A New York Times piece on Mormons’ game-changing role in Senate approval of ENDA this week exemplified what smart religion coverage should be and do. The most prominent political figures in a religious movement that threw its weight behind California’s recently overturned Proposition 8 were indispensible in passing a bill that would ban discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. How has Mormon thinking on gay rights evolved since 2008? What common political interests link gays and Mormons? How far might the hierarchy of the LDS Church be willing to go in its support for a minority that both challenges and shares some of the core values of Mormonism?
These questions anchor an article that highlights complexity to reveal how a particular religious movement interacts with other cultural forces and changes over time. Recent international coverage of Islam in the Times, by contrast, allows for little of that complexity or nuance. Muslims in Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, Tunisia and Nigeria are, at best, depicted as helpless victims of intra-religious strife or calculating negotiators trading the threat of violence for economic benefit. At worst, they come across as unreasoning madmen who must be contained at any cost.
This blinkered point of view has to do, in part, with shrinking news budgets. There simply isn’t enough money to support the kind of regular, on-the-ground enterprise reporting that would complicate the two-dimensional picture conveyed by the raft of international stories above. But that economic reality points toward a deeper tension in American news media culture: Given the limited resources that the Times and other legacy institutions are able to devote to reporting outside the U.S., should they focus on conflict (which leaves much of reality outside the frame of the narrative) or devote a greater portion of meager resources to subtler stories (which might cede clicks to outlets that are less interested in tempering sensationalism)?
A recent Knight Chair-University of Akron survey of news consumers suggests that audiences are eager for complexity. That kind of self-perception is itself ambiguous; perhaps most of those surveyed would simply like to think of themselves as eager for thorough reporting, while the aggregate of their metadata reveals a less sophisticated media palate. In the long run, the Times does no one a service by promoting a near-sighted reporting culture when it comes to religion coverage. Mister Magoo always managed to avoid stepping off a precipice at the wrong time. In our own shifting landscape, we have to depend on news media, rather than blind luck, to keep us from plunging into the void.