Author blames news media for evangelicals’ image problem

In his book Through a Lens Darkly, author David Haskell blames the news media for the image problem facing Canadian evangelicals. However, reviewer John P.
finds there is not enough solid evidence to support the claims.

Christian evangelicalism became the subject of ridicule during the Canadian national elections of 2000.

Stockwell Day — devout Pentecostal, leader of the Canadian Alliance party, and candidate for Prime Minister — found his faith mocked in and by the media. Liberal political consultant Warren Kinsella brought a Barney doll to a television interview to ridicule Day’s creationist beliefs, calling Barney “the only dinosaur ever to be on Earth with humans” and joking that Day thought that “The Flintstones is a documentary.” PM Jean Chrétien criticized Day’s strict observance of the Sabbath, saying that “being prime minister is. . . . a full-time job, even on Sunday.” Reporters nicknamed Day’s campaign bus “Prayer Force One.” Christianity Today editorialized, “Such criticism of a politician’s religious beliefs without any reference to public policy is simply bigotry.”

Through A LensAccording to David Haskell, chair of the journalism program at Wilfrid Laurier University-Brantford, the public opposition to Stockwell Day typifies news coverage of evangelicals in Canada. “Canadian evangelicals have an image problem,” Haskell writes in Through a Lens Darkly, and he lays the blame largely on the Canadian news media.

Despite its ubiquity, religion is reported in news media sparsely, and when the media do pay attention to religious issues they downplay the spiritual or theological dimensions in favor of politics or economics. Religion stories that attract the media tend to be ones of conflict, and they tend to describe conservative believers pejoratively, despite the fact that the 12% of Canadians who are evangelical “volunteer more hours and give more money to charity than any other group in the country.” No wonder a 1996 survey reported that nearly a third of Canadians said that meeting an evangelical would make them uneasy.

To test empirically the complaints that Canadian media mistreat evangelicals, Haskell surveyed Canadian TV news personnel to discover their attitudes about evangelicals and compared his survey results with a frame analysis of eleven years of national television news reports about evangelicals.

The results are discouraging, both for Canadian evangelicals and for reporters who strive to produce balanced news. Most of the national television journalists who completed his questionnaire revealed that they have little personal interest in religion and that they view evangelicals with disdain.

Journalists usually rein in their feelings when they report about evangelicals, but if they think that evangelicals threaten the public good, as when evangelicals campaign against homosexuality or abortion, they depict evangelicals as intolerant, criminally-minded, and un-Canadian.

The power of these depictions on audiences was brought home to Haskell when he asked undergraduates with no opinions for or against evangelicals to code the national television news reports featuring evangelicals that he gathered for this book. Their reaction to this exercise was to conclude, in the words of one of the student coders, that evangelicals “are not an open-minded people. They feel very strongly that their opinion is the right one and that they are carrying out God’s will in choosing to stand up against such modern institutions as abortion, gay marriage, etc.”

For Haskell, achieving balanced reporting requires changes both among evangelicals and the news media. He says that by supporting only those ministries that meet the high ethical and operational standards of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, evangelicals will provide the news media far fewer negative stories to report. He also encourages evangelicals to “do unto others” by supporting other faiths under the big tent of religious freedoms.

Not surprisingly, Haskell says that the onus of balanced reporting falls on the news media.

He recommends that networks hire a religion specialist and more reporters who profess religious faith, and he encourages all reporters to find the theological dimension in religion stories. But recognizing the clash of cultures between the secular newsroom and evangelicalism, Haskell proposes that reporters practice what he calls “disclosure journalism,” using blogs to reveal their personal feelings about the stories they report. “The greatest problem with news is not that journalists are influenced by their perceptions,” Haskell writes. “The greatest problem is that news audiences do not realize journalists are influenced by their perceptions.”

Haskell’s complaints are thought-provoking, but hardly conclusive.

Haskell found only 119 television news reports on evangelicals in an 11-year period, an average of less than one report per month. Only 24% of these stories depicted evangelicals as intolerant, only 13% depicted evangelicals as criminally-minded, and only 8% depicted evangelicals as un-Canadian.

These numbers might support a complaint of negligence, but they hardly lead to the conclusion that Canadian television has tarnished the image of evangelicals from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. Add the paucity of reports to the small number of subjects – only 21 journalists completed Haskell’s questionnaire and only four unbiased undergraduates developed negative attitudes about evangelicals after coding news stories – and Haskell’s generalizations begin to appear predetermined.

Certainly there is not enough solid evidence in this book to support Haskell’s conclusion that “the perceptions of journalists become the reality of their audience,” at least not when the subject is evangelicalism.

Methodology aside, Through a Lens Darkly raises important concerns about religious identity and media coverage that deserve consideration.

Perhaps Haskell’s greatest contribution in this regard is his recognition that responsibility for improving coverage rests in the hands of both the news media and the evangelical communities they cover.

John P. Ferré is professor of communication and associate dean of arts and sciences at the University of Louisville. He is a coauthor of Good News: Social Ethics and the Press.