2007 Summer Newsletter


Summer 2007

Welcome to the newsletter of the Religion and Media Interest Group, part of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication!

  1. Co-editor’s Introduction
  2. An RMIG Progress Report
  3. On Fallwell
  4. Teaching Religious Literacy to Journalism Students
  5. AEJMC Convention Information

For these articles and more from co-editor Jim Trammell, keep reading past the jump.

Co-editor’s Introduction

James Y. Trammell
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication/Journalism
St. John Fisher College

“He’s a fundamentalist!” I yelled to the TV, as if it could hear me.

CNN had just reported that Jerry Falwell had been rushed to the hospital after collapsing in his Liberty University office. The anchors didn’t have confirmation yet that he died, so they filled airtime speculating about his legacy. As they tried to balance between speaking no ill of the dying and being honest about his public persona, one of the anchors asked the other, “Is Falwell an evangelical or a fundamentalist?”

“I don’t know,” came the response as I remember it.

“Fundamentalist!” I shouted again. “Gee whiz. Don’t you know the differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists?”

I was pretty incredulous. I had spent that very morning editing a paper that covered the differences between fundamentalist Christianity and evangelicalism, so the distinctions were fresh on my mind. The CNN anchors, on the other hand, spent the morning covering the latest Paris Hilton drama, so they were not prepared to discuss the nuances of religious faith.

The anchors’ debate, though, probably had more to do with being careful about the term “fundamentalist” than about understanding the belief system itself. Many stylebooks recommend caution when using the “fundamentalist” label, helping journalists avoid a term that tends to be used (and misused) pejoratively.

There is a tendency in television news to reduce religious faith to simple terms and constructs. But at times, understanding what the faithful believe is crucial to the story, and journalists ought to have a requisite religious literacy to cover the story well.

Paola Banchero writes how we can better prepare our journalism students to cover religious issues by teaching religious literacy. You read see her article here.

On the subject of Jerry Falwell, Michael Longinow gives us an appreciation for his contributions to religion and media. You can read it here.

The newsletter also features a rundown of RMIG sessions at the Washington, DC AEJMC convention. Read it here.

Enjoy the newsletter. I’m going to go back to yelling at the TV.

An RMIG Progress Report

Amanda Sturgill
RMIG Division Head
Assistant Professor
Baylor University

One of the gratifying tasks that the head of the interest group has is making the annual report of the division’s activities to the larger AEJMC. Writing this year’s report, I was struck by the progress we have made as a division. It is clear we continue to provide a home for serious scholarship and reflection on the very important topic of religion and the media.
We started with improving communication. You can see for yourself the great efforts of newsletter co-editors Jim Trammell and Crystal Lumpkins in organizing, formatting and maintaining our newsletter. Their work joins the continued work of Debra Mason, who hosts maintains our official site and newsletter archives. In an effort to provide more useful content, we also started the RMIG blog. Please come and participate in the discussion.

Your teaching chair, Paola Banchero, has done an amazing job covering media and religion topics through her teachable moments series. Some of these were sent by e-mail to all our members, others were posted on our blog or covered in our newsletter. I hope that many of you were able to use these to inform your classroom discussion of important topics.

On the topic of teaching moments, we have two exciting, co-sponsored teaching panels at the Washington, DC convention. The first, on Teaching Students to Recognize the Voices of the Silenced, will involve ideas on making students aware of those who do not get covered. The panel should include ideas for course content and curriculum, and attendees will get specific ideas on how they can include this content in what they teach to students. The second, on The Religious Foundation of Media Ethics and Practice, will offer a background for teachers on where media ethics come from, and how to get students to think critically of media issues.

PF & R chair Mike Longinow spearheaded many efforts both in and out of the convention. RMIG will co-sponsor a panel on How to Publish Scholarly Research in Specialized areas. The Small Programs Interest Group is the lead sponsor, but RMIG vice-head Ralph Frasca helped negotiate the panel, and provided two panelists and the moderator. We feel that that having research in less mainstream areas are matters of both ethics and inclusiveness.

