On November 30, JTS's Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture took the form of a panel, "Religion and the Media." Four influential journalists gathered at JTS to discuss the ways that religion increasingly affects world events, whether the media (print, television, online) truly represent each of the religious traditions that they cover, and whether current coverage is adequate to the task.
The conversation—among panelists Juju Chang (Emmy Award-winning correspondent for ABC News's Nightline), Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush (Senior Religion Editor, The Huffington Post), and Brent Staples (Editorial Board Member, The New York Times), and moderator Nicolas Lemann (dean of the Columbia Journalism School and staff writer for the New Yorker)—began with the panel members describing how their news organizations traditionally cover religion and what sorts of religion stories interest journalists. All agreed that the mass media often give too much exposure to the voices of extremists—whose coverage is disproportionate to their numbers and the numbers of their followers among the religious—and the stories of religious leaders who are found to be corrupt, the "hypocrisy piece," as Ms. Chang described such stories.
Some of the discussion centered on the issue of America's first major Mormon presidential candidates, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. Brent Staples then pointed out some of the hazards that exist when journalists have little expertise or contextual knowledge about the areas they may be covering. He argued that national reporters grossly misunderstood the rhetoric employed by then-candidate Barack Obama when he spoke in Black churches and therefore misreported and misinterpreted what he said. Reporters often "had no reference for the antecedents of what the rhetoric of the Black church was, and no way to judge what the guy was saying," Mr. Staples said. "The speeches [Obama] gave were reported in a way that startled him and somehow made those of us who grew up Black in America roll our eyes . . . those stories were obviously written by people who have never been in a Black church."
Another major question is whether religion itself can ever be a story worthy of national and international coverage. "For the most part, the press is reluctant to cover religion per se or on its own terms," Mr. Lemann said, adding that, to many members of his profession, "Religion is news when it affects some other realm that we are socialized to think of as the real news," such as politics or world affairs.
However, religion on its own terms matters very much to the American people, as supported by statistics that Ms. Chang cited and by Rev. Raushenbush's observation that the distinction of religion as not being inherently newsworthy is being disproven by what people read online. "Religious people are searching for things that matter to them," he noted, and because of the Internet, "they don't need to go through the front page of The New York Times to get there . . . What surprised the whole Huffington Post group the month we launched the [Religion] section was that, after politics, we were almost immediately the biggest section on the site."