Sins of Omission(2)
Six out of 10 Canadians say religion is an important part of their lives. By ignoring spiritual perspectives, Canadian newspapers have broken faith with their readers
The silence was powerful. On November 7, 1997, just days before the municipal election, almost 500 people met at the fork of the Thames River and paced wordlessly through the streets of London, Ontario, to City Hall. Mothers wheeled their children in strollers, men volunteered to stand at the street corners to ensure that the marchers-some sporting green ribbons with “Haskett” printed on them, others carrying signs reading “Re-elect Haskett for Mayor”-obeyed traffic lights. People in cars passed by, honked and waved in encouragement and still nobody spoke.
They marched in support of Mayor Dianne Haskett, who had herself been silent for almost three weeks, despite being in the midst of a municipal election campaign. No kissing babies, no interviews. Haskett was protesting the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s October 7 ruling that found her guilty of discrimination, fined her $10,000 because she had refused to proclaim a Gay Pride weekend in 1995 and ordered her to proclaim any future Gay Pride events. Haskett, an evangelical Christian, said that proclamations of this kind went against her religious beliefs. She felt that even as mayor she had a right to remain silent on issues with which she didn’t agree.
The opposition, led by Deputy Mayor Grant Hopcroft, was anything but silent. Hopcroft and a group called “People Opposing Principled Bigotry”-comprising a number of political heavyweights, including two former London mayors, a former provincial solicitor general and a former provincial attorney general-had held a raucous, noisy rally earlier in the day, in contrast to their silent opponents. On election day, they put out newspaper ads signed by over 100 recognizable local figures, and didn’t mince words in their press release, accusing Haskett of fostering “an environment where homophobia and gay and lesbian bashing have become acceptable, even respectable, attitudes and behaviours.”
On November 10, Haskett beat Hopcroft by a margin of two to one. Her silent backers had spoken.
Newspapers across Ontario and, indeed, Canada covered the story. Some praised the Ontario Human Rights Commission; others denounced it as Big Brother-ish. A freelance writer in The London Free Press declared it high time to discuss religion and morality in relation to politics; a columnist responded, “It sure is irritating to keep reading about the religious affiliations of London council members….” Morris Dalla Costa, another columnist for the Free Press, wrote an article about all of the anonymous phone calls he’d received from Haskett supporters in response to an earlier piece criticizing Haskett’s religious stance: “You disgusting pig,” said the sweet-voiced woman. “How can you pick on a saint like Dianne Haskett? She’s God’s voice in London,” and “Gays are perverts. It’s time we had someone like her stand up and tell everyone. She’s a leader….” Dalla Costa was baffled by just how nasty some Londoners could be.
Lots of coverage, but it was incomplete. Not one writer looked at what was behind the story: a woman and community motivated by religion. Aside from a few sarcastic or dismissive remarks on the issue of religion, the papers were as silent as Haskett and her supporters.
It’s not a new problem. When it comes to addressing the religious and spiritual roots of issues and events, the majority of Canadian newspapers systematically fail to come through. And readers have noticed. An Angus Reid poll released on June 7, 1998, for the first-ever faith and the media conference in Ottawa, revealed that 4.5 million adult Canadians attend religious services every week (be they Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Sikh or Hindu), and 65 percent of this group feels the media do a poor job covering faith and religion.
And consider this: a study done for the same conference looked at Canada’s 19 largest daily newspapers and found only five full-time religion writers, compared to 76 full-time sports writers. Yet it’s likely that more Canadians attend churches, mosques, temples and synagogues every week than pro sporting events.
At the same time, sales of spirituality-related books have taken off. Once huddled on a single lonely bookstore shelf or segregated in special-interest bookstores, religious and spiritual titles now hold rank on best-seller lists and dominate whole sections in mainstream bookstores. Even television has tapped into the rising interest: CBC Newsworld recently launched a program called The Moral Divide, examining news and current affairs from a religious and spiritual perspective.
It isn?t just churchgoers who have an interest in better coverage of religious issues. Clearly, not every voter in London, Ontario, goes to church, but all could have been better informed on the religious issues behind their municipal election. And at a time when cultural and religious diversity in Canada is greater than ever, Canadian newspapers are failing their readers by ignoring God.
Last September, the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) held its inaugural press conference at the Colony Hotel in Toronto, a centrally located facility that could accommodate up to 50 reporters, including camera crews. The goal? To announce the findings of a study of major Canadian newspapers documenting a steady flow of blatant generalizations and errors about Muslims. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, national president, another CIC member and an invited guest waited on a platform at the front of the room. Three reporters showed up. Only four newspapers reported the story themselves (though some others printed a wire story on the event).
