Media blind to 'real' religious life
The vast majority of Ukrainians say they trust the Orthodox Church more than all other national institutions, yet journalists fail to adequately capture the role of the Church in everyday life, according to Ukrainian television journalist Nataliya Lyubchenkova.
Speaking to The Media Project’s conference on Defamation of Religion in Jakarta, Lyubchenkova described the "contradictions" of living in a very religious society.
More than 80% of Ukrainians are Christians of some sort, with the majority affiliated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A minority of the population are Catholic and Protestant Christians, along with very small Muslim and Jewish communities.
Many Ukrainians believe the country is mono-religious, and citizens and journalists alike can be uninformed about minority religions.
Perhaps the greatest contradictions stem from the very social ubiquity of Orthodoxy. Faced with such a rich and expansive tradition, media are unable to do much more than caricature the faith in their coverage. The tone of religion coverage suffers not so much from antagonism as it does from media and religious groups talking past one another, though cynicism is a common problem.
"People often perceive the Church as being united and holy, but often this is not so..." Lyubchenkova said. "When there is a conflict between major Church bodies, it leads to disappointment in society and makes journalists skeptical about religion."
Lyubchenkova spoke with Yulia Kominko, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s deputy chief of information. Kominko said that journalists display their ignorance when they apply business and political metaphors to the church. Kominko said the words “attack” and “fight” are frequently and wrongly applied to religious issues in Ukraine.
For a religiously literate consumer of news, such ill-fitting metaphors feel as awkward as wearing someone else’s clothes, according to Kominko.
Lyubchenkova believes that Ukraine’s journalists are stuck in stereotypical modes of thought. Low quality reporting comes not from malicious intent, but from overworked reporters - some of whom are reporting for two or three media outlets at once - who don’t have the time or inclination to go deeper into the details.
Lyubchenkova spoke with Tatyana Pushnova, editor of 1+1, one of Ukraine’s most popular television channels, about how media deal with religion. Pushnova said bad religion coverage stems mostly from a lack of professional religion reporters who can make an effective case for a newsworthy religion story.
The other problem, Pushnova argued, is religious groups’ lack of understanding of news business priorities and demands. If churches want more coverage, they should be more proactive about reaching out to media, or even in creating their own media content, said Pushnova.
Journalists are also quick to remind their critics that religious topics do not make very interesting stories.
“It’s more difficult to sell a positive story about a saint than it is to sell a provocative story about a lavish food menu laid out for a Russian Patriarch visiting Ukraine,” a journalist told Lyubchenkova.
The result is an over-reporting on the “provocative” margins of religious life because, simply put, that is where the profit is.