Outside of the convention, but still within the convention meeting times, you do not want to miss the very special opportunity we have at our RMIG business meeting this year! During our business meeting in Washington, we are sponsoring speakers on the legacy of Neil Postman and his ideas on media and religion. Postman’s son Andrew will speak, as well as authorities Lance Strate and Dan Stout. This session will promote the area of media criticism and accountability, and I sincerely appreciate Dan’s efforts to put this together.  During the meeting, we will have a brief presentation from Taylor and Francis, the new publishers of the Journal of Religion and Media and conduct our regular interest group business.

That’s where you come in. If you have ideas that could improve the running of the division, ideas about the interface of media and religion or if you just feel like you want to help out, maybe this could be your year. We will have our annual officer elections at the business meeting and if you think you might be able to help in teaching, research, PR & R, program planning, communication or membership, please drop me a line at AmandaSturgill@baylor.edu.

It has been my honor to serve you as division head this year.

On Falwell: End of an era raises questions about a media legacy

Michael A. LonginowMichael A. Longinow
Department of Journalism
Biola University

He could do a water slide in a black preacher suit. He could share a talk show desk with a pornographer. And he could mobilize an army of emails, phone calls and letters to Washington, D.C. like few in the late twentieth century. But Jerry Falwell’s legacy as one of the more influential Baptist pastors of his time lies less in his political clout than in his street-smarts with television, radio, print media and the Internet.

Falwell was a conservative Christian the news media loved to hate. The week of his death, National Public Radio, in wrap-up interviews with political and Evangelical leaders, painted Falwell’s legacy as that of a divisive, anti-gay throwback to a time of socio-religious hierarchy — part of a fading regime that had seen its day. Newspapers nationwide played up the language of initial medical reports about Falwell’s being “unresponsive” in his Liberty University chancellor’s office.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper program, on the day Falwell died, called him “controversial to the end.” The program highlighted Falwell’s brutish political agenda on abortion and his posturing Republican politics from the Reagan era to the G.W. Bush re-election controversy. It showed the blustery clip of Falwell linking AIDS, feminism, and cultural immorality in the U.S. — elements he indicated led to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. And it noted Falwell’s “Tinky Winky” warnings to parents about the homosexual suggestiveness of the Teletubbies.

Falwell could be bombastic in front of the cameras. But he wasn’t stupid. It can be argued that things he said that ended up looking most daffy on national network television tended to be edits — clips that belied the larger mind underneath, tid-bits bypassing the continuity of his communication. Falwell, despite news appearances of buffoonery, was shrewd with language and ideas. Even his ideological enemies admitted this, on the record, as Falwell’s funeral arrangements were underway. What few would deny before or after his death, was Falwell’s eagerness for the chance, preferably on TV or radio, to respond to a question, to debate what he believed was true — thickness of the ice on which he stood notwithstanding.

?Falwell was a preacher — part of a centuries-old tradition of religious oratory in the Protestant church. He spoke it the way he saw it, and from the vantage point of the Baptist pulpit, had an audience eager to hear not only biblical preaching, but his views on everything from the earth’s origins to peace in the Middle East. With a turn of phrase, a raised eyebrow, a thunderous finish, he could pull crowds by the thousands into an idea, a way of seeing, a moment of decision. Media observers confused this with televangelism because, from the start, Falwell’s preaching from Thomas Road Church made for great television and played well on radio. He was among a host of preachers in the late 1960s and 1970s who bought up Sunday morning time slots to fill what the FCC — in those years — called public service programming. Later, telecasts of his church services became regular fare on cable stations devoted to programming with similar worship services. The Columbia Journalism Review, in 1981, estimated Falwell’s Sunday morning TV audience at 15 million. But if a televangelist can be defined as one whose ministry is essentially limited to a studio set fitted with lights and cameras — perhaps with seats for a studio audience — Falwell did not fit the mold.

Nor was Falwell a politician. Perhaps this is why when he stumbled — more often than not in sound bites on the record — it tended to be over the political implications of Supreme Court restructuring, Islam in international relations, the Roe v. Wade decision more than 40 years after becoming law. His place in media law history as plaintiff in Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Falwell, an action that tested the limits of satire — ending in a 9-0 vote against him by the U.S. Supreme Court — became, in retrospect, an embarrassment, he told Hustler publisher Larry Flynt later. Censorship, as a concept, blurs quickly when one’s day-to-day experience involves tweaking of ghost-written speeches or narratives and editing promotional material.

