Media

Media

Reconnecting Spirituality to Daily and Political Life via Lobbying and the News Media

This is a commentary that I wrote for the News and Religion course that I am taking at the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, oh LORD, our strength and our redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

How would an epigraph like this sound in our pluralistic secular media? Would we wonder about the use of a quote from the Judeo-Christian tradition instead of from some other tradition, or perhaps a humanist perspective? What role does or should spirituality play in the news media of today? How do views about this vary between the general public and reporters?

The report, Most Americans say media coverage of religion too sensationalized explores some of these issues.

The public and reporters also have different perceptions about what makes for good religion coverage. More than two-thirds (69.7%) of the public says that they prefer coverage that emphasizes religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs. In contrast, more than three fifths (62.9%) of reporters say that the audiences they serve prefer religion coverage that emphasizes religious institutions, activities, events, and personalities.

The problem is that “religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs” are often very personal and subjective and are often not breaking news. As a friend of mine quips about spiritual practices, “with priests these days, it’s out with the old and in with the ancient.”

Yet underlying the “religious institutions, activities, events, and personalities” that reporters like to write about these days are these “religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs”. In our modern age of objectivity, we are losing touch with this spirituality.

A few years ago, my daughter, who grew up in a land of McMansions decided to build and move into a tiny house. She did it as an art project. During her gallery talks, she would speak of the goal of reconnecting art to daily life. Our large houses are filled with mass produced merchandise and we too rarely take a moment to see beauty around us. The same could be said about spirituality today.

Spirituality, morality, and the stuff of religion should be informing our daily and political lives. Yet in our efforts to be objective as well as our efforts to be tolerant of other beliefs, we seem to have lost touch with the spiritual and moral in the public sphere.

I have run for state representative multiple times. While we might acknowledge God in an invocation to an event candidates are speaking at, and our biographies should mention the religious institution we belong to, we seem to rarely bring our spirituality into our stump speeches.

In 2016, I reluctantly ran for state representative again. I wanted to focus more of my time on my priestly journey. I tried to bring the two together as much as I could, and watched my audience squirm as I started a stump speech off with the quote from Psalm 19. It seems like many of us want coverage about spiritual issues, we just don’t want to have to grapple with it in our own lives.

Yet there are people that want to bring the religious into the public sphere and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life report on Lobbying for the Faithful explores more than 200 “organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C…. [that] collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $350 million a year”.

There are also numerous media watchdog organizations seeking to ensure that faith is adequately and accurately covered. There is nothing particularly new or unique about such organizations. In 2003, I was part of the Dean Rapid Response Team. This was a group of volunteers from across the country that worked together to support Gov. Dean in his presidential bid. There was a feeling that the media coverage of Gov. Dean did not adequately represent his views or our thoughts about why he would be a great president. We had a mailing list where we would share links to articles that we felt needed responses and talking points to help our members respond.

More recently, this week I sent an email to the communications committee of a church I attend. Like the volunteers in the Dean campaign many years ago, we are trying to find ways to get information about our church presented in the most positive manner possible. The local newspapers are short staffed and generally don’t write about matters of faith, so we seek to provide editors and reporters with as much usable information as possible. Often, that includes providing material that can be copied and pasted with minimal effort.

Whatever our cause, we are likely to feel that the news media provides inadequate or inaccurate information about it. We will seek ways of using any media we can to correct this.

Underlying all of this is the question of how we help reconnect the spiritual to our personal and public lives, and do it in a way that embraces other faith traditions. To put it another, even today, we continue to struggle like the psalmist to find ways to make our words and thoughts always acceptable.

The Inter-relationship between News, Culture, and Religion

This is another article written for the News and Religion course I am taking at the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum. I will be participating in the classes DC Immersion Experience Monday through Wednesday of this coming week. This will include a Open House which I encourage friends in the DC area to attend.

Now, on with the article:

This week in News and Religion, we are grappling with the question, “What is the role of Religion and its value in today’s news media environment?” It makes me think of the quote attributed to Karl Barth, “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Underlying this is the age-old question of the relationship between culture and media. To what extent does media shape culture and to what extent does media reflect culture? They are inter-related.

