How Religion Is Its Own Worst Enemy (speech summary)
THE WORST ENEMIES OF GOOD RELIGION REPORTING ARE OFTEN RELIGIOUS PEOPLE THEMSELVES, said American television-news reporter Lisa Leigh Kelly to the delegates of The Media Project’s Religion & Politics Conference.
In her 15-year career in television news, Kelly has been thwarted many times in her efforts to get compelling religion stories on the air. The culture of journalism and attitude of editors has been a problem, of course. But just as often, she says, religious leaders go into hiding when the camera is pointed in their direction.
“During these rare opportunities, I repeatedly find myself banging my head against the wall, facing the seemingly impossible feat of finding a religious leader willing to speak on camera,” said Kelly.
After refusing to speak on camera for a story about the “end times,” one pastor explained that he and his colleagues were reluctant to cooperate because they so often “lose control of their words” in the press.
Religious groups in the U.S. are quick to blame the media for ignoring them or being biased against them, and Kelly does not deny that bias exists. But that’s just one piece of the problem, she said. More vexing to her is religious groups’ self-censorship.
Kelly believes the media are actually interested in religion stories and ready to make room for them, though they tend to focus on “side-show” religion stories. She cited the story of the polygamist Mormon compound in Texas that was raided in 2008 - a juicy story with cultish and sexual overtones.
“This is an example of when religion goes bad, when religion allegedly harms people - children - rather than helps them,” Kelly said. “Sadly, these are too often the types of religion-based stories that make air.”
Kelly says journalists’ discomfort with religion stories is really just fear of backlash. Rather than seek answers to religious questions, she says editors’ instinct is to simply avoid the confrontation completely.
The Church has the very same avoidance issues, she said. Given the chance to speak out on issues in the news, religious people choose to avoid public confrontation.
This double bind results in poor and superficial coverage of religious stories, such as the gay-marriage debate. Kelly told how she attempted to report a local angle on the issue in the early 1990s when TV comedies first featured gay characters.
"It took only a few phone calls to find a gay married couple willing to speak out,” she said. “…these two men shared intimate details with me on camera, along with photos of their beachfront wedding, and how thrilled they were that television dramas were finally profiling characters like them.”
But this story almost aired with only one side of the story, she said.
“I spent literally hours on the phone, calling pastors and conservative leaders, nearly exhausting my Rolodex, until I practically begged one into speaking with me on camera.”
Kelly ran into similar obstacles in her reporting on the approval of the controversial RU486 pregnancy-terminating drug. She said the activists in favor of RU486 met the press early and expertly crafted their message for the news. Pro-life activists, on the other hand, just weren’t worthy foes.
“The pro-life lobby was simply ill prepared,” she said. “At the last minute they threw together a quick newser but were inarticulate in their response.”
Pro-lifers squandered their opportunity, and as a result, Kelly’s story couldn’t accurately deal with the complexities of the issue, she said.
Kelly left no doubt that the media must work out their biases if religious people are ever to feel welcome there. She has personally experienced the frustrations of editorial policies that unfairly restrict her reporting vocabulary for stories about abortion.
So Kelly can empathize with the concerns of religious leaders who don’t want to clean up messes that poor or biased reporting creates for them. But what Kelly can’t forgive is an authoritative source’s refusal to speak to important religion issues when given a truly fair and open forum.
She doubts God is impressed, either.
“It does seem a cop-out for pastors and other religious leaders to isolate themselves from the public forum,” Kelly concluded, “but they have to answer to God, not to me.”