Faith and the Media

Plenary session address: The state of faith coverage in Canada - A broad perspective

   The state of faith coverage

Contemporary North American news media are almost obsessed by religion, but these news media regard the organized religions of our society as being useless and almost irrelevant in helping them to treat these themes.

A presentation by Peter Desbarats to the June 7-9, 1998 Faith and the Media Conference

This is a true story, but I thought it might be more effective to tell it in the form of a parable for this audience: 


In the city of London in the province of Ontario, there was once a Mayor who believed that it was possible to be both a Christian and a politician. In this city there was also an organization called HALO, an association of homosexuals and lesbians. So it came to pass that HALO petitioned the Mayor to proclaim Gay Pride Week and the Mayor refused, saying that to do so would violate her Christian beliefs. HALO therefore went to the city of Toronto to ask the Human Rights Commission to punish the Mayor, and the Commission did so, levying a fine of many thousands of shekels.

Now it came to pass that shortly after this an election was called in the city of London in the province of Ontario and the Mayor, to show her unhappiness with this decision, decided to stand for re-election but to absent herself from the campaign. And so she departed from the city and went into the desert, or some such place, for 40 days and 40 nights, or some such symbolic period of time, refusing to speak to the scribes and refusing to spend even a shekel on advertising. For doing this, she was subjected to much ridicule by the scribes and Pharisees.

But lo and behold, on the day of the election the Mayor was returned to office with an enormous majority, vanquishing her opponents even to the point of losing their deposits. And the Mayor journeyed back to the city in triumph from the desert, or wherever she had been hiding, and proclaimed, "This is the Will of God."

And the scribes and Pharisees were much troubled, for this event was beyond their understanding, and turning to one another, they cried out, "What in God's name is happening?"

Mayor Dianne Haskett's astonishing electoral victory last fall was a news story in which religion was the main theme, and I would like to consider it for a few more minutes because it illuminates many aspects of the principal focus of this conference, and explains the apparent paradox which this conference has been organized to explore, which is: Why do the news media ignore something as important as religion?

As I consider this, I intend to show that the paradox is only apparent. In reality, contemporary North American news media are almost obsessed by religion, or to be more accurate, by themes which have been the major preoccupations of religions and great religious leaders since the dawn of history and beyond. At the same time, however, these news media regard the organized religions of our society as being useless and almost irrelevant in helping them to treat these themes.

If this is so, I am more interested in discovering the significance of this apparent paradox for myself and other human beings than in exploring its effects on organized religion, which is one of the purposes of this conference. To me, that is a relatively narrow aspect of this huge development which is surely, in its entirely, the most important story or news event of our time.

We've already heard statistics about religious coverage in news media, and we will hear a lot more before the end of this conference. But the story about the Mayor of London's unusual non-campaign shows how useless much of that data is. A standard survey of the news coverage of this event would probably produce few references to religion, if the usual key words were used in the search. Mayor Haskett was sometimes described as "evangelical" in her views, but they were rarely if ever reported in depth; in fact, after the campaign, when I was referring to it in a column for the Globe and Mail, I had to do some research to ascertain that she is a member of the United Church. This was not frequently stated in the news coverage, just as her religious views were almost ignored, despite their fundamental importance in explaining her conduct. Local journalists apparently were either unwilling or unable to do this. Instead, her non-campaign was treated as a political oddity when it was actually a religious event of great significance.

If it had been covered as a religious event with political consequences, it would have been seen not as a curiosity but as an indication of a major shift in the way our society sees and understands things, a shift that is taking place in the depths of our society, a kind of psychological or spiritual El Niño, with consequences as widespread and significant for society as El Niño has been for the environment.

This was one of the conclusions that I drew from the London election in the column that I wrote for the Globe last November, from which I'm now going to quote a few paragraphs:

"It was the first mayoralty campaign in living memory, at least in this part of Canada, where religion was the main issue. For three weeks, Londoners lived in a world where the customary barrier between religion and politics had vanished. All of us were thrown backwards into the 19th-century Ontario world of religious zeal. Or were we, in fact, being thrown forward?

"There are signs of a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in many parts of the world today and North Americans are not immune. People on the religious right share a conviction that ours is a permissive age of extreme wickedness. The mass media often reinforce this by focusing on violent, illegal and immoral behaviour.

