Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Marty on Religion Reporting

At Sightings, Martin Marty offers a sobering note on losses in newspaper reporting of religious issues.
This September you might expect us to do some block-busting comment, given the huge amount of religion-in-public-life news during the Presidential campaign and Party Convention season. I'll resist the impulse, knowing that anything said here will be lost amidst the debris of punditry, bloggery, and 24/7 cable TV comment.

Instead, I'll begin quietly, and with some sense of sadness coloring this report on religious reporting and the featuring of religious features. The event that prompts this elegiac comment is the cutting-back of newspaper news and the firing of first-rate religion reporters...
In theological blogging it is easy enough to see the disparity of knowledge between religious insiders and the outside public on matters of concern to the faithful. The loss of a few reporters who have probably written their fair share of simplistic critiques of Rowan Williams on sharia law, painfully banal feature stories on American evangelicalism, or meaningless commentary based on Gallup polls and common knowledge doesn't seem to be too much of a loss to us. Since when has religion reporting in newspapers done much more than scratch the surface of any substantive issue, after all? Good riddance. Let bodies of the faithful do their job as a res publica.

The thought is tempting; it is certainly justified on many levels. But I believe that lament with Martin Marty is in order for the religious who care deeply about common life and dialogue. An ecclesial vision does provide the solution to a secular public plagued by tumultuous developments in knowledge and social life, and the fall of religion reporting in secular periodical literature is a sign of its initial inadequacy as much as it is any sort of loss to public knowledge. But this doesn't mean that we should stand indifferent to the failure of a feeble and incomplete public to respond to its own religiosity in educated dialogue. This is our failure as much as it is theirs, because we are not secluded from this public simply by being members of our own.

The early modern notion of a "republic of letters" (itself progenitor to the newspaper) need not become a lordless power or a fourth estate, which means that we need not fear participation in this republic as a rival to our participation in the body of Christ. Substantive reporting on matters religious is, on the contrary, a very important contribution to secular public understanding of the ecclesial public which is so often misunderstood. It is true that we may contribute to this understanding from the blogosphere or other Christian literary publics, but the secluded nature of these publics as products that can be read or ignored based upon personal taste leaves them at a communicative loss within the secular public. That newspapers and the "mainstream media" hold (and they do still hold, to a large extent) a certain normativity makes them an important venue for participation in public discourse on true religion. That this normativity is an entirely constructed reality does not change the fact that it is, in fact, constructed. To recognize this does not grant some innate ontological status to its normativity, although failure to recognize this does and will continue to lead to the marginalization of useful knowledge about religious truth in public discourse.


  1. Have you seen the Washington Post's "On Faith" section in their website? Its here:

    Its a collection of blogs and articles with religious themes. A lot of it is just culture war issues and religion on the campaign trail - but it also engages some important current events in the church, as well as Islam-Christian relations, things like that. Not the greatest, but its certainly a prolific division of the Post.

    I feel like in a lot of ways newspapers are dumbed down today - not just in reducing religion reporting. Sometimes it seems like they're all being reduced to a slightly different version of "USA Today". TV news does the same thing - its on an endless soundbit loop. No real analysis.

    That may just be me complaining about nothing - although I definitely think TV news has suffered.

  2. I do check out On Faith occasionally. I don't really watch news on TV, mostly on internet, but I think the 24/7 news thing is sort of the same in both contexts. I check CNN most often, just to see what's going on, but I also feel silly doing so because I know most of what's put up there is useless stuff.