Covering disasters is journalists’ stock-in-trade. Most introductory journalism textbooks devote a chapter, or at least a discrete section, to covering such disasters as accidents, fires, crimes, terror attacks, and weather events. Lots of journalists understand that competent coverage of disasters is important, and they work hard to get it right.
However, much disaster coverage is less than competent in two important areas. In “Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media,” Marvin Olasky and I highlight two areas in which journalists are particularly negligent.
First, mainstream media coverage often ignores the Christian church and the role people of faith play in natural and man-made disasters. Second, they turn Christians into a freak show and highlight aberrant and often decidedly non-Christian behavior and spokespeople.
Take, for example, an article in The Independent with the headline “Gay people to blame for Hurricane Harvey, say evangelical Christian leaders.” The story quotes three so-called “Christian leaders.” Two of them I had to Google to figure out who they were, and I’ve been covering evangelical Christian leaders for more than 30 years. The third “Christian leader” was Ann Coulter. Now, Ann Coulter is certainly well-known as an inflammatory conservative pundit, but a “Christian leader”? I don’t think even Coulter would describe herself that way.
Jim Kuypers of Virginia Tech has written extensively about how the mainstream media use sources to make liberal and moderate viewpoints sound reasonable and conservative viewpoints sound radical or extreme. His 2002 study of 116 newspapers found that stories on controversial topics tend to omit reasonable conservative voices in favor of more radical voices. On the other hand, reporters often chose respected moderate voices to represent liberal positions, and omitted more radical voices from the Left.
I want to be clear. Natural disasters do bring up tough questions about God’s sovereignty, justice, and mercy. Some of these questions do not have easy or comfortable answers. However, most mainstream journalists do not know, or do not care, that you will get better answers to these questions from Wayne Grudem or Al Mohler or Tim Keller than from Ann Coulter. That’s why for years the mainstream media turned to fringe figures such as Fred Phelps (the “God Hates Fags” guy) rather than thoughtful advocates of a Christian worldview on matters of sexuality, people like Christopher Yuan or Rosaria Butterfield.
The second way in which the media shows bias against Christians during times of natural disaster is ignoring us altogether. Consider, for example, the Associated Press 2012 coverage of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. To highlight the centrality of the government’s role in the recovery effort, “Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to reopen it after a rare two-day closure.” The AP coverage highlighted the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies, but missing were mentions of the churches that were the true “first responders” during this and most other natural disasters. So many individuals signed up to help clean up after the storm that they crashed the website New York City had set up to match volunteers with jobs.
More recently, Christians in Houston and the surrounding region responded swiftly and generously to the disaster there. Samaritan’s Purse sent a relief team. The Southern Baptist Church, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and one with a huge presence in the region, is also mobilizing.
As I mentioned in a recent Signs and Wonders column: “You might not find stories about these efforts in the mainstream media, but, to borrow from Mark Twain, rumors about the demise of the church are exaggerated.”
However, rumors about media bias in the coverage of the church are not exaggerated, and those of us who care about the role of the church in the world need to be both discerning in our consumption of the stories coming from the mainstream media, and more urgent in our own storytelling efforts.
Image courtesy of imagedepotpro at Getty Images.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.