Clash of Cultures: Freedom Forum Study Details Antagonistic Relationship between the News Media and Religious Leaders

Article excerpt

JOURNALISTS AND RELIGIOUS leaders regard each other with a near-athological mistrust, according to a major new study from the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.

"There's a great chasm of misunderstanding that exists between those who practice religion, who lead religion, and those who practice journalism. It leads to a clash of alien cultures," said John Siegenthaler, chairman of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

At the heart of that mistrust, the study says, is inadequate, ill-informed -- and sparse -- reporting by news organizations on religion.

In this poisoned atmosphere, reporters and clerics approach each other only warily and then with big chips on their shoulders.

"Religious figures fear being misunderstood and misrepresented. Journalists fear making mistakes and incurring religious wrath," write the authors of the study, Los Angeles Times religion writer John Dart and Jimmy R. Allen, founder of the American Christian Television System and former president of the 17 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.

"The resulting apprehensions inhibit the free flow of information and only add to the misunderstanding," the two write in the study, "Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media."

This tension persists even though the Freedom Forum survey smashes a decade-old myth that journalists largely are non-believers.

A 1980 survey of the "media elite" based in New York City and Washington reported that half of the newspeople said they had no religion -- and that 86% "seldom" or "never" attended religious services.

However, the Freedom Forum survey of 365 responding editors and religion writers came to a different conclusion.

For instance, three-quarters of the religion writers said religious faith is "very important" in their lives, and 72% of the editors said religion is "important" or "very important" in their lives.

Only 4% of religion writers and 9% of editors responded "none" to the question, "What is your current religion." Most polls of the general public, the survey notes, find about 10% say they have no current religion. …

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