Column: Pontius Pilate as editor

Published on June 16 23, 2009. The occasion was also a book launch, but since I had not yet read the book (the groundbreaking Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion), I thought I’d defer comment.

Question: Are (most) Muslims in the Philippines Shia or Sunni? I do not recall this distinction ever being used or considered necessary in any news report about Muslims in the Philippines, before September 11 or even after it. Question: Is “Among Ed” Panlilio, governor of Pampanga, a priest-on-leave? The term—a label created by journalism’s driving rage for simplification—creates the perception that he is temporarily suspended from the Catholic priesthood. Question: Is Brother Mike Velarde’s massive El Shaddai Movement a Catholic or a charismatic renewal group?

These and similar questions would be second nature to a wonderful website I’ve been reading the last several years, if it ever got around to pounding what it calls the GodBeat in the Philippines. GetReligion (at, naturally enough, getreligion.org) is a website dedicated to tracking the “ghosts” of religion in news stories. Often this means taking news organizations to task for misunderstanding stories about religion; many times this means pushing for greater coverage of the way religion shapes the news.

The site gets its name from something CNN political analyst Bill Schneider once said: “The press … just doesn’t get religion.” But I would think the phrase finds additional resonance in the older formulation of “finding” or “discovering” religion. GetReligion is a group blog, and what a group it is. But one blogger stands out: Terry Mattingly, or tmatt as he is more popularly known, is GetReligion’s daily avenging angel. (He may be familiar to some of us as the writer behind the widely syndicated “On Religion” column of the Scripps Howard News Service.)

* * *

In Manila the other week, Mattingly spoke to a handful of journalists interested in the way religion shapes the news. Why is so much traditional coverage of religion and religious issues decidedly anemic? Because of four “biases,” Mattingly suggested. (He understands bias, he said, “as a force, like in sailing.”)

The first bias is the limitation of the news-gathering enterprise itself, the configuration of “space, time, resources” that editors must assemble (even on a daily or hourly basis) to give their audience the news they need. Very few news organizations have a religion beat; in Metro Manila, the reporter who covers the Catholic bishops often also covers other Intramuros-based newsmakers, such as the Department of Labor or the Commission on Elections.

The second bias is the lack of knowledge. “Many of the journalists [covering religion-related stories] simply don’t know the facts.” News that a Philippine bishop would refuse communion to supporters of the Reproductive Health Bill quickly becomes confused with speculation about excommunication (altogether a different thing). “Religion,” Mattingly said, “is full of picky facts.”

The third bias is the impact of the journalist’s world-view. “I personally think it’s the most powerful one,” Mattingly said. He offers yet again the example he says he has done to death, the Washington Post’s risible wanted ad for a religion reporter, posted in 1994. The “ideal candidate,” he recalled the ad saying, is “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.” But if a journalist does not care about the role of religion, what can we expect from his coverage?

The fourth bias is actual prejudice.

* * * In the Philippines, coverage of the sometimes turbulent, always consequential papacy of John Paul II couldn’t be contained to the strictly religious—because of the impact his person left on our history. One way I can trace the shape of this impact is by rereading the Inquirer editorials that appeared the week he died, in 2005.

One, for instance, began with a simple declaration of truth. “Especially in his first years as Pope—in Poland in 1979, in Brazil in 1980, and then, astonishingly, in the Philippines in 1981; all large Catholic countries laboring at that time under dictatorships—John Paul II brought hope to millions by speaking truth to power.”

* * *

Mattingly was joined at the forum by journalist Roberta Ahmanson and Arne Fjelstad, CEO of The Media Project of the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life. Fjelstad, a Lutheran minister, spoke engagingly about a journalist’s own religious commitments. At one point, he suggested that Pontius Pilate had acted as the epitome of an “editor,” when he caused the writing of the INRI sign that was placed on the cross, and then refusing to change it: “What I wrote, I wrote.” I much prefer the traditional translation, which we find in the King James Version as well as in most other Bible versions: “What I have written, I have written.”

But Fjelstad’s point is to draw us beyond media criticism from the religion angle, so to speak, and into journalism as religious vocation. As he had written previously: “Yet as Christians we need to draw from a deeper source of understanding given by God in the Bible of our vocation as journalists.”

* * *

It was a delight to receive last week’s mail, prompted by a close look at translator Harold Augenbraum’s “erasure” of “el Ateneo” from the text of the Penguin Classics edition of “Noli.” Even Augenbraum took time out to send a very gracious response. I will certainly return to the topic of English translations of “Noli” in the future; in the meantime, let me just share Augenbraum’s good news: Penguin expects to publish his translation of “Fili” in time for Rizal’s 150th birthday.

* * *

Answers: A. Sunni. B. “Among Ed” remains a Catholic priest, some of whose priestly faculties are suspended while he serves as local government executive. C. El Shaddai is a Catholic charismatic group.

2 Comments

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion, Readings in Rizal

2 responses to “Column: Pontius Pilate as editor

  1. El Shaddai is often reported in PDI as a born-again group. Big mistake.

  2. can’t blame outsiders, though. charismatism is controversial, because not much understood, in catholic circles. admittedly, it is largely pentecostalism mixed with traditional catholic elements, thus the born-again mistake.

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