"Many influential journalists, however, tend to have a liberal view of our society and to regard permissiveness as a sign of its strength, as do most of our political, business, religious and cultural leaders. From the upper levels of our society, Canada appears to be a tolerant, civil community . . .

"The London campaign showed how misleading that picture is, and how far many Canadians already have travelled toward a much more dogmatic type of society."

The mayoralty campaign in London crystallized this image in my mind and it has become more vivid since then - the image of a society where the attitudes of the elite reflect the liberal views of a comfortable and secure upper and middle-class, and are reflected in turn and reinforced by the media, while conservative counter-currents are running strongly and gaining force in the lower levels of society, largely invisible to the media and ignored by them. This dichotomy is due in part to the fact that influential journalists working for major media are drawn largely from the educated middle and upper classes but on a more basic level, it reflects the schism between rationalists and religious fundamentalists in our society that is, in my view, its most significant characteristic. This schism is the story that the media don't usually see, because of its scope and pervasiveness, because the media are ill-equipped to interpret it, and because journalists themselves are part of the story.

Compared to this development, the question of media coverage of organized religion seems to me to be yesterday's question, one that makes us look back to past media performance in an older type of society rather than ahead to the challenges that journalists can expect to face. And even this looking back isn't particularly interesting because it reveals, amid a confusing welter of conflicting evidence, a situation that can best be described as much ado about not very much.

But let's look at it for a moment before moving on to more interesting things.

We can start by examining more closely the proposition that mass media don't pay enough attention to religion. I must confess that this thesis struck me as supremely unexciting when John Longhurst first contacted me about this conference, and it still does. As every city editor or assignment editor knows, the media don't pay enough attention to any organized group that stops to think about it for a split-second. In my own career, I have encountered and provided advice on media relations to some of our largest business corporations, various municipal governments and cultural organizations, the presidents of a number of large businesses, universities, research foundations and cultural festivals. Each and every one of these high-profile individuals and organizations was convinced that the news media inexplicably failed to grasp their importance and conspired to ignore them.

It's not too exaggerated to say that this feeling is shared by everyone in our society from the Prime Minister to the poorest bag lady sleeping on a sidewalk grate in Toronto, the only difference being that Prime Ministers hire a succession of highly-paid experts who all claim to be able to do something about this while the bag lady, much more sensibly, doesn't really give a damn.

So the fact that organized religions share a sense of being ignored by the media, agonize about this, hire experts to do something about it, and even hold a conference such as this to try to solve the mystery of the conspiracy, is hardly news. And given the axiom that I hinted at a few second ago - that the bigger and more high-profile the organization or individual, the greater the sense of being ignored and misunderstood by the media - it's not surprising to discover that the grounds for complaint by organized religion are shaky at best.

Most of the evidence I'm going to briefly cite in this respect comes from research papers circulated by the conference and posted on its Web site, and I'm going to do this for the benefit of the very few people here who haven't read all of them.

The most comprehensive of these studies is the one prepared in 1996 by Susan Wilson Murray at Simon Fraser University. This was her hypothesis, and it resembles the hypothesis of most studies of media coverage of religion: "Although a major portion of the Canadian population have religious beliefs and/or affiliations, the mainstream news media, perhaps because of their own secular backgrounds and the constraints of common news practices do not provide a balanced, informed view of religions in the media ." I will overlook the obvious problems of definition here (Balanced and informed by what standard?) to summarize the results of her research.

In brief, Susan Murray studied 19 mainstream Canadian daily newspapers. She discovered that 15 had weekly sections devoted to religion. All of them covered local religious news as well as using syndicated material. All but one of the papers published a religious column as part of this section. Five of the newspapers employed full-time religious reporters.

At least on the surface, this hardly seems to constitute a conspiracy of silence.

Susan Murray then looked closely at one of the 19 papers, The Globe and Mail. She surveyed the entire content of the Globe during a four-month period in 1995 and identified 100 stories dealing with mainstream religion. Again, this hardly seems to be conclusive proof that Canada's national newspaper pays "insufficient attention to the role of spirituality and organized religion in Canadian society," to use Susan Murray's phraseology. She decided that 52 per cent of the articles were negative. Even given the subjectivity of this kind of content analysis, this seems to indicate a fairly balanced presentation. Prime Minister Chrétien should be so lucky.

