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VIDEO: Ross Douthat: Journalists Ignorant Of Religion

Laura J. Nelson |
September 17, 2010 | 12:45 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Ross Douthat (Laura J. Nelson)
Ross Douthat (Laura J. Nelson)
Journalism and religion?

What we have here is a failure to communicate, a New York Times columnist said Thursday.

Ross Douthat, the Times's youngest-ever columnist, talked at the Annenberg School for Communciation & Journalism on Thursday about what he called a mutual distrust between journalists and American religious institutions.

Journalists are more skeptical — and often less religious — than the average American, Douthat said in a conversation with Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at Annenberg. That skepticism helps reporters cover politics, business and local government. But that same skepticism hinders them from understanding, let alone covering, the religion beat.

"It would be odd for business reporters to think that balance sheets are silly, or to not believe in Wall Street," Douthat said. "But in religion, you get that all the time."

Religion is belief in a faith; theology is the study of religion. Journalists who shy away from religion should should focus less on the faith aspect and instead on the mechanics of the organizations themselves, Douthat said. 

Journalistic ignorance about religion is only matched by religious institutions' distrust of the American media, he said. And the result is a gaping divide between two main American institutions. Douthat's suggestion: get educated. Treat the beat the same you would any other. Pick up a book or five, read different viewpoints, learn about religious organizations and how they work. Come prepared.

• • •

Neon Tommy reporter Laura J. Nelson caught a few minutes with Douthat just before that lecture to touch on a few other issues. 

LJN: I scanned an article this afternoon that talked about journalists' political contributions. Seymour Hersh said in the story that it's no one's business whether journalists support political campaigns, since they're allowed to have opinions like everyone else. What do you think? 

RD: Maybe this is sort of a new media instinct, but I'm sympathetic to Hersh's position. The ideal of objectivity in reporting is an important ideal, and it's been an important part of the American journalistic tradition. But it can be pressed to a fault. For example, there was an editor famous for saying he didn't vote. Not voting? That's taking the ideal of objectivity to a fault. 

LJN: But 20 years ago, that political neutrality was more widespread. What does that say about how the journalistic climate is changing?

RD: It's a weird moment we're living in, in American journalism. There was this intense ideal of objectivity that has fractured for the last 20 years: first with the rise of the partisan media on the right, then on the left as an echo, then with the Internet splitting everything apart. 

It seems we're slowly moving toward a British model, where you have newspapers and magazines that are more clearly associated with a viewpoint. The Guardian is the British liberal paper, etc. I wouldn't want to see us go toward that completely though, because there's real value in striving for that ideal of objectivity and even handedness. What you don't want is two to three networks claiming "objectivity," which was really just a consensus being ratified by a very small, sort of clubby group. 

A lot of the populism, left and right, we've seen since then is a constant reaction in the sense that there's an establishment that defines what's objective and what's mainstream. But then again, who are they to say who's mainstream? 

LJN: When the Internet blew up opinion writing, everyone suddenly thought they had something to say and the right to say it. You come in contact with a lot of bloggers — what has that done to the opinion writing atmosphere? 

RD:  I started in journalism around the time that Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus were just getting off the ground. You had an intense amateurization of journalism in the 2001-2005 period. It was a huge opportunity for people to start a site and do something interesting and build an audience.

Then the mainstream media started playing catch up (by doing things like hiring bloggers), and now blogging is less of a Wild West atmosphere. Blogging still constantly diversifies and splits off, but you don't have the cliche that older journalists used to repeat: "Bloggers! It's somebody in their pajamas in their basement, and anybody can say anything! There's no fact-checking!" That's not where we are. Bloggers are held to the same standards of accuracy, and have a wealth of diverse opinions. Bloggers can build up a reputation for honesty and seriousness just like journalists.

LJN: So what blogs do you follow? 

RD: Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and The New Repulic are basically my views of what liberals are thinking right now. And I go to The National Review's The Corner and Hot Air (founded by Michelle Malkin) to get a sense of what's happening with the conservative moment.

LJN: Moving from politics to religion, are you religious?

RD: Roman Catholic.

LJN: So how do you keep your religious beliefs neutral when you cover stories about Catholicism?  

RD: I'm a much more of an opinion journalist than a straight reporter. I've done reporting in my career, but it hasn't been the "thing" that I've done. So it's not a question of neutrality or conflict, because I don't always have to be objective.

These are obviously difficult times for the Catholic Church. Figuring out what to say, what arguments to pick and who to defend can be challenging, but it isn't something I think of as my journalistic cross to carry... for lack of a better metaphor.

LJN: What do you see as the biggest problem for the journalism industry, especially for young journalists?

RD: Journalism used to be a fairly stable middle- to upper-middle class profession. Now it's essentially becoming a blue collar profession populated by white collar graduates. It seems crass to cite financial and class issues, but when i talk to peers and people younger, those are the issues coming up again and again.

It's less these big questions of journalistic ethics in the age of the Internet, although they're obviously important, and more the pressing questions on a 25-year-old journalist: Am I going to be able to make a living in this profession in a stable and meaningful way? We're moving to a situation where you'll have a lot of people working in journalism from age 22 to 30, then moving on to another career. 

And this issue facing young journalists is the microcosm facing journalism in general. It's all about the money.

Reach reporter Laura J. Nelson here. Follow her on Twitter: @laura_nelson.

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