Originally published on Jewschool.com.
When I was in high school, one of the stops on USY‘s Israel tours was The Propaganda Center. I’m fairly certain that wasn’t actually its name, but I defy you to google “Israel propaganda center” and come up with anything useful. Regardless, this place was supposed to teach us about spotting bias in the media. Although I went there twice during high school, I don’t remember the specifics — some of it involved seeing how Hitler’s media peeps used images of Kosher slaughter to make Jews look like devil-worshippers with bloodlust. What I do remember is that even though I was already aware that pretty much all media had some sort of bias, watching the folks at The Propaganda Center poke holes in actual news stories forever changed the way I read the news about Israel (and much of the news in general).
About a month ago, I had a similar experience that has changed the way I read the news, only this time it was in book form. Reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion was an experience of consciousness-raising. The anthology, edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Roberta Green Ahmanson, takes contemporary newsmedia to task for misunderstanding and sometimes simply missing critical stories because of an epidemic of ignorance about religion in the world’s newsrooms. Some of the stories analyzed are what you’d expect: Iraq, Iran, terrorism, etc… but perhaps the most interesting chapters cover the ways a misunderstanding of religion crippled the reporting of George W. Bush’s reelection, the hooplah surrounding The Passion of the Christ, and faith-based humanitarian programs. (The best “fun fact” I took away from the book, however, relates to the 24-hour cable news stations. Turns out they get higher marks than most other news outlets. Since they have so much time to fill with only so many stories happening on any given day, they’ve taken to exploring many more angles for each story simply out of necessity. That doesn’t make them any less annoying.)
Naturally, I approached the book searching for bias. After all, this could have easily been a conservative screed against the Liberal Media Elite. And to be fair, there’s a little of of that in evidence. But part of the book’s point is that religion doesn’t always equal conservatism, and that outlook is a huge part of the problem to begin with. So, for example, when religious liberals and religious conservatives banded together to champion human rights legislation (such as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004), the remarkable alliances at work were overlooked in most press. This does everyone a disservice, especially the end-consumers of the news who end up with a flattened and inaccurate view of the world.
The book avoids one of my pet peeves (whining about a problem without offering a solution). The final section of the book is called “Getting it Right,” and includes an article about some notable exceptions to the trend, and another with recommendations for the future. Of course, some of the recommendations, which include something akin to an affirmative action program to place more religiously connected people in newsrooms, may not be so realistic in these end times of traditional media. But at the very least, those writing the news should be aware of their own blind spots and look for collaborations that will enrich their understanding of the stories of the day. Even the most casual observer of world events can see that the place of religion in shaping our day isn’t getting any smaller, so we owe it to ourselves to meet the challenge of understanding head-on.