at around 300 words.] Just about all the media in the United States is of the left. The three major broadcast networks, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC; NY Times and Washington Post are all on the left or very far to the left with a few opinion people in each not on the left. The Wall Street Journal news section is in the middle with its editorial page fairly conservative. Fox News is mainly conservative with a few liberal voices. News can be considered fake or biased in a lot of ways but it does it mainly in two ways . If the reporting provides actual lies or half truths and gives them credence or secondly if it emphasizes one side of the story usually with derogatory remarks for contrary views and withholds contrary relevant information. The primary way fake news is managed is through what is a "false narrative" or a series of specious arguments that are bogus but sound good. Another way is to introduce some negative but irrelevant concepts into the story like Ms. Blondiau did above by introducing Donald Trump into a discussion of fake news on religion. It had no relevance Because left of center news outlets dominate news any fake news or false narrative is going to either originate or be sustained by the left. They will not allow a false narrative by conservatives to persist but will sustain their own false narratives. Probably the biggest media distortion though is not what is covered but what is not covered or ignored, [Editor's note: Long list cut; see above]
Chuck Kotlarz
9 months 1 week ago
"Democrats care for the poor and blacks while Republicans do not" Would you give us an example of a state or a major city (over 250,000) where Blacks have done well under republican leadership.
Carlos Orozco
9 months 1 week ago
Certainly the heinous Democrat support of Planned Parenthood, that has historically concentrated the promotion of abortion among minorities, is anything but friendly and has created a demographic disaster for the black population. Far more than trigger-happy, biased police.
Chuck Kotlarz
9 months ago
The “Pro-Life” party occupied the White House for twenty years between 1980 and 2012, yet secured only a quarter of the abortion rate decline. Politically, the Pro-Life party is perhaps ineffective, disingenuous or both.
Chuck Kotlarz
9 months 1 week ago
“Blacks are unfairly targeted by police which has led to policemen being killed” Would you give us an example of a state or a major city (over 250,000) where the police fatality rate has declined under republican leadership.
Lisa Weber
9 months 2 weeks ago
Religion is complex enough that explaining it to an uninformed audience will always be difficult. An additional problem for the Catholic Church is that its public focus seems to be on abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and whether divorced and remarried Catholics are allowed to receive the Eucharist. These issues are not at the heart of the spiritual life, and people stay in church because their spiritual life is fostered. The focus on peripheral issues is like trying to explain a car by talking only about the front bumper.
Bob Faser
9 months 2 weeks ago
In most English-speaking countries, the media covers one thing very well: team sport. As a result, the media covers everything else (politics, international affairs, economics, the arts, science, religion ...) as if it's team sport: -- two clearly distinguishable "sides" to every issue, -- a clear "winner" and a clear "loser" (or else a frustrating draw) to every encounter, -- "umpires" whose impartiality, integrity, and competence are easily called into question, and -- "spectators" who are supporting one "side" or the other in a partisan way.
Richard Zeile
9 months ago
Excellent insight, Sir.
J. Calpezzo
9 months 2 weeks ago
The easiest solution to this problem is to ban the Roger Ailes-bred Fox News. But then Cardinals Dolan and Burke would not have anything to watch at night.
Mike Evans
9 months 1 week ago
It is the competition for eyeballs and click thru's that feeds the current news cycle with spurious, false and twisted news 'stories.' Editors and so-called journalists spend more time inventing provocative headlines to "sell" those stories online before their competitor can scoop them on another web site. And the overwhelming number of ambiguous and often non-existent anonymous "sources" make it easy to make up stories from vague hints and sniffs. This now a preferred approach since once a story is published, the wild hounds catch the scent and pursue it regardless of where it leads. The result is charge and counter charge, claim and disclaimer, truth and later correction to the ultimate outcome that no one knows what to believe. And it is the main stream press that is most responsible for this sensationalism designed to prop up their gradually declining appeal. Soon all the traditional daily newspapers and weekly news analysts will be long gone to the happy hunting ground for old notebooks and Royal typewriters. And all we will have left is spurious contests between Fox and MSNBC for headlines and slants.
E.Patrick Mosman
9 months 1 week ago
First one must specify what defines and who are "professional" journalists. Are by-lined MSM reporters who include only one side of a topic or include opinions considered "professional"? Are the nightly national news readers at ABC/CBS/NBC/ CNN/et al who, for example, reported only their own station's poll result favorable to one side while failing to report on two national polls which had different and actually correct results acting professionally?Were they spreading false tales? It isn't necessary to report rumors or false tales to be guilty of providing fake or false information but to mix opinion with questionable "facts" or fail to report actual facts is also sinful. The Obama administration is the master of "Fake news" from the outright lies about Obamacare and Benghazi, two outrageous examples, to the"shovel-ready jobs,,aided and abetted by the "so called" main stream media.
John Walton
9 months 1 week ago
Catholics too are "not fully aware" of some basic teachings! Vide the concept of "Immaculate Conception". Few journalists seem to have taken a course in probability and statistics. That's why they were flummoxed with the election results. The confidence interval grows tighter the closer you get to an election as polling firms devote more resources to the estimation, but it's still a confidence interval.
Carlos Orozco
9 months 1 week ago
"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." Is there no shame in the New York Times? Their religion writer speaks of "fake news" when her paper was in bed with the losing presidential candidate, turning over editorial power to the corrupt Clinton political machine. The mainstream media, having lost its credibility AND the election, now doubles down and builds the narrative of "post-truth politics". Really? Please don't take this paragraph as a defense of the President-elect. On the point of Catholics needing to do some studying of Islam, I agree. Although, spirituality, I think it would be far more fruitful to learn the history and the witness given by Iraqi and Syrian Christians of their faith in recent years. The Salafist wing of Islam, that has nearly exterminated Christianity in the ME, is by no means a "small minority". Bipartisan narratives of a "religion of peace", "spread of democracy through regime change", "humanitarian bombings", "hope and change", etc. constitute really big fake news. Such propaganda in the MSM serves as excuse for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Richard Zeile
9 months ago

The situation arises because mainstream media assumes that religion ought not play a role in the public square, and so does not bother to inform itself, much less its comsumers, of religion's normative or descriptive perspectives. Personally, I like journalism that informs, not merely reinforces prejudices, no matter left or right, but I have seen story after story presented in the same trappings of enlightened progressive versus unenlightened reactionary. This has lead to many false news stories, like that revelation that Trump talked dirty in a private conversation a decade ago (maybe true, but is it news?), and the report that Hispanic voters were turning out at unprecidented levels to vote against Trump (totally untrue, and probably an attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy to influence the turnout). The mainstream media should begin with cleaning their own house before complaining about "fake" news.

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