Religious Freedom Annual Review 2016 Thursday Afternoon Workshop: Understanding Media Coverage of Religion

by Ryan Hughes

Terry Mattingly, nationally-syndicated religion journalist and founder and editor of GetReligion, as well as Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City, spoke on Thursday, 7 July 2016 on how the media chooses to portray religious freedom issues and what can be done to make these portrayals more accurate.  Professor Mattingly traced the history of press coverage on this topic and made a list of recommendations to help religious liberty advocates make sure their voices are fairly represented in the news.

Professor Mattingly began with an overview of the history of journalism. The press originally followed a European style of reporting. News sources aimed their output at particular audiences; reporting was intentionally biased and reflected issues from the point of view of the source. With the development of better printing technology, an American style of reporting emerged, in which the goal was balanced reporting that sought to eliminate bias and tell stories fairly and accurately. American style reporting seeks to tell the news without any limiting viewpoint. However, this American model of the press is threatened due to the birth of “new journalism,” which, Mattingly argued, is no more than a return to European-style reporting without acknowledging the bias. Because of the obvious (though unacknowledged) bias of the news source, people seek out news reporting agencies that mirror their own views, while the internet has further divided readers into small readership communities.  “Technology shapes content, and the internet is hostile to the American model of the press,” said Professor Mattingly.

When “religious liberty” is in scare quotes, press coverage has gone wrong, has become advocacy journalism. Coverage is focused on the political winner, or loser, and the perspective of the other side is ignored. Religious liberty was originally a liberal left concern but that view of religious liberty has been shattered. The concept that religious liberty is a liberal concern works fine when protecting Native Americans rituals or Sikh’s wearing turbans in military service. “But when it conflicts with the sexual revolution, now it is theocracy to defend the First Amendment,” said Professor Mattingly.

Journalists cannot accurately cover issues by ignoring the other side’s perspective, Mattingly argued. This includes covering attempts at compromise. “The question we need to be asking here is if the goal is compromise, do we live in a culture right now where compromise is possible under the current standards of our public discourse?” We cannot possibly know if either side is attempting compromise if our news does not include it. In the Q&A at the end of the second session, he suggested that a way to judge if both perspectives are being represented is to see who is allowed to speak and who is not quoted or quoted from a previous source, “Paper vs voices”.

If religious liberty advocates want to have their views represented more fairly and accurately, they can, first, quote people from the other side of the arguments:  people from the religious right need to quote people from the left. Find out who the “old left” is and don’t be afraid to quote them. A second tip:  partner with a wide spectrum of religions; show there is a broad coalition in support of religious liberty. Third, people defending religious liberties must start national dialogues with sophisticated newspapers and journalists. This includes praising national and international news agencies when they report religious issues accurately and fairly. Fourth, religious liberty advocates need to be ready to offer journalistic solutions to journalistic problems. Finally, defenders of religious liberty must submit and post verbatim interviews and quotes from a variety of religious leaders and let the press know where to easily find and access this information.  Churches must also make good sources readily available to speak with the press on issues. Following these steps, said Mattingly, will help the press coverage of religious liberty issues be more fair and balanced.


Note: Terry Mattingly presented the same topic in two sessions. Due to timing and the prerogative of the speaker, not all issues mentioned in the article were given equal time or weight in the second session. This article is a compilation of the key points of both sessions and may not completely follow the flow of the recording, which is of the second session.