August 31, 2007

How Should a Journalist Cover Christian Extremists?

It was not long ago that American journalists were expected to approach stories with some measure of objectivity. Editors wielded great power behind the scenes, and their bias could creep in as they decided what was newsworthy, however, news columns were clearly separated from opinion columns, and anchors were clearly distinguished from pundits. Anchors and print columnist were generally expected to use a tone of objectivity without their personal opinions shaping the content they were responsible for reporting.

Times have changed to the point where we now tolerate neo-conservative propaganda masquerading as news while Anderson Cooper is praised for his emotional expressions while reporting on Hurricane Katrina. This is not an encouraging trend, and I am increasingly disturbed by a progressive erosion in the factual content of the information American citizens receive. When information is replaced with propaganda, our very democracy is threatened.

With these concerns in mind, it should be no surprise that a recent Newsweek article by Lisa Miller, "Campus Crusaders," caught my eye. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that a specific portion of the article grabbed my attention. Tasked with writing about Patrick Henry college, a bastion of Christian fundamentalism and training grounds for future theocrats, Miller acknowledged the difficulty of her journalistic task.
The challenge for any responsible journalist approaching this subject, then, is twofold. She must approach with compassion, avoiding the stereotyping that so often characterizes books and articles about religious groups. This tendency among reporters to see people of strong faith as freaks or oddities (whether Mormons or Muslims or Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians) only exacerbates misunderstandings between Red and Blue Staters and fans the flames of the culture war. At the same time, she must retain her skepticism, wrestling with the fact that what liberal intellectuals fear most about evangelical Christians is in this case partially true: the students at Patrick Henry College do want to take over the world and they do think that anyone without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is going to hell.
I praise Miller's honesty, and I do not envy her task. And yet, I'm not sure I fully agree with her on the nature of her challenge. Why is "compassion" a better way to approach such a story than cool-headed analysis? Miller's task should not involve passing judgment, for that is the task of the readers and those of us who stick to commentary. I agree that she should refrain from stereotypes (unless such stereotypes are supported here by the facts). But does a group of people who readily profess their desire for world domination warrant compassion?

If reporters really tend to see people of strong faith as freaks or oddities" (and I am highly skeptical of this claim), then Miller is right to avoid applying negative labels to these believers. However, she must not shy away from reporting what these people believe and encouraging the reader to decide. If the reader decides, as I certainly will, that there is something freakish or odd about these believers, so be it. This is not something about which Miller need worry.

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