Nothing better points out the challenges to journalism than reporting on religion.
Religion is a knotty subject for news coverage. The way in which a responsible reporter approaches a topic, by employing skeptical inquiry and consideration for other points of view, can be perceived as being anti-religious or even bigoted by those whose personal beliefs fall under such scrutiny.
This is never more true than when NPR reports on the latest battle in the culture wars — the issue around intelligent design and the arguments of its proponents against Darwinian evolution.
Intelligent Design (I.D.) is the belief that the origins of the universe and the development of life on Earth are so complex that they defy rational explanation. Hence, its advocates say, there must be a higher intelligence behind creation. In short, it must be God. I.D. is a more refined expression of what was called "creationism" — a strict and literal biblical interpretation of how the earth was created and how life developed.
I.D. advocates have had considerable success in promoting their ideas. The Kansas Board of Education agreed that I.D. must be given equivalent teaching time alongside Darwinian evolution. Last summer, President George W. Bush said that he thinks I.D. should be taught in schools. "Both sides ought to be properly taught... so people can understand what the debate is about," he said. Mr. Bush added: "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought... You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
These comments have drawn sharp criticism from opponents of I.D., who argue there is no scientific evidence to support it and no educational basis for teaching it.
Much of the scientific establishment and others who oppose I.D. say that it is not a verifiable scientific theory but a cleverly marketed effort to introduce religious — especially Christian — thinking to students. They claim that church and other interest groups are pursuing political channels instead of first building support through traditional scientific review. This underscores a reason for the great chasm between advocates of I.D. and its critics. In the final analysis, the I.D. line of argument rests on faith — something that cannot be tested in a laboratory.
The Dangers of Too Much Balance?
NPR has given a considerable amount of airtime to the arguments for and against intelligent design — 68 reports over the past 10 months, according to the NPR archives. But as NPR tries to give the matter even-handed treatment, some listeners are concerned that, by trying to be fair, NPR is granting it legitimacy.
Many listeners and — I sense — some NPR journalists have complicated and conflicted attitudes when it comes to the public investigation of a religious idea. Many in the public radio community feel that religion is a private matter and that even presenting the debate comes too close to proselytizing.
NPR: A Faith-Free Zone?
Many listeners — more than I've heard from on one issue in a long time — encourage NPR to keep reporting on religion and faith. It is an important part of their lives, like public radio itself, and they see no reason why NPR should be a faith-free zone.
This often makes journalists nervous. This is because invariably journalism is at its best when dealing with subjects that have a rational, verifiable explanation.
Religion is about many things, but ultimately it is not about rationalism. It is about faith: if you have it, it defies explanation. Another quality of religion is its evangelical impulse to convert others to the particular ways of belief and practice.
Ex Cathedra Journalism?
Good journalism demands reporters be neutral about many controversial issues, including religion. Whenever religion is expressed at work, it usually evokes nervousness. There is a story (perhaps apocryphal) that at a major national newspaper some years ago, the editor would stroll through the newsroom clutching a Bible, much to the discomfort of his staff. If true, it would be an unusual management practice to have an open expression of faith in what is a traditionally nonpartisan workplace.
For some listeners, such agnosticism is hard to accept because it implies that news coverage in general, and NPR in particular, is hostile to any profession of faith. Other listeners might worry NPR is insufficiently neutral about these same matters.
In my opinion, NPR's approach to every subject — religion included — should be as the disinterested yet curious observer. NPR's goal should be to explain what is happening in the world on behalf of listeners hungry for such information and determined to draw their own conclusions. But when it comes to religion, that approach seems inadequate for many.
Dealing Rationally with Religion
NPR, like most mainstream journalistic organizations and unlike overtly religious broadcasters, approaches religion in a rational and non-religious way. That may be a contradiction in terms. But it also may be the only way religion can be understood by a journalistic sensibility that is essentially secular.
Because coverage of religion is so fraught with these conflicts and demands, NPR has, I think, tried hard to keep the lines clear between reportage and advocacy.
I believe that NPR has succeeded for the most part, but not without incurring some accusations that the very fact of its coverage crosses the line into advocacy.
How NPR Covers Religion
First, it has created a religion beat and has assigned Barbara Bradley Hagerty to cover this subject. By the very nature of her assignment, Bradley Hagerty is in a state of perpetual journalistic purgatory. Listeners (inspired partly by Internet allegations) insist that she is either an advocate for religiosity or that she is insufficiently respectful of religious practices and beliefs.
I feel that Bradley Hagerty is taking a solid and professional approach to this complicated issue. In my many discussions with her, I have concluded that these allegations of an agenda on her part are nonsense.
She is as fair a reporter as I have encountered and she brings an understanding to her subject that equals that of other NPR beat reporters. Bradley Hagerty is no more "pro-religion" than, say, NPR's media reporter, David Folkenflik, is "pro-journalism" or NPR newscaster Nora Raum is "pro-news."
There are other approaches to reporting on religion heard on NPR programs. An inventive and compelling approach to religion and faith can be found in the ongoing series called "This I Believe" — an occasional feature heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
These are personal essays by Americans from all walks of life who state what constitutes their personal credos. This program has a noble pedigree: it was originally a series in the 1950s on CBS Radio under the tutelage of the famed Edward R. Murrow.
Some recent "This I Believe" essays have ranged from magician/entertainer Penn Gillette's profession of atheism to a Buddhist appreciation of mindfulness to Sen. John McCain's discovery of meaning through survival. It's a radio series of unusual power, depth and subtlety in a time of bare-knuckle faith.
Another fascinating series on NPR that explores the realm of religion is called "The Geography of Heaven." NPR's Alex Chadwick has created some significant radio documentaries on how different cultures envisage the concept of "heaven."
These series both capture the best traditions of sound-rich radio journalism using the values of curiosity, respect and tolerance.
But I.D. seems, so far, to be a much tougher subject for NPR because it evokes such strong responses and because its advocates seem to want NPR to endorse their ideas. That is not the role of journalism.
One of the best places where I.D. has been put through some tough and critical scrutiny has been on NPR's Talk of the Nation/Science Friday. Host Ira Flatow has been relentless in revealing the lack of scientific rigor among many I.D. advocates. This has made some accuse NPR of an anti-I.D. bias.
But I think it's just the kind of thoughtful, skeptical journalism that listeners expect from NPR.