On February 29, Yeshiva University undergraduates and professors filled a lecture hall in Belfer Hall to hear New York Times columnist Sam Freedman discuss “How and Why the Media Distort Religion” as part of Yeshiva College’s Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program Luncheon Series.
A tenured professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Freedman—an observant Jew—currently pens the “On Religion” column for The Times. For this function, he described how quirks within the journalism industry, the role of belief in American culture and the amorphous nature of religious observance all contribute to the challenges the media face when reporting on religion.
Dr. Sam Gellens, assistant director of the Honors Program, coordinated the lecture and introduced the event. “Last summer I read Sam Freedman’s piece in The Times regarding the release of [captured Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit,” said Gellens. “He described [the prisoner exchange in the light of the Jewish concept of] pidyon shvuim (redeeming captives) that really moved me. I later e-mailed him and he replied that he was happy to share his thoughts with us.”
Freedman opened his lecture with a parable that encapsulated the difficulty in reporting on religion. He described a Roman Catholic family of eight who were childhood neighbors of his in Highland Park, New Jersey. Of the six children, one became an environmentalist and another, a soldier. The oldest became involved in pro-union politics, the youngest moved to Peru to offer aid. And of the remaining two, one advocated for the Vietnam War while other protested against it.
“How could they all come from the same household and the same parents?” Freedman asked rhetorically. “Why do they act out their belief in such different ways?” He described how this quality of religion to inspire people in very different ways often trips up reporters who lack sufficient familiarity into the nature of a given faith.
“You cannot understand so many elemental parts of American culture and American history if you do not have a supple understanding of religion, an understanding that so many journalists lack,” he said.
To add to this confusion, Freedman noted that the legacy of the Enlightenment’s view of religion as a “retrograde force that cannot be reconciled with reason and should thus remain out of the public discourse,” deeply affects journalists.
“As journalists we are trained to report on what we can observe and what we can verify,” said Freedman. “We are told that if your mother says she loves you, check it out. But religion is in a realm where not everything is empirically provable by secular means, so newsrooms tend to skew toward the secular because of this and religion remained a low profile beat for years.”
Making matters worse, as the conventional media struggles with the twin challenges of accommodating the new digital age and the recession, seasoned columnists and reporters on religion frequently found themselves out of work as newspapers and magazines were forced to triage their staff. This loss of veteran journalists has led to more amateur and less aware reporting on religion over the past five years, according to Freedman.
To solve some of these issues, Freedman recommended that news organization cease viewing religions in the template of politics, viewing each denomination or faith as a homogenous silo. “There is no ‘Jewish’ view regarding stem cells or President Obama,” he said. Instead religions should be viewed “horizontally to perceive how alliances form on issues across denominational lines,” such as the example of Evangelical Christians and politically conservative Jews both agreeing on issues regarding Israel. “This would signify a real improvement toward the public discourse on religion.”
Upon exiting the lecture, Yaakov Tuchman, a freshman in the Honors Program, shared his positive review. “It was great to see someone from the inside describing how the media misrepresents religion and how this determines how the press reports the facts.”