Mattingly: When it comes to religion news, many journalists are in a class of their own

Autor: Terry Mattingly

After studying relevant police reports, Americans Against Antisemitism issued a 2023 document noting the obvious — that rising numbers of Orthodox Jews were being assaulted in New York City.

The Orthodox, especially Hasidic Jews, were victims in 94% of the 194 antisemitic assaults between 2018-2022 reported to the city’s Hate Crimes Task Force. Most of these crimes occurred in Jewish neighborhoods and some were captured on video. Only two of the criminal cases led to convictions.

Assaults on Orthodox men and women “ranged from spitting, to punching, to someone being hit in the face with a brick,” noted Batya Ungar-Sargon of Newsweek, in her book “Bad News.” The crime wave produced few news reports until a 2019 mass shooting at a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City and a machete attack on a Hannukah party in Monsey north of New York City.

Then came COVID-19, and Orthodox Jews, along with others in close-knit ethnic and immigrant communities, were hit hard.

“Because the national news media saw that they could cast the Jews as the villains of the virus instead of its victims, they suddenly couldn’t get enough of them,” wrote Ungar-Sargon, an Orthodox Jew. “Every outlet began running pieces … blaming Orthodox recalcitrance to social distancing or mask wearing for spreading the virus, not just among their own communities but to their neighbors, too.”

Many of these pandemic-driven stories were valid — but packed with errors about Orthodox beliefs and traditions.

Ungar-Sargon asked: Why did journalists jump into “hyperdrive” in this case, after downplaying all those antisemitic attacks? Why do many journalists see Americans they consider “less intelligent and uneducated” as “beyond salvation, irredeemable and filled with hate”? She has continued her work in a new book, “Second Class.”

In the late 1970s, researchers began asking why journalists often struggle when covering religion stories or avoid religious news altogether. I wrote my 1982 University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate project on this topic and some of that work was published by Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.

This week marks the start of my 36th year writing this “On Religion” column. I also spent 20 years leading the project, which closed in February, but its archive remains online for those studying religion and the press.

A decade into this column’s life, a Scripps Howard News Service colleague shared an unpublished manuscript that began with examining the addresses and ZIP codes of 3,400 journalists in markets such as Little Rock, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Peter A. Brown asked marketing experts to analyze where journalists lived and found that they chose neighborhoods with labels such as “Bohemian mix” and “money and brains.” Even in the heartland, journalists were more likely to be single than married with children. They read The New Yorker instead of Christianity Today. They favored theater over suburban yard sales.

Brown concluded that journalists tend to share cultural and educational backgrounds, as opposed to articulated political or religious dogmas. Journalists often attend similar schools, are highly secular and share similar cultural heroes and enemies.

Far too many journalists, he told me, do not “share political, religious or monetary values with the general population.” As for journalism about traditional believers, he added: “Any business that doesn’t understand or respect the lives of somewhere between 25 and 40% of its potential customers isn’t a business that is very serious about growing or even surviving.”

That was a quarter of a century ago.

Today, Ungar-Sargon is convinced unexamined class issues shape journalism about millions of Americans. For example, political reporters rarely examine the beliefs of church-going Blacks and Latinos, as well as the cultural differences between religiously unaffiliated “nones” who are atheists-agnostics and those who are “none of the above” believers, who are often blue-collar workers or unemployed.

“If journalists keep down-streaming the role of religion, they are not going to understand how many people — Blacks, whites, Latinos and others — look at life,” she said, reached by telephone.

“You can’t sneer and act like it’s completely lame for people to believe that God is real and has something to do with how they live their lives. …. If you do that, you are not going to understand ordinary Americans, especially working-class people,” Ungar-Sargon said.

Terry Mattingly is a journalist and teacher who focuses on religion and continues to study both writing and religion.

This article originally appeared on Wichita Falls Times Record News: Mattingly: When it comes to religion news, many journalists in class of their own

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