This becomes all the more complicated within a pluralistic culture. What happens when people from one culture, or religion, report on people from another culture or religion? What happens when one culture adopts actions, symbols, or beliefs from another culture? What is the relationship between trans-cultural diffusion, cultural appropriation, and the remix culture?

Let’s start by looking at the role of today’s news media on religion. News media provides us information. It may be simple information about when an event is happening, what happened at an event, or what was preached about from a given pulpit on a given Sunday. It may be more complicated stories about ecclesiastical struggles related to moral issues and the culture wars of today.

A good example of this is the article, Anglican leaders head to the Communion’s “Mother Church” for 2017 Primates’ Meeting. While much of the focus on this event in the secular press has been around issues of human sexuality, the article by the Anglican Communion News Service focuses on other issues of perhaps even greater importance, such as climate change, human trafficking, and mission strategy.

Human sexuality is a titillating subject that a lot of people have a lot of opinions about. The articles in the secular news media about how a faith tradition understands human sexuality draws a lot of attention, although it is questionable how much such articles help shape our views. The Anglican Primates meeting in early October provided a great example of this. Much of the secular press prior to the meeting focused on possible sanctions against the Scottish Episcopal Church for their decision to allow same-sex marriage. The reports from the meeting, however, ended up with a very different focus: “The sense of common purpose underpinned by God’s love in Christ and expressed through mutual fellowship was profound.”

Climate change is an interesting topic that is discussed a lot in the secular media, usually with a political focus. Yet many people of faith feel they are called to respond to issues of climate change from a religious perspective. Coverage of climate change from a religious perspective in the secular media has the potential to further shape the political discourse around climate change.

The news media helps the broaden community understand know what is going on in religious communities and helps shape opinions and cultural history around important issues.

This leads us to “the role of Religion and its value in today’s news media environment”. First, we need to consider the role of Religion, in and of itself. While it is important to differentiate between religion and ecclesiastical organizations, it might be helpful to look at how the Episcopal Church describes its mission in its Book of Common Prayer.

The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Religion is the context within which news happens. It is the way people relate with one another and with the divine, especially as it relates to current events. News happens within a context; within a cultural context, a political context, and a religious context. Good reporting contextualizes the stories being reported on. So the role and value of religion in today’s news environment is to provide a key context so that the readers may more fully understand the stories being reported upon.

The problem that this raises is that we live in a pluralistic society. There are many different religious viewpoints. This can become even more complicated when one culture appropriates ideas, symbols, or beliefs from another culture.

Cultural appropriation has become a major topic in American discourse these days. Jenni Avins article in The Atlantic, The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation provides a valuable exploration of this topic, including discussing the adoption of “sacred artifacts as accessories”.

How do we differentiate between trans-cultural diffusion and cultural misappropriation? Avins article provides some useful guidelines, and it is something reporters need to be especially conscious of. Are they simply reporting trends in trans-cultural diffusion or are they contributing to cultural misappropriation?

Religion, culture, news, and entertainment are all delicately interwoven in the fabric of our society. They each influence one another and are influenced by one another. We should all seek to be culturally aware in our discourse lest we tear at the fabric of our society.

Cognitive Dissonance, Filter Bubbles, and Fake News

This is another commentary that I wrote for the "News and Religion" course I am taking at the Religion and Freedom Center of the Newseum. Comments are always greatly appreciated.

What a wonderful time it once was. In the morning, the New York Times was delivered to our doorsteps, bringing us all the news that was fit to print and in the evening the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, summed it all up I the CBS evening news.

If we didn’t like what they had to say, we could read the NY Daily News or the newspaper started by one of America’s recently re-discovered super hero founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the NY Post. If CBS wasn’t to our liking, we could watch NBC or ABC.

The Federal Communications Commission had rules in place about media ownership, equal time, and the Fariness doctrine. Over the past few decades, especially as more and more news moved online, these rules have been relaxed, and it has become harder and harder to get fair and equal coverage.

Yet perhaps things were not as fair and equal as they seemed. Was the New York Times really telling us all the news that was fit to print, or just the news that its editors felt was fit to print? Was Walter Cronkite truly presenting an objective view of the day’s news, or were his broadcasts shaped by the opinion and biases of the writers and editors?

There is an old Ethiopian proverb, “Until the lioness tells the story, the hunt will always be glorified.” Was our news being shaped by a cishet white corporate male perspective, by what it chose to cover, chose not to cover and the way it presented what it did cover?

