Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reach Out And Touch Faith

By Liz Hartnett

 As Americans, we become familiar with any and every right that becomes exposed to ridicule -- the right to bear arms, the right to print, the right to vote. But one right that we often dismiss and interpret to our own discretion is probably the most important one; the right to practice our religion.
When it comes to practicing faith, Americans become very sensitive. To make a blatant generalization, it’s “alright” to have the freedom of religion when it comes to more conventional and familiar faiths, but when something new and foreign pops up, our most cherished and fundamental right becomes scrutinized.

With saying that, American journalism attempts to not reflect the biases of the mass. After all, as the bearers of light, we need to know better than those who were not blessed by the patron saint Walter Williams. But when religion and journalism mix, it can get heady.

As American culture becomes more and more secularized, you would think that faith-based journalism would lose its place to Justin Bieber and the other troubles of the world today. We face insurmountable debt, wars, disease, and a national election that might as well tear the country apart.  We have become a people of material possessions -- of iPhones, of Ugg boots, of fast cars. To say it plainly, religion has been replaced by something other in our lives.

At least, that’s what it looks like.

Religion journalism is thriving and well in America. The Revealer, a blog dedicated to discussing religion in the media, has been thriving since 2003. Religionwriters.com calls religious journalism the “most fascinating beat in journalism.” The website also has a long list of blogs dedicated solely to reporting on faith, as well as some guidelines with those who want to get started in the beat. And of course, there are news agencies throughout the world, committed to reporting on the different interpretations of God.
In Europe, though, religious journalism takes a different meaning.

It may be because Europe is made of different nations that don’t all follow the same laws and mandates. It may be because of all the religious wars and turmoil that the continent has faced over its long history. Or, it may be because many countries in Europe share similar faith. Either way, religion, in general, is different there. Religious journalism is, to my extent and experience, limited.

In Paris, Prague, and Brussels, it almost seemed contradictory. Everywhere you went, there were spectacular cathedrals and stunning monuments to religious figures. Prague has the St. Charles Bridge and the St. Agnes Cathedral. Paris has the Notre Dame. Brussels, itself, was a town that served as a fortress to Charlemagne (who is regarded to be a protector of the papacy). But, it was never noticed or discussed by any of the news agencies/advertising firms/ TV stations we went to. It was like the elephant in the room. Religion is still held in high regard, but no one is willing to admit it (or, at least it seemed that way). Religion was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Except in Rome.
If I, as an American who has only been to Europe once, had to nominate a religious capitol of Europe, it would be Rome. Unlike the other cities I visited, Rome didn’t seem to be shy about its role in modern day religion journalism. But when you border the Vatican, I guess it’s hard to not embrace religion in any way, shape or form.
Going to Rome, I was well aware of the impact that religion has on the city. I even did some research prior to the trip, just to see what the institutions we visited were like. There were no surprises when I looked up the Vatican Radio -- after all; the Vatican operates it. What surprised me was the Catholic News Agency.
My main concern when it came to the Catholic News Agency was what was on its homepage. Story after story was about the Pope. Ads on the side of the webpage were for the Pope. Even if he is the epicenter of the Catholic Church, it seemed that the website literally was a vehicle for propaganda on the Pope.
Going around to the Vatican Radio and meeting David Kerr of the CNA clarified my worries and brought to light some of the mysteries of European journalism.
The main difference between religious journalism in America and religious journalism in Europe is fairly easy, but also a complex idea. In journalism school, we have constant discussions/lectures/debates on the character of journalists. How do we approach sensitive topics? How do we handle this kind of subject material? How do we talk about religion without offending anyone?

David Kerr gave me the most simple and brilliant answer.“We’re journalists first,” he said. “No matter what you’re covering, be fair and balanced.”

Ta-da.
Even though the words “fair” and “balanced” are thrown everywhere at Mizzou, we don’t really let them sink in. They’re only words to us; they don’t really have any meaning. Hearing David Kerr, a journalist with an impressive background, say that so simply broadened everything to me. It all made sense.
European journalists may be human, but the key to their success is just telling the truth. Whatever that truth may be. In the context of religion and journalism, the truth comes before making any religious figure look good.
To put it simply, religious journalism in both continents plays a huge role. In America, it gives comfort to the religious and good content. In Europe, it’s just another aspect of culture that needs to be reported on. But, no matter which continent you favor, as long as it’s done right, that’s all that matters. Whichever God you believe in will forgive the rest. 

Click here to contact Liz Hartnett.

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