A complex crisscross

Religion reporters balance journalistic ethics and faith
Sunday, September 17, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:53 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When Jeremy Littau took his first reporting job at The Daily Democrat in Woodland, Calif., he faced a problem he did not anticipate.

“People didn’t think of me as a journalist,” he said. “They thought of me as a Christian.”

Littau, the son of an Evangelical pastor and graduate of Biola University, a Christian school in La Mirada, Calif., said his editor “made a big deal” of his Christian background, making him feel he had to work harder to prove himself.

The culture of journalism is often perceived as secular, even anti-religious, said Amy White, program coordinator for the Center for Religion, the Professions, and the Public at MU. As a result, journalists of faith may feel out of place in the world of journalism, although this feeling does not necessarily reflect the reality of their situation.

“A lot of the hot-button issues that we’re writing about today are ones that people of faith have opinions on,” she said, mentioning the war in Iraq and same-sex marriage as examples.

According to the Religion Newswriters Association, between 400 and 500 journalists in the U.S. “spend a significant part of their time reporting on faith and values.” Religious issues have been especially prominent in the news since the Sept. 11 attacks, said Phyllis Alsdurf, associate professor of English a Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn.

It can be dangerous for journalists to disregard the faith aspects of their stories, Alsdurf said. To help journalists deal with religious issues in their reporting, Alsdurf has organized a conference, Journalism Through the Eyes of Faith: Negotiating Values, Fairness and Advocacy, which will be held from Sept. 20 to 22 at Bethel.

Alsdurf expects about 200 people to attend the conference, which is designed for reporters and editors, academics and students who are interested in the intersection of personal religious faith and journalism.

The conference will feature Christian, Jewish and Muslim speakers who will cover topics including religious issues in the major news stories of the day, the way religious imagination shapes news stories and how a religious commitment can be reconciled with principles of good journalism.

One of the speakers at the conference, author Bill McKibben, said he will address the issues of the environment, social justice and poverty. “I think the question of how journalism reflects the reality of the country is crucial for almost everyone,” he said. “These all seem to me to be central issues of our day, and also central issues to someone interested in the Gospel.”

John Schmalzbauer, associate professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, is the author of “People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education,” which addresses the conflict between faith convictions and journalistic objectivity.

“Journalists can rely on the checks and balances of editors and others to bracket their overt biases,” Schmalzbauer said. “But more subtle biases may be harder to weed out.”

Leah Lohse, a former religion reporter for the Missourian and a journalism instructor at MU, said all reporters, not only those of faith, must strive to keep their biases from affecting their writing.

“It is important for journalists to set aside their own beliefs when reporting,” Lohse said. “If readers expect government reporters to take an even-handed approach to political coverage, religion reporters should be expected to do the same.”

However, Littau, a doctoral student at MU and a research assistant at the Center for Religion, the Professions, and the Public, said it is impossible to completely separate one’s beliefs from one’s work. In fact, he has chosen stories based on his beliefs, he said. This is also true of Lohse, who chose to report on Christianity and homosexuality based on her curiosity on the subject. “Part of that story was my own quest to work through those theological issues,” she said,

However, one’s personal religious beliefs are not necessarily a deterrent to one’s reporting. Schmalzbauer said he believes a religious commitment influences people in different professions much in the same way — a point Lohse agrees with.

“The great thing about being a journalist is that it’s not my job to make moral judgments,” she said. “It’s my job to present information.”

In fact, Lohse said practicing their own religion can help reporters cover someone else’s faith in a more sensitive and accurate manner.

“I’ve found that, for some, faith is a weekly ritual, a moral code to live by or just a way of networking with those who share similar values,” Lohse said. “For me and others I’ve interviewed, faith has a different meaning. Faith is a way of life.”

Littau said a faith comittment comes with moral and ethical codes that one should follow in every aspect of his daily life, including work, and the same principle applies to the work of religious journalists.

“I believe in truth,” he said, “but I don’t think that makes me different from any other journalist.”

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