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Not getting religion

Occasionally (ok, more than often than that), I run across something in the mainstream press that, well, just makes me mad enough to spit. The latest? ABC News’ story, Face to Face with the Ugandan Crisis. If you’ve read this blog before, you know the crisis in northern Uganda is on my radar, front and center. It needs as much publicity as it can get. But, please, please get it right.

Most of the ABC article is right on, but here’s the sentence that made me sputter:

The ongoing conflict in the north of the country between the fundamentalist Christian Lord's Resistance Army and the civilian population has displaced more than 1.6 million people and left a multitude of massacres and mutilations in its wake. [italics mine]

“Fundamentalist Christian”? Sigh. That’s just bad research and sloppy journalism. I’m not even going to get into the issue of the definition of fundamentalist Christianity (does ABC not have access to Wikipedia?). No, the thing that makes this sloppy journalism is that the journalist’s description of the LRA is - in one word - wrong.

While LRA leader Joseph Kony (mis)uses the Bible as a source in promoting his "faith," the religion he actually promotes is a demonic spirituality crafted from an assorted mix of Christianity, Islam and African witchcraft – and any resemblance to these religions is superficial. (For the full description, see Christianity Today's Deliver Us from Kony.) Most articles I read in the mainstream press simply describe LRA as a rebel group or paramilitary militia, but it doesn’t take much, if you want to address the motivating religious factors, to use something as basic as: “The LRA operates from a spirituality crafted from elements of Christianity, Islam and African witchcraft.”

But, as the GetReligion folks point out constantly, the mainstream press has a blind spot when it comes to religion. Why do mainstream newsrooms have so much trouble covering religion news? While there’s various reasons batted around, the one that stands out the most to me - both in general and in this case - is lack of knowledge.

Why are reporters and journalists ignorant when it comes to religion? Terry Mattingly reports that the Lichter-Rothman media surveys in the early 1980s show that most journalists simply aren’t involved in any organized religion: "86 percent of the 'media elite' said they rarely if ever attend religious meetings and 50 percent claimed no religion, at all.” Back in the early 1990s, the leaders of the Freedom Forum think tank (“a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people”) put together a team to study the question of why the media has problems covering religion. Their report counters Lechter-Rothman by stating that “72% of newspaper editors nationwide say that religion is personally important to them” and concludes that “the problem lies, rather, in a secular press reporting on a highly secularized society in which faith and beliefs are muted, privatized and extremely diverse.” (Mattingly writes an interesting counter to that in Wanted: Religion reporter (no experience required)). No matter which side of the isle (secular or Christian) you’re on, the bottom line is that most journalists just don’t know enough about religion.

And that shows up in things like tagging LRA as a “fundamentalist Christian” militia. Which leaves me wipping spittle from my computer screen.