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Dialogue raises issues on how faiths, media shape reality

Mary Stamp

Who speaks about community and justice concerns for the faith community in Spokane and this region?  That question was one of many that emerged in The Fig Tree’s April 27 dialogue on “Wisdom and Media.” Media, education and faith community leaders—Steve Blewett, Susan English, the Very Rev. Bill Ellis, the Rev. Happy Watkins, the Rev. Scott Kinder-Pyle and the Rev. Joyce O’Connor Magee—each raised issues about limited media coverage of religion.  Less than one percent of news, Bill reported, is about religion.

Without a religion reporter who understands nuances and dynamics of the faith community, it’s easy to miss the influence of faith on lives and in moving people to act out of compassion and justice.

Steve pointed out from his years of teaching journalism at Eastern Washington University and working with media, that “media never were perfect.” 

He reminded, “media” is plural, not a monolithic, one-minded entity.

Early U.S. media were inflammatory, propaganda tools, supporting causes and evolving into the party press, he said.  The Industrial Revolution brought a shift to professionalism and into media being businesses, but still there was “yellow journalism” and anti-Semitic hate promoted on radio for 13 years beginning in the 1930s by Father Charles Coughlin.  With the advent of TV, news was packaged into what would sell and edged into peep-show journalism chasing celebrities.

Journalists’ training to be objective, to present news in a balanced way, evolved into turning issues into two polar opinions.  As one participant noted, no one is “objective.”  Every reporter brings his or her background and bias.  News articles written by different reporters on the same story are different.

Steve said Internet offers the same impact as movable type and the printing press—an opportunity to wrest power from the dominant coalitions and have a voice.

Bill suggested that a weakness of “freedom” on the Internet is that there are now 11 million “crazy aunts and uncles—like we all have—who can spout their views with no way to analyze how fringe they are.”  He wonders if faith organizations control can their message in any media.  “No major media cover a marvelous social outreach or religious education program,” he commented. 

The 2003 Episcopal General Convention consented to having an openly gay Episcopal bishop.  There were scores of TV cameras on the floor for that, but the next day, none were there when delegates supported the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations.  Reporters were gone, and we were the “gay church,” Bill said.

Susan gave examples of the mob mindset in instant media, noting that people on the web have not demonstrated the care journalists take to write stories that reflect the day’s events.  “People have power to create news, but without the ethics journalists have.  They may add entertainment, but not wisdom,” she said.

Happy referred to a New York Times report that prematurely declared that “the black church is dead.”  That’s not his experience of Spokane’s 18 historic black churches, still intent on challenging racism in a time when blacks are the last hired and first fired, when 41 percent drop out of high school and while blacks are 2 percent of the state population, they are 18 to 25 percent of the prison population.  “The black church is still a force crying in the wilderness to make a difference,” he said.  Later he asked the faith community to speak out on behalf of Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who stands for justice, but has faced challenge from the Spokane Police Guild.

Scott likened current media to a recent experience having the haunted house ride in Disneyland break down in the middle of the gizmos, ghosts and gobblins.  He said that many media seek “to entertain, distract and appeal to the lowest common denominator” rather than deal with the relational dynamics of truth.  “Serious journalists” and faiths are about finding what is “really real.”

He referred to the Barmen Declaration before World War II in Germany, when clergy and theologians called into question what was promoted as truth.  He referred to Scottish ecumenical theologian Lesslie Newbigin’s challenge to “unmask false concepts of freedom as doing what we want” rather than a faith that sees reality in terms of relatedness.

Joyce spoke of being shaped by media, being the one in her family by age 12 to watch TV news, read the newspaper and write the President.  Coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement informed her.  After Watergate, she began to question institutions—the government, the media and the churches.

Recalling a theologian entreating pastors to read with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, she said she finds that hard to do that today with “news so fragmented.” There are by 26 ads in a news broadcast, let alone real news is interspersed with reports on infidelity of a sports star and on celebrities.

“Where is the depth so my faith can dialogue with information?  Where can I find information?  What is trustworthy?” she asked, adding the note that people often know about the Bible only in a piecemeal way, too.  “We can’t dialogue with sound bites and we can’t read the Bible by picking one verse here and there.”

Joyce believes people need to take responsibility and say they expect quality journalism that goes deeply into issues:  “Consumers need to demand quality.  I need the depth The Fig Tree gives on topics of today.  Unlike texting today, I need vowels, full sentences and big words.”

Steve added some of his concerns: need for transparent criteria for what is news, need for accountability on the internet, the dwindling newspaper news hole, people who will subscribe to media that offer accountable voices, the repetition of “moronic” voices on internet to 10 million viewers creating their version of truth.

One participant expressed concern about hate and divisiveness in media at a time when there is need to work to reconcile.

Scott commented on his fear that the so-called “mainline” churches might try to reclaim power and a return to the center, rather than value the opportunity they have to speak with a prophetic voice from the sidelines.

Another participant asked:  “How do I find real stories and truth?”  Still another wondered what “we are doing as society, churches and parents help young people develop critical judgment” as her father did, commenting on hate on the radio in the 1930s.

More discussion will be online at