Her most surprising finding was that the largest number of stories in the Globe (22) related to the Roman Catholic Church, the second largest number (18) had to do with Islam. Other Christian groups were the subject of 26 stories but this category included evangelicals and fundamentalists (16) as well as mainstream Protestant groups. These proportions did not even approximately reflect the numerical importance of these groups in Canadian society.

This finding echoed an earlier study by one of my students at Western, Larry Cornies, currently an editor at The Free Press in London, who surveyed religious coverage in three Ontario newspapers in the mid-1980s: The Globe and Mail, the London Free Press and the Sault Star. He also found that coverage of Roman Catholic activities was disproportionately high, as was coverage of Jewish and Islamic affairs in relation to their populations in Ontario, while Protestant coverage accounted for only 20 percent of the papers' total religious content in a province where more than half of the population identified itself in the 1981 census as Protestant.

Research on this subject in the United States is both more extensive and even less conclusive. For a time everyone cited a 1980 study by Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman of 240 "elite" Washington and New York journalists in which half of the journalists had no formal religious affiliation and only 14 per cent regularly attended church. But a more recent and more comprehensive survey by Vanderbilt University's Freedom Forum showed a much higher level of religious affiliation and personal commitment. The same study showed that a majority of ministers and priests are convinced that coverage of religion in the media is biased against both organized religion and its representatives, with nine out of 10 evangelical leaders agreeing with this proposition.

The problem with most of this research is that it tries to identify and quantify coverage of organized religion in news media. In my opinion, this is a very narrow definition of religion in news coverage. I would argue that religious issues and questions permeate the vast majority of news stories in our media, reflecting the fact that religion strongly affects our individual responses to events in our society whether or not we recognize this.

Mayor Dianne Haskett's story illustrates this perfectly. If someone were to research the coverage of that election in London, as I indicated earlier, most of the stories would be classified under politics rather than religion, but it was religion in fact that dominated the entire campaign. The Mayor's response to the homosexual community was rooted in religion, as were the responses of many of her opponents who accused her of "principled bigotry." And the message in her victory was not political in any sense at all but entirely religious, revealing a massive yearning for traditional religious values, at least in southwestern Ontario, that I'm sure has not been lost on Ontario politicians and their strategists.

Many of our currently hot news stories in Canada have this strong "underground" religious element. The abortion controversy is an obvious one, as is the growing concern about legal gambling. The controversy over euthanasia, like birth control, is rooted in religious beliefs about the sacredness of life. Educational reforms often involve a strong element of religion. Prison reform and the treatment of young offenders bring into play different attitudes toward sin, punishment and individual responsibility both among members of Christian denominations and the growing number of non- Christians in our society. Our attitudes toward the use of drugs, whether to escape reality or to find sexual satisfaction, are strongly conditioned by our religious upbringing and convictions. The whole debate about violence in mass media and consequent demands for censorship is rooted in religion. I could easily extend this list into the sports pages, the business section, and arts and culture to show that a large proportion of stories in our news media today are permeated with religion and in fact are being carried by the media because they speak to our religious concerns, although journalists are not usually aware of this.

So when we talk about the media ignoring religion, we are talking about religion narrowly defined as traditional, organized and represented by its official spokespersons. And while even in this narrow sense we have seen that religion is hardly ignored by our mass media, we have to agree that the media do not usually reflect the fact that organized religion is the only human activity that really matters, the view held by its leaders and adherents.

I would like to consider two explanations for this.

The first is that organized religion does play a relatively small role in the lives of most Canadians today. The background papers for this conference demonstrate this conclusively. In brief, the vast majority of Canadians, about nine out of ten, claim attachment to some form of organized religion but less than one out of four goes to church, synagogue or mosque with any degree of regularity, and that number has been declining for years. Given this trend, it's not surprising that the media have come to the conclusion that fewer and fewer people are interested in news about organized religion, and that the opinions of leaders of organized religion are increasingly irrelevant.

It isn't that the media no longer feel the need for such opinions. In fact, the heavy use of academic authorities on ethics by the mass media indicates quite the opposite. It's that media no longer recognize the moral authority or leadership of priests of various denominations. So someone like Dr. Margaret Sommerville of McGill University is constantly in print and on the TV screen as a sort of lay pope and no one thinks to question her credentials or to ask for whom she speaks. It is enough that she provides sanitized ethical opinions untainted by religious partisanship.

