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Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas about Religion and Culture
Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas about Religion and Culture

Baylor University Press, 2004
317 pp., $34.95

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Philip Jenkins


Religion and the Media

Do they get it?

In a sense, this collection of essays on religion and the media takes as its text an article from Books & Culture, in which Christian Smith denounced "religiously ignorant journalists."1 Now, that comment was never entirely fair. Although it was and remains true that the media often do an appalling job of covering religion, journalists are not necessarily to blame, and some are outstanding—Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times and Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times come to mind, but other stars abound. The problem is less with journalists themselves than with the whole process of newsmaking, particularly the manner in which editors decide how particular stories are or are not newsworthy. In consequence, the biggest problem with religion news is not how topics are covered, but rather the vast areas that remain off the radar, until (sometimes) they suddenly appear with nightmarish clarity. A decision not to cover a theme or trend is, by implication, a statement of its insignificance.

The largest area of religious life under-represented by the mass media is normality. Given conventional priorities, the customary and unsensational is not news, so that media stories about Islam are likely to expose terrorism and subversion rather than everyday piety, while according to most media accounts, the Roman Catholic church is either engaging in moral crusades or picking up the pieces after the latest sex scandal. If all an observer knew of Roman Catholicism was drawn from mainstream reporting over the past forty years—or indeed, from the Hollywood productions of that period—what would that person know of the central fact in the church's life, the Eucharist, or how radically the lived realities of the Catholic faith have changed following the liturgical reforms of those years? And the same might be asked of any other tradition. How many media professionals have the slightest idea of the distinctive theological beliefs that characterize evangelicals or Pentecostals, ...

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