Stations of the Cross
Most Canadians believe in a higher being. When it comes to dealing with issues of faith, though, too many broadcast-news executives are committing sins of omission
During her first week as a reporter at CTV, Anne-Marie Mediwake has had five story ideas approved. Which is good. This afternoon, she’s sitting at her desk scouring through information on the Internet about several “cool and creative stories.” There’s “a church for people who are not into church,” and then she plans to do one on Christian wrestling. Plus, there’s the liberal Catholic group that’s planning to hand out condoms when the pope visits Toronto this summer, with the message: “Don’t Leave It Up to Your Guardian Angel.”
If you detect a theme here, that’s because Mediwake’s beat is-wait for it-religion. And that’s something new in the world of broadcast news. Brand new. While more than 80 percent of Canadians say they believe in God and over five million of us attend religious services at least once a week, faith makes a bit-part appearance in television news, well below Madonna’s wedding or the Superbowl in the lineup. But change is afoot. Less than a year ago there was only a handful of full-time religion reporters in Canada compared with the hundreds covering sports, politics, entertainment, and crime. All worked for newspapers. Now, CTV has two religion reporters on staff, and CBC Television is covering spirituality on Sunday morning’s CBC News with Carole MacNeil and Evan Solomon.
What long-term difference these moves will make to religion reporting has yet to be seen, but television’s measured-in-minutes news format is a tough context for religion reporting. The result: viewers get a veiled glimpse of the world of faith and spirituality. A disaster survivor thanks God for her good fortune; a World Series MVP does the same for his game-winning home run. Or a clergyman is charged with sexual abuse or fraud. Beyond that, the job of covering faith-people’s struggles and triumphs regarding spiritual identity, morality, and meaning-is left mainly to the specialty religious channels, the number of which has risen from one to four in the past decade. The problem is that these specialty programs are in the business of providing spiritual comfort and awareness, not the news.
Kirk LaPointe is the man behind CTV’s move to give religion a seat at the network news table. The former editor of The Hamilton Spectator, now senior vice president of CTV News, says he’s just exercising normal news judgement. “I believe ethics and spirituality are important fields for journalism in any age,” LaPointe says. “Our audience is continually wrestling with personal dilemmas, quests for higher meaning, and a greater sense of perspective in life.”
LaPointe says expanding religion coverage was on his agenda when he first arrived at CTV in fall 2000. “Canadians routinely say they believe in a higher being and have a strong sense of faith,” he says. “They may not be attending places of worship, but they discuss their ideas and practise their philosophies, so there is a legitimate phenomenon to chronicle and I think media opted out for a variety of reasons some time ago.”
Rita Deverell says amen to that. According to the executive producer of VisionTV’s Insight, journalists almost never take religion seriously. “In largely dismissing religions,” Deverell says, “mainstream media has also largely dismissed what is turning into the biggest social-political influence of this decade, which is fundamentalism.”
After September 11, Islam and Islamic extremists started getting serious attention, Deverell points out, but, she says, “Nobody’s talking about extremists in the United States, where extremism is the fastest growing aspect of faith. We need to understand the rise of extremist religious behaviour in all traditions, all around the world, including here.”
Instead of tackling such big stories, Deverell says, American broadcast news tends to cram religion into discrete “faith moment” bits in the wake of major news events. “I’m not so much interested in the kind of ‘All I could think of when this tornado whipped through my town was I believe in God,'” she says.
When CBC News: Sunday first aired on February 24, 2002, Evan Solomon interviewed Rabbi Gunther Plaut, long-time spiritual leader of a large Toronto temple. The rabbi is in his 90s, survived the Nazis, and now is staring death in the face again-visiting his wife of 63 years in the hospital where she lies paralyzed in a coma, and living with his own cancer. Solomon poses a question about people who renounced their faith in God after the Holocaust. Plaut responds: “My theology is a little different. Theology is a core set of beliefs, not a core of scientific facts. In other words, what I’m about to tell you, I cannot prove.” The rabbi and the TV host talk for a while about spirituality and faith, and at one point, Plaut says: “I have no hesitation to say, I don’t really know what God wants of me.”
Faith Moment TV this isn’t. Here’s a person of faith who does not claim to possess simple answers to life’s hard questions. Which is, according to Stuart Coxe, the program’s executive producer, the whole point. Religion and faith are complex. Viewers-people-wrestle with unanswerable questions, and many turn to faith to seek comfort amid the hard realities of everyday life. “All networks, public and private, need to connect with viewers,” Coxe says. “At CBC we have a special duty, because we are funded by the taxpayer. Values, particularly those informed by faith, are the basis of how most Canadians live their lives. We hope to shine some light on that.”