The Internet brought about important changes in whose voices got heard. Just about anyone could set up a blog and write their own commentary. People admitted, or perhaps more accurately, promoted their biases, and there was a belief that by doing so, informed readers could get a much more complete picture.

In 2004, I was credentialed as a blogger to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Like several other bloggers, I had access to the proceedings and could write from my own point of view, expressing my biases, not having to please any editors.

As the convention was getting started, there was a breakfast for the bloggers. A guest speaker at was Pulitzer Prize winning political journalist for the associated press, Walter Mears. During the question and answer period, David Weinberger, one of the co-authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University asked Mears who he was supporting for president. Mears wouldn’t say, citing the importance of being objective. Weinberger responded asking how we trust Mears if he wouldn’t admit to his biases.

USA Today wrote about it in Blogs, journalism: Different factions of the write wing and years later, Weinberger expanded about it in a blog post, Transparency is the new objectivity.

Yet knowing a writer’s biases, whether they admit them or not, is only the starting point of understanding stories in the news. Last year, Factcheck.org wrote an article, How to Spot Fake News. It pointed out the importance of checking sources, digging deep, checking one’s own biases and other important ways to spot fake news. Unfortunately, most news consumers do not take the time to do this.

This takes us to the question of what fake news really is. In the Factcheck article, they refer to it as “a malicious fabrication”. Historians might put fake news into the larger historical context and call it propaganda. The phrase is now often used by some politicians to discredit anyone who writes something critical of them.

So the question becomes, how much of an issue is fake news? In his article “Is ‘fake news’ a fake problem? in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jacob Nelson writes,

“First, the fake news audience is tiny compared to the real news audience–about 10 times smaller on average… We also found that the fake news audience does not exist in a filter bubble. Visitors to fake news sites visited real news sites just as often as visitors to real news sites visited other real news sites.

This is not to say that people don’t exist in filter bubbles. In an article exploring fake news, Researchers Say They've Figured Out What Makes People Reject Science, And It's Not Ignorance, Fiona McDonald writes,

The issue is that when it comes to facts, people think more like lawyers than scientists, which means they 'cherry pick' the facts and studies that back up what they already believe to be true.

This becomes a special concern for those reporting on faith and religion. Many of the narratives of our religious traditions are at best unverifiable and would easily be dismissed by non-believers. In my Introduction to the Old Testament class, we recently discussed some of the older stories, like those of the exodus might be considered fake news. I am finding myself in lots of discussions about the role of written texts in forming our cultural history and biases. They texts might remain valuable, even if they are not factual.

As an example, consider the story of Teddy Stoddard. It is a heart-warming story of a little boy and a teacher that believed in him. It gets circulated frequently on the Internet. It isn’t true, but as Carole Fader observes at the end of her article, “It obviously has had a real impact on many people — even if Teddy, Mrs. Thompson and their story aren’t real.”

Stories of our belief, whether they date back thousands of years or are more current stories about what we believe about our fellow humans are very powerful. Some stories feel like they represent some universal truth. Others reflect the cultural memory of one religion or another. These days it becomes more complicated to choose the stories we tell as our politics becomes more polarized and our society becomes more multi-cultural representing greater religious variations.

So yes, it was a much simpler time, when could get all our facts from a hegemonic filter bubble that gave us all the news that was fit to print in the morning and in in the evening, the most trusted man in America could tell us, “that’s the way it is”. Now, we need to choose which information we believe. We can do it to minimize cognitive dissonance, or we can do it to expand our understanding.

Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to help all of us expand our understanding.

Does Freedom of Religion and Freedom of the Press Still Matter?

This was written originally for the News and Religion course I am talking at The Religious Freedom Center

A question we are exploring in the News and Religion class I am taking right now is, “Can you have religious freedom without freedom of speech and press? Why or why not?”  On the simplest level, the answer would seem pretty obvious: religious freedom requires freedom of speech since part of many religious practices include speaking.  To the extent that one’s religion calls one to speak out against injustice and work for reconciliation, a free press may also be required, or at least a free religious press.

