March 22, 2011

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We religious leaders tend to complain a lot about the media. We lament the media’s focus on trivial entertainment stories on the one hand, and on bad news stories on the other. We are particularly annoyed that bad news stories about religion receive a lot more coverage than the daily acts of love and compassion by the vast majority of religious people. We religious leaders sound like we understand about as much about the media as the media understands about religion.

So first, let’s stop making broad generalizations about the media. We don’t like it when people blame all of “religion” for the excesses or transgressions of a few, so we should stop doing the same for the media. Next, let’s recognize that the media gives a reasonable amount of attention for good religion stories — maybe not enough — but there is some good reporting. The biggest problem is not the absence of stories about ordinary people doing good things, but the fact that these stories do not “stick” with people like bad news and the horror stories. This makes sense from a survival perspective: given our limited attention, shouldn’t our brains more easily recall threats and dangers than benign and ordinary events?

This is why, incidentally, American Muslims face a particularly difficult challenge convincing other Americans that we are not a threat: the idea has been anchored in the minds of our fellow citizens by the real stories of terrorists acting in the name of Islam. The fact that there are so few of these people doesn’t matter, because these stories stick in the mind, while good news stories do not. On the other hand, we are justified in criticizing certain media outlets for presenting as “experts” on Islam individuals who are, in fact, anti-Muslim activists or those whose only expertise is in putting themselves at the center of any controversy to increase their book sales and speaking fees. Responsible editorial control needs to be exercised, not to silence people, but to at least to distinguish for the viewer or reader the ideologically motivated activist from the more objective expert.

Finally, it is only fair that we recognize the extraordinarily important service many journalists provide bringing critical news to our attention. In the last few weeks especially, as the world has experienced major upheavals — political revolutions and natural disasters — courageous reporters have placed themselves in dangerous situations to let us know what was happening. Our ability to respond ethically to these situations depends on accurate information and truthful reporting. As I teach my ethics students, our principles are useless unless we first understand the reality of a situation. “What is happening?” necessarily precedes “then what should we do?”

During the Egyptian revolution, reporters were harassed, kidnapped, and even killed by the regime’s henchmen. In Libya, it’s still happening. The risks journalists take are very real; Reporters Without Borders has extensive documentation of dozens of journalists killed last year. During military conflicts, native journalists are critical for their local knowledge and connections — and they are the most vulnerable; often their reporting is done closer to danger zones and they don’t have the protection of Western citizenship. I am in awe of their courage and commitment to reporting the truth.

Western reporters are also critical for helping Western audiences connect with events in other countries. These are “our” journalists — not necessarily because of their ethnicity or their nationality (or because they are more objective — that is a racist assumption) — but because we spend so much time with them over the years as we watch them report the news. There is no doubt that some reporters make every story all about them, but the good ones try to avoid inserting themselves in the story. Nevertheless, we viewers become attached to them. As a consequence, we worry when we see Arwa Damon, Richard Engel, Anderson Cooper, Nic Robertson, and others standing among unruly crowds or in front of a night sky lit with falling rockets. By putting themselves in danger, they make us care more about places and people we might never have had occasion to think about before these conflicts. As we begin to care more about these stories, perhaps some of the artificial divisions between “our” and “their” reporters will disappear as well, and the value of simple truth-telling will be elevated.

The Abrahamic traditions uphold the importance of “witnessing;” false witness is prohibited and truthful testimony is required. Certainly there are unscrupulous reporters, but there are also many good journalists who have high ethical standards. Religious people should remember to say, “Thank God for good journalists,” and just as importantly, because as the Prophet Muhammad taught, “Those who do not express their gratitude to people are not grateful to God,” we should say “Thank you” to those dedicated to reporting the truth.