Once a week, anyway, on Sunday mornings. That’s the way it has always been with religion in journalism: a special-interest matter, segregated into a predefined slot, rather than an aspect of everyday life to be pursued alongside more mainstream news beats like politics, crime, and business. Joyce Smith is a journalism professor at Ryerson University who has done research on representations of religion in the media. She reels off a list of everyday stories that people first think of when they consider religious content in news reporting: debates surrounding abortion and contraception, racial conflicts, wars around the world, school debates around homosexuality, politics. These types of stories, says Smith, are often the only ones that include a religious aspect. “It speaks to this stupid idea that churches are opened on Sunday, synagogues on Saturday, and the rest of the time they don’t think anything, they don’t have any influence anywhere else, they’re not part of the community.”
LaPointe at CTV says he wants to take religion out of the “ghetto” of Sunday religion reporting and make it part of the whole news package. But even at CTV, the two full-time religion reporters don’t compete much with crime and politics for places in the news lineup. Mark Schneider, based in Vancouver, fills a defined segment, “Horizons,” which focuses on Canada’s “quest for higher meaning” and airs on the Thursday news. Mediwake, based in Toronto, will likely appear on weekends, but will be in the regular lineup on the national news. She says she has no problem with the idea of occupying a predefined slot on CTV’s news menu. “Some people just wait for the weather forecast, or the sportscast. Some people just want the local news,” she says. All newscasts are segregated this way, she says, to keep them organized. If religion is going to make it into the lineup on CTV News, then Mediwake says, “Kudos to them.”
The two members of CTV’s religion team could hardly be more different in looks, background, and experience. Mediwake is 28, with a cheery teenage disposition, and started her full-time broadcast career at the Miracle Channel in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada’s only exclusively Christian station. Schneider, 53, sports a buzz cut and dark framed glasses, and has been in the business for over 20 years; his previous beat was technology. She’s forthright about her beliefs and is currently searching for the right church to attend in her area; he meditates almost every day but is more private about his spirituality. She looks for those cool and creative stories-timeless items with colour and controversy. He tends to focus on the hard news stories that highlight a person’s spiritual hunger. She’s unmistakably enthusiastic about covering religion, but Schneider, when asked how he felt shortly after taking the new job, becoming, at the time, the only full-time religion reporter on TV said, “I’m scared.”
Religion, Schneider explains, doesn’t have the raw appeal of other hard news stories, there is not much violence, and little sexuality. Basically, it’s a tough sell. “The spiritual path, while deeply urgent, generally doesn’t supply the same voltage as, say, a political scandal, a natural disaster, or sex,” he says. “There’s rarely any blood.”
Rarely, but not never. In one early story for “Horizons,” Schneider reported from the Alberta Children’s Hospital on the case of a 16-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who was receiving blood transfusions she didn’t want after a judge ruled that the girl was too young to refuse the treatment. In another, he was seen at the altar of an Anglican church, probing into a controversy over ownership of a Bible printed in the 17th century. Other stories on his lineup have included a classroom visit to see students learning about tolerance of sexual orientation, an investigation of native spirituality, a look at the rise in faith since September 11 in Canada-all in two-minute segments.
Schneider says that he has faced “squeamishness” in the news business on the subject of the spiritual world. He says journalists are prone to suffer from the “disease” of cynicism. “We end up, as our disease progresses, not really caring all that much.” That produces an aversion to stories concerning faith, he says. “I used to get angry when I encountered this aversion among my colleagues, but now I feel compassion. I know how much they have suffered on account of this toxic career, as I have.”
Schneider is not alone in detecting this aversion to covering the world of faith. Father John Pungente, of the Jesuit Communication Project in Toronto, says: “I’m not aware that religion is even covered on TV mainstream news. Possibly if a religious fanatic kills thousands or something like that, then there would be coverage. But how much of that would centre on the religious aspects?” The Reverend Dick Dewart, the co-founder and president of the Miracle Channel, says that the media do a deplorable job of reporting religion. “They have marginalized Christians and the Christian faith. Secular media have basically said that 50 percent of Canadians are out to lunch.”
The problem, according to Globe and Mail religion writer Michael Valpy, lies in finding a language to talk about spirituality in a way that is comfortable for adults. He talks about how most people’s spiritual language comes to a halt at around 12 years of age. When asked if journalists have a responsibility to talk about issues of faith, Valpy says, “Yes, I think journalists should openly discuss faith. Human beings are spiritual animals. The media plays a useful role in assisting humanity in nurturing and developing its spirituality.”