While Falwell will perhaps always be linked to the Moral Majority — an organization he disbanded publicly some years after it had served its socio-political purpose in the 1980s — Falwell’s essence was as a communicator of conservative Christian teaching, one who infuriated some but had appeal for many across racial and socio-cultural lines, in truck-stops, grocery stores and factories up to the day of his death.

“The media may have misunderstood him, but the people certainly did not,” wrote J.C. Watts, former U.S. Representative from Oklahoma in the Las Vegas Review-Journal shortly after Falwell’s death.

Stuart Hall pointed out the paradox of the people vs. the power bloc in media. Under Hall’s theory, those capable of appealing to the people can bypass the artificial structures and assumptions of established media power. The shrewdness of Falwell’s media appeal was its deftness with the vernacular of a Protestant base — a vast middle American populace that, perhaps since the era of William Jennings Bryan, had been hungry to hear their way of looking at life put into the public sphere. By means of television, radio, printed material, even rudimentary Web media, Falwell could move Americans, and did so in ways that embraced Roman Catholics like Phyllis Schlafly, Jewish-Americans like Michael Medved, and Pentecostals like Jim Bakker. Flynt fought Falwell all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but took his phone calls and shared food and his personal jet with him in later years. Mel White, who ghost-wrote a Falwell autobiography but later went public with his homosexual lifestyle, had kind words for Falwell at his death. Something about this preacher, in his media or outside it, had an odd appeal to those — even if they disagreed with Falwell’s message — who grasped the power of language and rhetoric in American media.

The irony that was Falwell’s media appeal was that while he urged middle-class Americans to be active socio-politically, he called them to a Christian media world that was an alternative—or as Reason magazine editor Jesse Walker put it, “a parallel pop culture”—that demonized and baffled mainstream media.

Susan Friend Harding, in The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton University Press, 2000), notes that the media appeal Falwell carried was his pregnant ambiguity and “gaps.” Audiences filled those gaps in their minds to help Falwell’s message reach its mark. To understand Falwell, then, as a media-driven communicator is to understand Martin Luther King, Jr. and the many other preachers of the last century (and those preceding it) whose messages also carried gaps, but were a kind of back-and-forth call to action with audiences. One way or another, the message got through. Whereas King’s audiences literally talked back to him during his orations, Falwell’s did so silently, or in ways that didn’t show up on TV screens. But like those responding to King’s media image, Falwell’s followers responded in the form of donation envelopes, campaigns for public office, or voting — a connecting of socio-religious, socio-political dots.

In the last years of Falwell’s life, there is little doubt that as a man in his 70s, he had lost the media charisma of his earlier years. It is said that after one network news interview early this year, Robert Schuller called Falwell to tell him he should take better care of himself. Falwell was slowing down and he knew it. He’d been preparing for it perhaps for decades. The real strength of his media legacy, he probably sensed, would be in those much younger — maybe at Liberty University, which he launched as a college in 1971, maybe elsewhere — who could translate his ideas into the vernacular of new generations. Stranger things have happened in a nation unswervingly committed to folk cultures, popular religion, and the tools of media.

“The next Jerry Falwell might be sitting in a church basement right now,” suggested Jesse Walker, “pointing a camcorder at himself and preparing to upload his homilies to YouTube.”

Teaching Religious Literacy to Journalism Students

Paola BancheroPaola Banchero
Assistant Professor
Department of Journalism and Public Communications
The University of Alaska–Anchorage

One student said she could not cover the abortion debate fairly. She thinks Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that granted women the constitutional right to abort, should be struck down. Another student recoiled when she heard the term “human rights,” associating it with what liberals want to give Islamic terrorists. Still another student wrote in a class-assigned news report that missionaries in a remote area were saving the souls of residents there.

College campuses are full of religious students involved in a multitude of organizations that strengthen their faith. As a New York Times article recently pointed out, “Across the country, on secular campuses as varied as Colgate University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember.”

Having students who are committed to their faith — and verbalize it in the classroom — gives me a starting point for discussions about religion and the media.