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, has called the persecution of Christians “the fastest-growing human-rights issue in the world today.” In his book Their Blood Cries Out,published in April 1997, Marshall documents the persecution and mistreatment of Christians in 65 countries around the world, where the Christian population stands at approximately 200 million people. Yet only newspapers with religion writers found his statistics and stories interesting enough to write about. As Marshall writes in his book, “It is a story that is all but ignored and unknown in the world at large, and little better known in the Christian world.”
It’s a story that is still relatively unknown-the only paper that published it on the front page was the Ottawa Citizen.
Even the stale, overworked Clinton/Lewinsky scandal could do with some religion writing. Jack Kapica, onceThe Globe and Mail‘s insightful religion writer and now a news editor, says the press missed out on the essence of this story: the fact that fundamentalist Christians, who only represent roughly 25 percent of the American population, are expert at vocalizing about morality. The rest of Americans are much more liberal, and a lot less vocal. “So what happens when the right wing gets hold of an ecclesiastical sin and starts going crazy over it? You shut up and let it continue.” The problem, says Kapica, is the fundamentalists don’t know that beyond their little sphere, nobody else shares their “puritanical hysteria.” Kapica says most international events-such as those in Lebanon, Paraguay, Iran and Israel-are rooted in religion and need to be written about from that perspective. But it’s not happening. Why?
William Thorsell, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, has one explanation, which he presented during a panel discussion before 300 people at last year’s faith and media conference (later aired on CBC?s National Magazine ). Thorsell made no bones about the fact that his paper steers clear of religion, “particularly religion that we don’t know very well…. I sometimes think that we pull our punches when it comes to religion and to faith and to churches because we’re afraid of inciting the kind of discourse where, because one side is faith and one side is logic, it’s very hard to come to an outcome there that’s satisfactory to either side…. You’re going to end up for months dealing with groups where the very paradigm upon which a discussion is being held is so different.”
It sounds like a reasonable defence-unless you substitute the word “politics” for “religion.” Then, conflict, discourse, logic and emotion would appear to be essential elements of the story, rather than reasons not to cover it at all. Thorsell’s argument is flimsy, but it speaks to a reticence, even a shyness, about tackling religion and spirituality that can be found in newspapers across the country. Jack Kapica puts it more bluntly. He sees the lack of coverage as evidence of outright hostility toward religion: “Newspapers are filled right now with basically old, recycled hippies from the ’60s and ’70s. And we all have these attitudes, and the attitudes are basically, Religion is evil.”
And while Kapica’s might be an overstatement, there are statistics that back up his view. Lydia Miljan is the director of the National Media Archive at the Fraser Institute, the right-leaning, nonprofit economic think tank and research organization. She’s now writing her doctoral thesis on politics and the media at the University of Calgary. In her research she’s found that only 31.7 percent of journalists definitely believe in God, as opposed to 65.8 percent of the general population. She also says that while 42 percent of journalists claim some religious affiliation, most don’t attend religious services.
Those numbers might explain why a born-again Christian journalist working for a “major media outlet in a major Canadian city” felt the need to remain anonymous when writing an article for Media magazine. “I am not hate filled, bigoted, extreme, right wing or violent-and neither are the vast majority of other believers that I know,” wrote the journalist. “Nowadays, however, it is still politically correct to be prejudiced against believers, particularly if they are conservative Protestants or Catholics. As a result, I’m remaining ‘in the closet,’ anonymous for the purposes of this article. Why? Unfortunately, some of the worst perpetrators of that prejudice and ignorance are fellow journalists.” In the same issue, Bob Bettson, who was a religion writer for the Calgary Herald for four years, expressed surprise-though not disbelief-at the other journalists’ fears. “We have a long way to go in respecting religious belief in the newsrooms,” he wrote.
Before the 1960s, respect for religious belief wasn’t really an issue. A uniform-and Christian-religious point of view was assumed to be underlying stories, and journalists could be confident their readers would know enough to pick up on it. But with the social changes of the 1960s, religion was recast both as anti-intellectual and unworthy of serious consideration, and at the same time as potentially dangerous territory, as cultural and religious diversity were acknowledged, if not embraced. Most reporters and editors simply avoided religious news, and in many newspapers it was ghettoized in a once-a-week page at the back of the paper-which explains why traditionally few good journalists have pursued the religion beat.
And rather than improving, the situation appears to be getting worse. Since the study for the faith and media conference, the number of full-time religion reporters working at major Canadian newspapers has dropped from five to three: The Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd, the Calgary Herald’s Gordon Legge and the Ottawa Citizen’s Bob Harvey (with both Legge and Harvey now cast as city beat reporters focusing on religion issues). The Toronto Star, which has a rich history of full-time religion reporters who still contribute freelance articles (notably, Tom Harpur and Lois Sweet), has Leslie Scrivener on staff as faith and ethics reporter, but only part-time. In October, Casey Korstanje, the Hamilton Spectator‘s religion and ethics reporter for four and a half years, got a new job as production editor and won’t be replaced. Korstanje, who is an ordained evangelical minister, said he was tentatively planning to write weekly religion columns, but nothing has materialized yet. The Globe and Mail has no religion writer.