If print reporters like Valpy find religion stories tough to get a handle on, most of their TV colleagues hardly try. John Allemang, who has served the Globe both as TV critic and religion reporter, considers religion “more important than politics” to most people, but says the coverage of religion is “pitiful.” He says most stories deal with people in the news who are religious “celebrities,” like Osama bin Laden, not with faith and theology.
As CTV’s LaPointe says, “Matters of spirituality are highly personal and difficult to cover because they involve individual expression and connection. Media have trouble dealing with such intimate personal matters.” Indeed, any person of faith will admit that religion is not about facts, while the very nature of journalism is to find the truth. Religious experience often won’t meet the most basic criteria of what news is. That’s why religious channels exist.
Dueck’s current-affairs program, Listen Up, airs Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoons on Crossroads Television Systems, a Christian news show on a mainly Christian network. CTS, a nonprofit business that broadcasts throughout the Toronto-Hamilton region of southern Ontario and reaches more than six million people via both Canada’s satellite systems, is just one part of a proliferation of religious stations in Canada. The 14-year-old VisionTV, which has recently received a licence for a new Christian channel, is the only multifaith channel in the world. Now-TV started up in Vancouver in September of 2001. The Miracle Channel in Alberta received a Category Two licence last year for a channel designed for youth. News coverage is not generally on the agenda at these stations. As Fredelle Brief, director of mosaic programming on VisionTV and a journalist at CBC, puts it, “The goal is to offer other explanations for the way the world works.”
The lobby of CTSin Burlington welcomes visitors with a plaque of the Lord’s Prayer and stained-glass windows. There’s also a small chapel and a gift shop that sells Bibles and key chains with the acronym PUSH (“Pray Until Something Happens”). For three years, Listen Up has reported on stem cell research, child pornography, mercy killing, and the impact that belief in God has on daily life. Dueck says she wants to bring a Christian perspective to the daily news, “to show Canadians who God is, how He works and where He connects with their lives.”
There is no pretence at objectivity here: “We bring a Christian perspective to the airwaves,” Dueck says. After finishing taping the segment about the moral and ethical dilemmas of stem cell research-the cameras are off and the job is complete-Dueck rises from her chair in one swift movement to walk over to her guest, a Manitoba science researcher, and demands, “What is it like to work in rational science and be a Christian?” At 11 a.m. on Wednesdays, she joins her CTS colleagues in the Crossroads chapel, arms extended upward, and sways as she sings out loud, “Jesus…Exalt…Jesus.” Occasionally, she meets with viewers who seek her guidance in a matter of faith or just need an ear.
Dueck-whose office bookshelf hosts titles ranging The Craft of Interviewing to Listening to God’s Silent Language-says she always wanted to be a journalist. Now she works as both a freelance writer in the mainstream (her work has appeared in The Hamilton Spectator and the Globe) and as a broadcaster in a Christian setting. “You can exercise accountability and objectivity as a Christian journalist in a Christian setting,” Dueck says. “You ask the same tough questions: Who? Where? When? Why? What? You ask for the same type of evidence. You’re looking for conclusions. You’re looking for authenticity. You use the same rules of objectivity but your parameters are prove to me Christianity works.”
Not just Dueck, but CTV’s Schneider-and, for that matter, many of their print colleagues who cover religion-make no secret of being driven, or at least influenced, by their own spirituality as they cover their beats. Some would call this bias-an obstacle to normal journalistic standards of detachment. But Bob Bettson, a former United Church Observer staffer who now works as an Anglican priest in Alberta, says it’s no different from the passion exhibited by many beat reporters. “Would we tell sports writers they should have no interest?in sports to do a fair job?” Bettson asked in a 1998 article in Media Magazine. He argued that there is value in having people of faith reporting on these complex issues. “They have the interest, the background, and the enthusiasm to do a good job. If you blend that with the professionalism of a good journalist, there’s no reason why their coverage shouldn’t win respect.”
Zuhair Kashmeri, for one, doesn’t buy that idea. A former Globe reporter who is now a panelist on VisionTV’s Insight Mediafile, Kashmeri says that ideally journalists would best not be tied to a faith group. A good reporter can cover a religion story without buying into the set of beliefs. When asked if someone who is not religious can cover the subject well, Kashmeri says: “It should be that way.” He adds that there are always biases attached to religious beliefs.
For CTV’s LaPointe, though, it’s not so much a question of who covers religion but how it’s covered-and, for a start, making sure it makes the news at all. “I think the media need to hold a mirror to society,” he says. “We shouldn’t cover formal religions and see that as the end of the journey. Instead, we need to cover religion in the context of a wider journey by society to deal with the stresses, changes in values, and relationships, through the pursuit of higher meaning.”
by Laurie King
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.