Perry: The News Needs Jesus

Alex Perry, Columnist

Although Northwestern isn’t a religious institution, religion is a key dynamic and power structure within our community, and it’s worth dedicating newsroom resources to educating our reporters on it. 

Gaps in religious knowledge in newsrooms operate to a publication’s detriment. Without religious awareness, staffers are prone to blunders that damage an institution’s reputation and credibility. On the 19th anniversary of 9/11, New York Times columnist and Nobel Memorial Prize recipient Paul Krugman tweeted: “Overall, Americans took 9/11 pretty calmly. Notably, there wasn’t a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, which could all too easily have happened.”

According to the FBI’s database, anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped from 28 to 481 that year. If given appropriate religious training, or perhaps some awareness to consider the religious aspect, Krugman wouldn’t have had the ignorance he demonstrated in that tweet. 

When we talk about diversity in the newsroom, reporters can bring ethnic, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds to the table. Religion, like the features listed above, is a lens as useful as any other. From my perspective, the reporters who write about religion the best are those who have personal experience with religion themselves, recognize the benefits and harms of their religious community, and are willing to talk to non-believers about their interactions and perspectives with religious people. 

One of my favorite writers, The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig, does this well. Her religious lens comes from being Presbyterian-baptized, Baptist-raised, and Catholic-converted, in addition to a Master of Philosophy in Christian Theology from the University of Cambridge. One would assume that a Catholic journalist would shy away from being critical of the Church. But no, Bruenig has reported on Catholic sex abuse and Native-American-colonzing saints with nuance. She has applied religious lenses to politics (Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination) and social justice movements (BLM).

With proper education, college-aged journalists can start doing the same. 

Gabby Birenbaum’s series “In God We Trust” was a key exploration of three major religious communities at Northwestern. Cassidy Jackson’s reporting on Christian organizations Cru and Impact offered an intersectional glimpse into how race and religion interact on campus. These pieces have laid the foundation for future reporting that isn’t necessarily religious-centric, but rather, well-educated in religion. 

With religious knowledge, student reporters can navigate tumultuous instances where issues deeply personal to our community members arise. From the past year, one of University President Morton Schapiro’s previous emails and outrage about the Israel-Palestine conflict stand out to me the most. 

In Schapiro’s Oct. 20 email, he referenced being called “piggy Morty.” He said the phrase “(came) dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like (himself). Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of anti-Semitism, it is completely unacceptable.”

One of the difficulties of religious reporting is avoiding the two extremes: reporting a monolith or overrepresenting an outlier. Navigating responses to Schapiro’s statement went the way religious reporting usually does: “Not all ____ think ___” and “Only ___ can label something ___.” In the end, religious individuals feel misrepresented by the press because of the press’ inability to hone in on nuances that almost require lived experience or extensive study to accurately report on. 

Daily editors constantly stress for reporters to never imply that a source represents their community. This is challenging for religion, because essentially, you’re reporting on a body of people who share a set of beliefs. The nuance is in recognizing that while religion may strongly motivate one person, it may not affect another’s actions or opinions to the same degree. 

Regarding this year’s religious tension involving Hillel, Associated Student Government and the Palestinian Human Rights resolution, our publication relied on editorials from individuals to detail their own perspectives, from Jonathan Kamel, “Like most things is life, Zionism is not black and white” and from Deanna Othman, “Anti-Zionism is anti-racist, not antisemitic”. 

Editorials like these are always helpful in breaking monoliths and introducing nuance to religious perspectives. But when it comes to regular reporting where a religious lens or background would be valuable, it should be up to the newsroom to provide adequate training to its reporters. 

What student media needs to absorb is that religious groups are not automatically coalitions, unless self-identified. Religious literacy in belief systems active on campus, along with consistent outreach done with the self-identified coalition groups is one step to repairing relationships. Above all, college-aged journalists should take into account this key aspect of our communities, and educate ourselves on how best to accurately represent the viewpoints of religious individuals. 

Alex Perry is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @WhoIsAlexPerry

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