On another level, the answer might simply be, does anyone really care? The latest research by the Public Religion Research Institute finds a continuing decrease in the number of people identifying as members of organized religion.   Discussions about religious freedom end up being about whether a business owner can discriminate against a group of people whose actions he doesn’t approve of or whether religious freedom laws can be used to fight laws that limit the freedom of women.

When we look to the news media, we see similar concerns: the consolidation of major news outlets, the focus on profits instead of seeking truth, and how all of this contributes to the rise of ‘fake’ news.  How relevant is religion or the press today?  What is the role of the news media covering religion in our secular multicultural digital age?

We must recognize that our religious identity as a nation has shifted over the years.  We have never fully lived up to the image of “A City Upon a Hill”, and that image itself, when examined carefully, has its share of negative aspects.  Likewise, the fourth estate has not always guided us towards the truth or our better selves.

The book, Readings on Religion as News, edited by Judith M. Buddenbaum and Debra L. Mason, is

“an anthology of news stories that illustrates both the role of religion in shaping public opinion and the role of media in spreading religious beliefs and opinions through society and in shaping people’s opinions about religion”.

The editors found themselves “inundated with examples of times when religion made a difference … [and] many interesting examples of news coverage that helped shape public opinion”.

It may feel that there is a paucity of such examples today as Americans drift away from religious organizations and the news media because more driven by profit motives.  Yet as is noted in chapter 10 of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media edited by Diane Winston, blogging and online religious news coverage has the potential to fill an important role as “a venue for religious news and discourse in the public sphere”.

This leads us back to our starting question about freedom of religion and freedom of the press.  While we must keep in mind our individual freedoms, we must also keep in mind the constant reshaping of our cultural history and identity.  Religion and the press have worked together to constantly draw us back to public discourse, actions, and relationship with the divine for the welfare of our nation.  The freedoms of both are deeply interconnected.

Religious News and the Decline of Christendom

This was the first week of the Religion and News Media course that I am taking at the Religious Freedom Center as part of my seminary education. We read from Readings on Religion as News, edited by Judith M. Buddenbaum and Debra L. Mason.

We started off reading a brief history of journalism in the United States and then read some of what was written in the press in the 1700s about the Small Pox vaccine from a religious perspective. I was interested to think about the discussions about vaccines back then and contrast it to discussions today about vaccines. I was disappointed to read about the opposition to the vaccine by Colonial Anglican clergy.

We also read two chapters from The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media edited by Diane Winston. Specifically, we read about the development of the religious news beat and organizations that supported it during the 1930s to 1960s. We also read about more recent religious bloggers and online coverage.

It has caused me to stop and look a little more closely at what is currently written about religion. The Public Religion Research Institute recently published its latest research,
America’s Changing Religious Identity
, with key findings like, “White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public” and “White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics”.

It is an idea that Steve Bannon suggested is driving the Catholic Bishops response to the Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA: Catholics “need illegal aliens to fill the churches”.

Others have picked up a different angle. Mark Silk writes in Stop the presses! There’s a next generation for mainline Protestantism:

While mainline Protestantism continues to shed white adherents, it is doing a better job of keeping and/or attracting young white adults than either evangelicalism or Catholicism

This shouldn’t be so reassuring to mainline Protestant churches, but it is an important part of the conversation.

It should also be noted that the struggles of mainline Protestant churches is not just an American phenomenon. The Financial Times has a long piece about the Church of England’s fight to survive. We find similar writing in Canada, such as Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why.

Andrew Sullivan looks at this through a partisan lens in The Religious Right’s Suicidal Gay Obsession.

Perhaps some of this comes down to Matthew 25,

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Perhaps also, some of this comes back to the stories of individuals struggling through their own vulnerabilities as a sign of God’s enduring love for us. I’ve always like the phrase the Episcopalians use, “Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread.” I remember hearing a priest talk about how when Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, they recognized Him by His wounds. They knew Jesus by his brokenness, his vulnerability.

That priest has had her share of struggles, and a local New Hampshire paper just wrote about her in Monadnock Profile: Sharing faith is the Rev. Elsa Worth's mission.

As an Episcopalian, I identify as being part of “resurrection people”. There is a future for Christianity. There is a future for religious news writers. There is a future for my own journey and my own writing. I hope to get a clearer sense of that through the Religion and News Media course I am taking as well as the other courses I am and will be taking in seminary and what I am reading online. I hope you will come along with me.

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