OTTAWA—Christians attending the recent “Faith and the Media” conference June 7-9 in Ottawa, Canada, were treated to more candor than they probably expected from influential figures in the media. The news about covering the Good News was not good.
Peggy Wehmeyer, ABC News religion reporter, confessed that she was caught between “two cultures” as a religion reporter: “the culture of network TV and the culture of American religion.”
“Journalists are taught to be skeptics,” said Wehmeyer of her colleagues, “so how can they cover people who believe in things that they cannot see?” She joked, “Doubting Thomas ought to be the patron saint of journalists.”
But whereas St. Thomas was moved to faith by what he saw and his own reasoning, media representatives at the conference discounted the world of faith as something entirely separate from the world of reason and fact.
Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic of Toronto identified the heart of the problem as philosophical. The modern media is rooted in a liberal ideology that emphasizes the individual and his preferences, to the frequent exclusion of anything that might originate outside the individual, whether it be revealed religion, community obligations, or even God himself.
The cardinal spoke about the nature of advertising as an example. “Advertising appeals to our self-centeredness,” he observed, “and accepts that self-centeredness as a norm that needs no justification at all.”
Cardinal Ambrozic went further, suggesting that the dominant liberal idea of freedom and the Christian idea of freedom are in inevitable tension. Liberalism emphasizes freedom from constraints in order to pursuit self-development, while Christianity emphasizes freedom from one's own sinfulness in order to grow in virtue.
The emphases are different but not incompatible, he remarked, but in a newsroom where liberalism is the dominant way of thinking, it means that Christian belief and practice get short shrift.
Where Cardinal Ambrozic at least allowed for the possibility of liberal-minded journalist being able to be empathetic with the perspective of Christian believers, the liberal-minded journalists themselves ruled out the possibility altogether.
Nicholas Hirst, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, said, “Religious news is difficult to cover because religious views are informed by absolutes.” He and others of like mind viewed religious perspectives as dictates set arbitrarily by some authority, and completely immune from analysis according to reason. The division between faith and reason was viewed as an unbridgeable gap.
Peter Desbarats, Canada's leading academic journalist, noted that the media are “almost obsessed” with the moral issues (e.g., gambling, drugs, education, prison reform, homosexual rights, abortion, marital fidelity, truthfulness in public life) that have been the traditional domain of religion. “Nevertheless,” he said, “the media treat major religious institutions as irrelevant.”
“Journalists are typical members of rational society,” he claimed, “and they have adopted the liberal outlook.” Therefore they do not turn to traditional religion for insight, even when covering stories with moral content.
“The schism between rationalists and religious fundamentalists is the biggest story of our generation,” Desbarats continued, placing himself on the rationalist side. “And journalists cannot cover this story because journalists themselves are part of the story as participants on the rationalist side.”
The fact that two world views are clashing was made clear by William Thorsell, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, Canada's most prestigious newspaper. “Religion is only a part of sociology,” he said, justifying why he has recently done away with the paper's “faith and ethics” reporter.
Having rejected the possibility that truth may be found in the realm of faith, the elite media do not believe religion is worth reporting on in itself. The only reason to pay attention to religion is that it, like any other sociological phenomenon, has an impact in the world of verifiable experience.
The recent Ottawa conference posed the question of whether the gap between faith and the media can be bridged. The proceedings revealed a different gap — between two world views. On one hand there is the Christian view that seeks to integrate faith and reason. On the other hand there is the view prevalent in today's media circles that such an integration is not possible, and therefore faith is to be largely ignored. (Raymond de Souza)