May 19, 2005
Articles of Faith
I keep wondering how the editors of Newsweek will frame their upcoming editorial note correcting their misreported story on the Quran desecration.
At least 17 people were killed in riots that broke out after the May 1 Newsweek story asserting that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tried to humiliate prisoners by flushing a Quran down the toilet.
The report infuriated Muslims throughout the world. In Afghanistan, an anti-American riot broke out that left some 17 people dead and more than 100 wounded.
By Monday, Newsweek retracted the story. But somehow the lexicon of terse editorial apology falls short. "Newsweek regrets the error" just doesn't begin to cover it.
No, this isn't like getting the domestic supplier numbers on a Wal-Mart story wrong by a factor of 10, which the magazine also did last week. This was a matter of faith and belief, which, to the apparent surprise of Newsweek editors, also is a matter of life and death.
"The big point that leaps out is the cultural one," Michael Isikoff, who reported the story for Newsweek, told The New York Times. "Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Quran was going to create the kind of response that it did."
What? How is that possible?
Isikoff, the other reporter John Barry and Newsweek's editors should have been more savvy.
"It does seem incredible to me that a reporter wouldn't understand that desecrating someone's holy book would be an outrageous offense," said professor Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "It would help if Isikoff and other reporters knew when they wrote these things that they would have an effect."
At the same time, Newsweek had every right and responsibility to report the story correctly. After all, if my government is using the profanation of religion as a torture tactic, I'd like to know about it. The documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers have tarnished the positive results of the Iraq War, and there is every reason for a democracy to monitor its military. Shifting the focus to the messenger for a moment, however justified, shouldn't distract journalists from pursuing important stories with hard-to-anticipate consequences.
The lesson in this tragedy is not just the obvious one about relying on shaky anonymous sources. It is this: Journalists need to learn to take religion seriously.
"Religion, spirituality and moral values are the heart of each of us," said former Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks, "and they're not covered by the news media, not nearly enough, not well enough."
Parks, who also belongs to The Journal's board, directs the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School For Communication. He spoke at the installation ceremony for Winston held April 8 at USC. Winston holds the only J-school chair in the country dedicated to religion and media (Columbia's Ari Goldman also specializes in religion and media).
The chair's creation couldn't come at a more opportune time.
Think about it: Sept. 11, Terri Schiavo, the Kansas City Board of Education debate on creationism, "The Da Vinci Code," the "Left Behind" series, the former and current popes, Orthodox protesters in Jerusalem -- faith has leapt from the ghetto of the sleepy, weekly "Religion Section" to the bloody, daily front page.
The problem, as Winston told me, is that reporters are by and large ill-equipped to handle the move.
"Most of us don't have a background in world religion," Winston said of journalists. "How do we make sense of it? How do we feel about it? We know these are important issues, but we don't know what to think about them."
The result is coverage that often portrays religion in a black-and-white, kooks-versus-rational-beings way, which fails to draw out and explain the more mysterious, faith-based aspects of belief. And then there's the example of Newsweek, which should have at least delved into the potential consequences of the Quran-flushing accusations before reporting them.
There are exceptions. Winston said the Los Angeles Times' Teresa Watanabe, Don Lattin at the San Francisco Chronicle and writers Jeff Sharlet, Jeffrey Goldberg and Yossi Klein Halevi do excellent jobs translating complex religious issues to the public.
Winston's own background straddles religion, journalism and academia. She has a doctorate in religion from Princeton University, a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, a master's in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a bachelor's from Brandeis University.
She worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and directed religion and media projects at New York University and Northwestern University.
Now settled in Los Angeles, she is a member of the IKAR congregation, where her 5-year-old daughter attends Hebrew school. Her two stepdaughters are Presbyterian.
Los Angeles, Winston said, is an ideal place for journalists to learn how to bridge the worlds of faith and facts.
"People have this idea of L.A. being godless and irreligious, but that stereotype is not representative of the larger culture here," she said. "This city is a living laboratory of religious diversity, and people here take it seriously."
Now Winston needs to train a new generation of journalists to do the same.
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