And how about the new kid on the block, the National Post? Martin Newland, deputy editor of the Post, says the paper makes a point of “letting people exercise their moral muscles” by combining softer stories on ethics and religion with more hard-hitting news. It?s a tool used to slow down the pace of a news page. Newland, who has an MA in theology, says that employing a full-time religion writer would be nice, but that it isn’t a priority. “It’s a simple matter of resources. We would take a justice or political reporter over a religion reporter right now.” He feels confident the Post will be able to provide quality ethics and religion coverage using its regular staff members and columnists.
It might work, though based on the examples of other Canadian newspapers, no full-time religion reporter typically translates into little or no religion reporting, and certainly none of the kind of reporting Gordon Legge did around Calgary’s hot video-lottery terminal issue last spring. When a plebiscite to ban VLTs became news in Calgary, the Herald put both political reporter Jim Cunningham and religion reporter Gordon Legge onto the story. Legge looked at the people behind the movement: churches and their members who had joined forces across denominational lines to fight to ban VLTs. He provided an in-depth and perceptive look at what motivated them, and credits his background and contacts within the church community with making a substantial difference in the quality of the Herald’s coverage.
It was a controversial issue, but covering its religious underpinnings added to readers’ understanding of the issue and satisfaction with the coverage, says Legge. “If anything, we are complimented for the fairness and balance that we bring to our coverage because we try to cover all faith communities,” he says. “But we do it in a way that we don’t sit in judgement.” Legge says religious communities usually criticize the media when they perceive biased coverage-especially bias rooted in ignorance.
Bob Harvey of the Ottawa Citizen agrees. He’s heard religious leaders recount tales of being questioned by reporters with no background in or understanding of their religious traditions and has seen the results: stories with errors. It’s no different than politics, he says. “I would not like to be parachuted onto the Hill to cover some subject that I have no background in and haven’t been following.”
Luckily for Harvey, he’s got an editor who also sees the value in employing skilled religion writers. Neil Reynolds, editor of the Ottawa Citizen, believes religion reporting is an integral component in covering the news. “Newspapers are essentially a conversation, a flow of information about moral issues,” he says. “So I think that religion belongs right up there, not only on par with, but probably above most other subject areas.”
And it shows. When Conrad Black bought the Citizen in the spring of 1996, it was in bad shape. Circulation had gone down by 6,000 readers. Reynolds, as its editor, responded with some bold changes in 1997. Readers got a new typeface, an enlarged letters-to-the-editor section, more local and business coverage, and more editorial comment and analysis on current issues. He also gave the religion-page editor and columnist Bob Harvey a call. Harvey says Reynolds told him that religion pages had become a ghetto where reporters were writing for the converted. What the paper needed was to explore the religious side of issues for a more general audience “on the front page and not buried in the back pages of the paper.” Harvey?s position changed from religion editor and columnist to city beat reporter.
Reynolds was as good as his word. In the next nine months, Harvey had 45 front-page bylines, compared to five in all of 1996. He’s now the most published religion reporter in Canada. And readers are happy with the change. Harvey says the paper gets more positive reaction about the changes in the Citizen’s approach to religion and spirituality than anything else.
Harvey hasn’t written a religion story about Mayor Dianne Haskett, however, or about the mayors in Hamilton, Oliver, Osoyoo, Kelowna and Fredericton who have also refused to proclaim Gay Pride events. Chances areThe London Free Press isn’t likely to do it, either-it only publishes a few religion pieces in its Saturday Forum section.
But the story continues to unfold. Last spring, Haskett won the Pink Stinkweed Award, which is “given to an individual who consistently displays willful malice to the gay and lesbian community” by the Pink Toronto Awards, an organization set up to honour the business and community achievements of gays and lesbians. Even after the Human Rights Commission ordered her to proclaim all future Gay Pride events, Haskett refused to do it personally and gave the job to her council instead. But even that’s not necessary anymore. London’s council has voted out proclamations altogether. Now Haskett and her electorate can go back to their powerful moral silence, even though they’re affecting people’s lives.
And still, nobody’s looked behind that religious curtain: what does Dianne Haskett really believe? How has religion shaped this community and how does it influence its daily life? Is there any common ground between Haskett’s supporters and Londoners who don’t share her religious views? They are the kinds of questions a reporter on the religion beat would be primed to ask. But for now, there’s just silence.
by Suzanne King
Suzanne King was the Managing Editor, Circulation and an Online Editor for the Summer 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.