Religious issues and conflicts are apparent in all kinds of news stories, and more frequently we see how religious literacy strengthens the coverage. For instance:

  • Defining and responding to radical Islam has permeate news since Sept. 11. But how can students know what radical Islam is or what its followers believe if they don’t know about Islam? How can they understand what Muslims mean when they say it is a religion of peace?
  • News organizations report on presidential candidates and the influence of faith on their public service and personal lives. (For example, see the July 23, 2007 Time Magazine cover story.) But how can a journalist cover this effectively without knowing the difference between Hillary Clinton’s Methodism and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism?
  • Some congregations shun homosexuals while others embrace them as part of the flock and ordain them. What accounts for the difference of opinion about what the Bible says concerning homosexuality?

Bringing up the R-word

Talking about these issues means pushing some students’ buttons. Students of faith react differently depending on the topic and the way it is discussed. But I also encounter resistance from secular students for even suggesting that religion is worthy of news coverage, or bringing up how the news and entertainment media use or approach religion.

Just because a student identifies himself with a particular religion does not mean he is well-versed in what that religion teaches. Stephen Prothero, chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University and author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, says students lack knowledge about the world’s major faiths, and institutions of higher learning should educate students about what the major religions of the world believe.
“Thinkers who argue for greater attention to religion in public life are often assumed to have a theological agenda,” Prothero wrote in the March 16 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education](http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i28/28b00601.htm). “Such assumptions are often correct. My goal, however, is civic. I do not want to make American colleges or American undergraduates more religious. My brief for religious literacy proceeds on purely secular grounds, on the theory that Americans are not equipped for citizenship (or, for that matter, cocktail-party conversation) without a basic understanding of Christianity and the world’s other religions. The college courses I support would teach about religion, not proselytize for it.”

So, how do we teach about religion to journalism students? Here are some strategies that have worked for me:


  • Give context to news about religion. Last year, as sectarian violence boiled over in Iraq, the differences between Sunnis and Shiites became a common subject in the news media. Most stories, however, failed to give the context over the conflict between these two Muslim sects. I gave students a fact sheet about the situation and asked them extra credit questions about it on quizzes. I also give editing students a synopsis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — including historical, political, religious and environmental perspectives. It’s a news story that they will come across if they go to work in most American newsrooms, and they should know the background.
  • Use other media, such as books or videos, to discuss religious issues. Last year the University of Alaska Anchorage collaborated with Alaska Pacific University, a private liberal arts institution, to select a book of the semester in both the fall and spring. I used The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a book about a Hmong family’s clash with the American medical system over the treatment of an epileptic daughter. The themes about the family’s culture and spirituality and how it conflicted with Western medicine were particularly affecting to the students, who read the book both to see how a magazine writer had engrossed herself in a book project and to talk about topical issues of immigration, assimilation, religion, culture and health care. This year, the two books are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul, both about religious fundamentalism’s destructive force on ordinary humans. Although both are novels, they can be adapted to mass communications and journalism classes to talk about modern instances of religious extremism. I plan to have students read excerpts and then apply it to what is going on now in Afghanistan.
  • Engage students by encouraging them to look at issues from other perspectives. Invoke the five-minute rule, in which you suspend your beliefs and for five minutes believe the exact thing you most disbelieve. Push students to take the way of thinking most foreign to them to the logical conclusion. It’s only for five minutes, and they can reclaim their original position afterwards.
  • Remember: being an educator means allowing students to investigate the underpinnings of morality. Morality stems from the human capacity for rationality and introspection, and though it is not always, it is often drawn from religious teachings.
    One student, whose e-mail address proclaims him a “Jesus freak,” tells me it’s in the discussions about ethics that he can best hold up Christianity for examination and thereby deepen his faith.

“I never discredit what I learn in the classroom. I try to keep an open mind,” he said. In a recent class he learned about utilitarianism and compared that with Christianity. “What’s the right moral decision? I’ve been told that Christians don’t believe this or believe that. I keep taking notes.”

Test yourself, test your students

Take Stephen Prothero’s pop quiz on religious literacy, or have your students do so and talk about the results: http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,660205799,00.html

Recommended reading for students

The History of God: The 4,000 year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by Karen Armstrong (Ballantine Books, 1994)

World Religions in America: An Introduction, edited by Jacob Neusner (Westminster John Knox Press, 3rd edition, 2003)

2007 AEJMC Convention Information

A rundown of RMIG events in Washington, DC.

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