Covering Unbelief…Badly

by Jason Kehe

March was a busy month for atheists. Two Saturdays ago, thousands of them—estimates ranged from 10,000 to 30,000—congregated at the National Mall for the so-called Reason Rally, billed as “the largest secular event in world history.” This past weekend, the U.S. military hosted its first-ever event for soldiers and others who don't believe in God. Finally, a new book just came out called “Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion.”

But despite this profusion of news about nonbelievers, the media don't seem to be getting any better at covering it. Journalists remain trite, smart-alecky and even hostile in their reporting, guilty of perpetuating the widespread, and almost always unfounded, distrust of atheism that's long made mockery of this country's championship of religious tolerance.

USA Today's story on the Reason Rally exemplifies the worst of this kind of coverage. It begins: “About 20,000 atheists gathered within shouting distance of the Washington Monument on Saturday for a Reason Rally hell-bent on damning religion and mocking beliefs.”

The writer, it seems, would rather be clever than fair. “Hell-bent on damning religion” is excellent, ironic wordplay, but it does exactly what smart, balanced journalism shouldn't do: characterize an entire group of people in a single, oversimplified way. Even worse was the story's headline: “Richard Dawkins to atheist rally: 'Show contempt' for faith.” Dawkins, one of the world's most outspoken atheists, indeed said that in his speech, and surely meant it. But making it the most visible feature of the story implies that it was a sentiment shared by all, that every nonbeliever in attendance was some kind of angry, militant, combative crusader who would rather spit on his Christian neighbor than engage in meaningful dialogue. Is that fair, or right, or true?

Maybe it was, in this case—but it seems unlikely, when other stories suggested that the rally seemed to lack energy and passion. The point of the day was to gather like-minded thinkers together and develop a sense of community, not attack religion. But that's not a sexy headline.

It seems, sometimes, that the standards of objectivity we expect of most journalism don't always apply to reporting about atheists. Fox News's coverage of the rally consisted of two negative opinion pieces (“Why the Reason Rally is Unreasonable” and “The rally for nothing in particular“). But it wasn't just Fox. Most of the coverage wasn't straight news; it was blog-like reaction pieces, like that USA Today story.

In 2006, the American Sociological Association found that atheists are the most distrusted minority in America. One wonders if our coverage of them in the media—the way in which their activities and beliefs are presented to the general public—is at all to blame.

Jason Kehe is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is currently finishing his B.A. in Print and Digital Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and is the Online Book Editor at Los Angeles magazine. He has spent the past four years writing and reporting on L.A. arts and culture, with a special focus on theater. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Jewish Journal, Daily Trojan and Neon Tommy.com, where he served as Senior Arts Editor for two years. Jason also studies neuroscience and film.

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