As a former academic, I find absolutely hilarious the proposition that universities rather than churches are the place to find ethical guidance, but let's move on.

The second and more pertinent reason for the media's ignoring of organized religion lies in the background and attitudes of journalists, particularly my own generation of journalists which has been in control of Canadian media in senior editorial positions for the past few decades. I want to discuss this in the final part of my remarks today both to help explain why our mass media tend to ignore organized religion and to approach the much larger question of the relevance of religion to all of us. In that last question I hope to find some clues about the larger significance of this conference.

It's probably accurate to say that most journalists of my generation were raised by church-going parents, or at least by parents whose generation accepted going to church as the norm. And we know from census statistics, as I said earlier, that my generation no longer attends church regularly, and our children go to church even less. This is a significant social development on a large scale that has occurred in a short space of time, one generation, and in all parts of Canada. It may very well be the most significant.

In this context, I would present myself as somewhat typical. I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the "Rotary Club of Canadian churches."

In the course of this progress, or decline, depending on your point of view, I absorbed and adopted most of the ideas, opinions and attitudes typical of my generation. Let's use the term "liberal" to describe them; it seems to be the best shorthand tag that we have, and most of us know what it means.

This shift in religious practice and values by the current generation of liberal journalists, particularly the most influential journalists in charge of our major media, is what Doug Koop is referring to when he writes about "the relative godlessness of mainstream journalists" in his editorial in the April 23, 1966, issue of Christian Week (included in the materials on the conference Web site). He goes on to say that "newsrooms are not the most hospitable environment for people of profound religious convictions."

However, journalistic organizations are hardly unique in this respect, despite journalists' special attachment to the Humphrey Bogart image of the tough and attractively dissolute newshound. The same climate exists in all professions or organizations that deal with intellectual and cultural affairs, from universities to theatrical organizations. Organized religion is not something that one usually discusses in "polite society" these days, either in terms of its social relevance or its importance to individuals. Most of us are unaware of the specific religious affiliation of the people we associate with in these organizations, unless their family names provide us with clues, and we usually aren't curious about it. We regard it as irrelevant.

In this respect, journalists are simply typical members of today's "rational society," to use a term that is a bit more descriptive and useful for our discussion than "polite society." Because of their education, upbringing and life experience, journalists as a group are supremely representative of the rationalist view of life that has been at the heart of Western development at least since the time of the Greek philosophers. And they are extremely instrumental in propagating this view.

I'm not qualified to discuss the importance of rationalist philosophy in Western civilization but I do know from my own experience that it has become much more powerful in my own lifetime, and that the gap between a rationalist view of life and a fundamental religious view has been growing. And I'll use these two terms, rationalist and fundamentalist, as I continue this discussion; I think we all understand more or less what they mean.

When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

In my lifetime, maintaining this position has required mental gymnastics beyond most of our capabilities. The majority of us, as rationalists, have accepted the current explanation about the beginning of the known universe, the "Big Bang" theory, as a reasonable hypothesis. We don't regard it as the last word on the first act but we all expect the rational explanation of creation to develop along these lines. For the first time in human history, people like myself do not regard the achievement of a rational explanation of creation as being impossible to attain. Many of us would see it as a logical conclusion of current research, although perhaps over a long period of time. On the other hand, we would be astonished if the Stephen Hawkings of the future ended up by discovering God, as their scientific Victorian predecessors sometimes did.

Small-scale science is making similar progress in explaining the origin of life on this planet. There is increasing evidence that it might have been the result of natural processes, not divine intervention, and that these processes probably have occurred elsewhere in the known universe.

Science is also revealing astonishing information about our own intellectual and emotional lives, showing that they are the product of physical, chemical and electrical structures and events, and can be physically, electrically and chemically modified by us. Even our religious feelings have been associated with certain chemical and electrical processes in certain parts of our brains.

All the big questions haven't been answered, and it's a truism that every answer creates another question, but most rationalists today probably believe that the pace of scientific discovery will continue to accelerate in centuries to come, barring nuclear warfare and/or some kind of environmental Armageddon, and that the universe within and outside ourselves will continue to become more understandable. Given the evidence, it wouldn't be rational to expect otherwise.

