Faith & Reporting

Can a reporter be connected with a faith
community and remain objective when reporting about faith?

How does personal commitment to faith affect coverage of the news? Does it result in skewed coverage, either in favor of religion, or casting it in a bad light by keeping one’s own beliefs at a distance?

Should the reporter’s commitment to a religious community or values, be disclosed? It’s not a new issue, of course, but a commentary on the Media Matters website about the closing of a piece by Barbara Bradley Hagerty criticizes her for the way she spells out the conflict over separation of church and state.

I’m reminded how difficult it is to cover religion these days. There really is no way to please everyone because the society is so polarized. Every word is parsed for meaning, hidden or otherwise.

The Media Matters discussion points to the deeper issue of personal values juxtaposed against the professional value of objectivity, a much-debated topic in these days of opinionated blogs and criticism of mainstream journalism.

In addition, I’d add that language is equally sensitive, and one place where I am often likely to trip up. Certain words hold specific meaning for some groups, often not so readily apparent to others. This isn’t really coded language so much as common definition that has, over time, come to be understood in a particular context.

But you have to be informed by that context to know it. For example, in the general audience the “emergent church” is a little-known phrase that carries barely a note of precise definition. However, among some who are seeking to renew the church and who have put their energies into a whole new expression of the church the phrase is loaded with meaning, energy and hope.

To use this phrase without that awareness is to step into language territory that carries more freight than appears on the surface.

Given my own human frailties, I’m willing to give Ms. Bradley Hagerty some slack. Anyone of us who writes should be on guard to use language precisely and carefully. And we should do our best to not stumble into advocacy when we’re not supposed to be advocates, but reporters.

Fortunately, there are plenty of listeners, viewers and readers who will call it to our attention, as Ms. Bradley Hagerty is aware.

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