Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Religion and the Candidates

In my previous post I was fairly harsh on how the media covers the religion of presidential candidates. Generally speaking, my criticisms are valid, but there have been some exceptions. I previously mentioned NPRs excellent coverage of Reverend Wright. This weekend, PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly ran a story on Obama, Biden, McCain, Palin and their religion. If you want an example of how I think most of the media should cover religion and political campaigns, watch this. It also had a story on how the media covers religion in the campaigns. This piece was making some of the same points I was attempting to bring up in my post on Palin's religion. You can read the transcript or watch it here, or here are some snippets:

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, makes the point that reporters aren't well educated about religion.
...when it comes to their religion. What we're seeing is episodic coverage that -- Mitt Romney will give a speech about his religion, or tapes will come out of Obama's pastor or from Palin's church, and often the coverage of that relates to the political impact of how they deal with these tempests. The reason for that is, I think, twofold: one is that we have political writers covering these candidates, not people who understand the nuance of religion. It's not, however, because the candidates don't want to talk about this stuff. Barack Obama's made a special effort, I think, this year to talk about faith in his life because he thought that this was a failing of Democrats that was limiting their appeal.
Kelly McBride, head of the ethics department at the Poynter Institute in Florida, notes that the press only covers religion when something scandalous has happened, which has a "distorting effect" on religion coverage.
I think most of the reporting on religious issues has had a distorting effect. Most of the time in a political campaign when the media does focus on a religious issue, it's as a distortion, or something that's exotic or weird. So Reverend Wright was outside of the mainstream belief system, and there was a lot of focus on him and what the implication might be for Barack Obama when, in fact, Obama had spent weeks and months describing how his personal belief system and his faith guided him and influenced him. And Wright's behavior and his theology, his belief system was really not much of a part of that. But because of the focus on that, it ended up distorting in the public's mind Obama's belief system. And I think you can say that almost every time.

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