This can provide us with some hope for the distant future but it doesn't really help us to answer the only question that matters to mankind: Why are we here? In fact, the discoveries of science up to this point have made the question even more baffling. The more we learn, the more we are struck by the contradiction between our ability to ask this question and our inability to answer it. Having the intelligence to ask about the purpose of our lives and of the known universe, and to agonize over it, but not having the ability to find the answer may be enough to drive humanity crazy in the long run. The prospect of just struggling blindly forward forever, or at least as long as this earth remains habitable, is intolerable if we actually start to think about it.

Many of us, therefore, simply don't think about it. Instead, we try to find comfort in the old religious formulas that enabled our ancestors to carry on the struggle. We adopt beliefs about individual and collective salvation that do provide an answer, even if an illogical one, to the question about why we are here.

In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists, which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media - surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

This is why the Ottawa Citizen last year created such a furore when it interviewed the moderator of the United Church, Bill Phipps, and discovered that his rationalist approach to religion meant that he didn't believe in the divinity of Christ, didn't believe in the physical resurrection of Christ, didn't believe in heaven and hell and didn't believe in many of the things that I was taught as a child to regard as essential articles of Christian faith. In this and other stories, The Citizen hasn't re-discovered religious journalism in the traditional sense but has discovered how to report on what I have been referring to as the biggest story of our time, the conflict between rationalist and fundamentalist ways of looking at life.

On a smaller scale than the Bill Phipps story, this conflict was at the heart of the electoral upset last year in London, Ont., but because it was not perceived as such, at least by the journalists who were covering the story, its significance was missed.

I suspect that many other stories are being missed, or not reported properly, because journalists fail to see them in this context. For instance , I keep coming across references here and there to a revival of the Orthodox Christianity in Russia, but most of the reports are scattered and incoherent because they are coming from liberal Western journalists who don't understand what they are witnessing and are unsympathetic to it. Recently I watched a documentary on television about a Canadian woman who went to Russia to visit the country estate of her aristocratic parents who had fled to Canada after the Revolution, and to make contact with her relatives there. One of these Russian cousins was a young man right out of Dostoevsky, a religious mystic who wore a cross on his chest and explained all of Russia's current problems as divine retribution for decades of godless communism. He appeared and re-appeared in the documentary as a kind of oddity - the Canadian woman seemed to be embarrassed by this nutty relative - but I couldn't help wondering if he represented one of the major currents of change in contemporary Russia.

On another continent, the only African country that I am familiar with is Kenya. I visited it at least once a year for six years, up to 1995, because of an exchange program between the graduate journalism programs at the universities of Western Ontario and Nairobi. During this period, the only African family that I came to know was one headed by a chambermaid at the Boulevard Hotel in Nairobi, befriended by my wife and myself. The letters that we still receive from her are filled with Christian references and biblical quotations, yet news reports from Africa almost never inform me about the importance of religion there, Christianity in particular, apart from stories about the political doings of Bishop Tutu.

In the Moslem world, fundamentalism is reported to the Western press as a negative and threatening phenomenon without really explaining the reasons for its influence and, in particular, comparing it with the growth of fundamentalism in our own society.

Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the “other” side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.

Peter Desbarats is a writer, broadcaster, journalist and educator. He was dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at The University of Western Ontario when he was appointed in 1995 to be one of three commissioners of the Somalia inquiry. He had been appointed dean in 1981 and took early retirement from Western in 1997. Before going to Western, he had spent three decades as a journalist in Montreal, London (UK), Winnipeg and the Ottawa Press Gallery with the Montreal Gazette, Reuters, the Winnipeg Tribune, the Montreal Star, the CBC, the Toronto Star and Global Television. A frequently-quoted expert on media, he has written extensively on this topic and lectured in Canada, the United States and overseas. His 12 books include a best-selling biography of Rene Levesque, the authoritative "Guide to Canadian News Media," as well as several volumes of stories and verses for children. His most recent book was Somalia Cover-Up: A Commissioner's Journal published by McClelland and Stewart last October.

Return to top

Comments? Questions? E-mail: [email protected]

Last modified: 29 October 1999

Hosted by