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Commentary

Conservative Christianity's higher profile in politics spells trouble for journalism

The answer to the question "What happened to the Democrats on Election Day?" seems to be that they got Bushwhacked by conservative Christians voting on "moral values."

If true, it's not a hopeful omen for journalism. To the extent that religion and politics mix, socially responsible news may be in for a difficult four years.

That's because what responsible journalism requires -- an impartial adherence to logic and evidence in reporting -- conflicts more than it coincides with the demands of faith. Religion is based on a willingness to go beyond logic and evidence to belief in what cannot be proved (or disproved).

Faith enshrines a particular "truth" discernable only through belief. By contrast, responsible journalism values diverse viewpoints and weighs their newsworthiness by the amount of evidence they have going for them. Journalism's epistemology, or way of knowing, must be empirical.

John McManus

Conflict is inevitable. When journalists quote the views of those on the "faithless" side of issues, they may be accused of bias -- likely liberal bias.

Faith is respectful of a higher authority. It's often hierarchical, ceding authority to bishops or pastors. And its core tenets are usually held to be beyond question, as far above human logic as the sky is above the earth. But journalism is supposed to subject power to rigorous scrutiny. Skepticism, not belief, is a newsroom virtue.

Conflict is inevitable. When journalists question leaders and are skeptical of those who claim to be instruments of their god, they may be seen as disrespectful or oppositional. If the leader is conservative, that perceived opposition casts the press, again, as liberal.

Because it proclaims an ultimate truth, religion tends to be partisan. Responsible journalism demands impartiality.

Conflict is inevitable. When news articles frame a story about homosexuals getting married in terms of human rights, equality or freedom from discrimination, they may alienate those whose faith teaches that such unions are morally disordered or perverse. Even the choice of the term "gay" for homosexual connotes sympathy, or respect.

Almost every political issue has a moral dimension, so religion has never been entirely separate from politics. But when a particular interpretation of religion formally enters politics by taking stands on such questions from the pulpit, it also enters the natural domain of responsible journalism. So the arena of conflict expands.

Religion also has more power to arouse strong feelings than most affiliations. You may be mildly peeved about a report you feel is biased against your favorite TV program or band, but change the channel or cancel a subscription over a report challenging an article of faith. Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for example. For many Jews and Muslims, no report satisfies both as impartial.

If more affairs of state become explicitly connected with religious viewpoints, society is likely to become more polarized than it already is on political grounds. The middle path reporters try to walk will narrow. Press credibility, already at historic lows, may erode further.

The values of socially responsible journalism are communicated in codes of ethics like those of the Society of Professional Journalists, or Radio-Television News Directors. The primary value, following Walter Lippmann, is to create a picture of the world upon which people can act. Such journalism is particularly about empowering citizens for participation in their own government.

This kind of journalism is already under stress from corporations trying to meet the expectations of Wall Street for constantly improving profits. The result is a pressure for news framed to attract and keep the largest audience advertisers will pay to reach at the lowest cost.

In a political environment weighted toward a particular faith, the desire to avoid antagonizing a substantial segment of the customer base could result in a blander political journalism, or de-emphasizing the topic entirely, perhaps in favor of even more sports and crime news. Or worse, reporting could adopt the coloration of that faith -- and be faithless to journalism.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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