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Interview: Ben Gray on Religion and the Media

Between writing on his personal blog, Open Switch, recording the latest edition of his podcast, Ask a Minister, and writing for Blog Ministry, Ben Gray has slowly become one of the blog scene’s premier religious writers. Majoring in Family Ministries at Toccoa Falls College and currently serving as a youth minister at a small church in Atlanta, 28-year-old Gray is well-positioned to offer a youthful, modern perspective on issues of religion and spirituality. He took some time out of his packed schedule recently to sit down and answer a couple of questions regarding religion, the media, and what each can do to better understand the other.

BG: The media is often accused of poorly representing religious and spiritual stories in the news. What’s your view? Are journalists generally doing a good job, or are we missing the mark completely?

BG: I would say that yes, journalists are generally doing a good job, even a very good job, in representing religious/spiritual stories in the news. But it’s hard to accurately represent a belief you don’t buy into. I know first-hand that it’s very hard to accurately represent something that you don’t believe in. I run into this with ministry all the time. For instance, I don’t believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, I think it’s more like billions and billions of years old. However, a lot of Christian curriculum we use in church teaches a young-earth theory. I also realize that many Christian parents don’t agree with me on the age of the earth. So what am I supposed to do when I teach their 6 year-olds about creation? Do I teach them what I think or do I try and give an unbiased representation of Scripture? In the end I decide to just teach the Bible and leave my own view out of it. I teach neither old-earth or young-earth theory.

I think many of those in the media are in a similar situation. Generally speaking, many journalists want to report the news in as unbiased a way as possible. But it’s hard to do that without letting their personal views and opinions get in the way. Honestly, I think the media does a better job at being unbiased than I could be. I try to put myself in their shoes, wondering what I would do if I had to report on a religion I didn’t believe in like Islam or Judaism. Would I be unbiased or would my own personal views cloud the story? It’s a hard position to be in.

But to directly answer your question: No, I don’t think the media is completely missing the mark. Yes, I do think that they are generally doing a good job. Yes, I think there is room for improvement.

BG: What steps can journalists take to improve their understanding of
these topics? How can we bridge the gap between the media’s
interpretation of religion and the reality?

BG: There are so many religions in America and the world at large that it would be impossible for journalists to study each one in order to understand them better. I think a better solution to “bridging the gap” would be for journalists to make an intellectual effort to put themselves in the shoes of a religious person. I think this would go a long way towards that goal. Keeping an open mind would go a long way.

BG: How do you feel the media is regarded in the religious community? Is there a fear of mis-representation?

BG: I think part of the issue with many religious people is that they feel looked down upon by secular society as a whole. I know that personally I feel like others who aren’t religious or Christian think I’m somehow less intelligent or less intellectually honest than they are (i.e. Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc.). There is most definitely a fear of mis-representation among religious people. I think many people sense the way secular society tends to view them so they’re very guarded in their answers, fearing that they might be portrayed as ignorant folks who still believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny.

BG: Are there any religious or spiritual resources that you feel would be of use to the journalism industry? Any websites, books, or other publications?

Like I said earlier I think it would be unrealistic to expect journalists to study up on every religion they may come in contact with. I think the most effective thing they can do immediately is to keep an open mind. As far as resources go I personally love Wikipedia. Having read many of the articles there dealing with Christianity I know that it’s very unbiased, simply providing information in a logical manner. I would imagine that it’s similar for other religious articles there too. Taking a cursory look at a religion’s beliefs and views might help a lot in accurate reporting.

As a Christian I tend to only read those books I agree with and I tend to only go to those web sites who’s views I share. It’s human nature to spend more time with people who are similar to you. I have to make a concerted effort to read people I disagree with. I try to get inside Richard Dawkins’ head and see things the way he does. I try my best to understand where Hindus are coming from and how they view the world. I would love to see more journalists do this same thing.

BG: Is there anything else you would like to add?

BG: Yes, I would like to thank you, Brian, for taking the time to ask these questions and giving me the opportunity to answer them. I’ve enjoyed your blog ever since someone suggested it for inclusion in 9rules just prior to round 5. I think that by you simply seeking my opinion on this issue it shows that you’re striving to be a well rounded journalist and I think you’re a good one at that. (Thanks! -B)

Thanks for the great interview, Ben!

5 Responses to “Interview: Ben Gray on Religion and the Media”

  1. Gravatar Icon 1 Amanda Jan 18th, 2007 at 11:05 pm Quote

    Good interview Brian. The media definetly has a bad reputation in the religious community since it’s so secular. It’s hard for those in the media to wrap their head around religion, since many probably don’t beleive, and the rest just don’t practice. It’s foreign to them, and yes.. they (we) paint all religious people like nuts. That’s our bias, one of the hardest to get rid of. It’s not a good one, but I doubt there will be a change any time soon. I guess where I’m working has opened my eyes to bias/religion even more, since I now hear people talking about it.

  2. Gravatar Icon 2 Brian Gilham Jan 19th, 2007 at 7:48 am Quote

    Amanda: It’s your workplace that inspired my interview with Ben. I think you and I have both had plenty of exposure to religious stories during our time, either through working on stories or dealing with our fellow reporters, and there’s definitely a prevailing bias toward the secular in journalism.

    I wonder why that is, though? Are Atheists more likely to pursue a career in journalism? Do people of faith stay away from the media because of past experiences? It’s a lot to think about.

  3. Gravatar Icon 3 Ben Jan 19th, 2007 at 4:58 pm Quote

    I agree with both of you. But I think it’s also important to realize that everyone has a bias, it’s normal. I also think that the best thing we can do toward removing a bias is to just own up to it and admit it. That lets the reader/audience form a better conclusion because they have a better understanding of where you’re coming from.

    When I comment on secular blogs or whatever I’ll first admit “look, I’m a conservative Christian Minister, so my worldview is different from yours, but this is how I look at it…etc.” BTW, that’s something I think you’re good at, Brian. Amanda, I don’t know you well enough yet ;).

  4. Gravatar Icon 4 Amanda Jan 19th, 2007 at 9:20 pm Quote

    Glad Essence inspired something!
    Ben, so you know MY bias: I’m an atheist who now works at a Christian book publisher.. it’s a job, mainly. I like what I do, I’m not overly involved in the Christian part of it, just the production/design part. ( I also work for a newspaper group, located in the same office. ( Same building, owned by the same people but SUCH a difference. Newspapers are completely secular, as are most of the people who work for it, or at least the ones I deal with. I feel a little stuck in the middle, having to hide my true self (from some co-workers).. but also, I’m of the belief that religion should not be discussed at work. It comes up sometimes.. random theological discussions, or outright ridiculous statements (to me anyways).
    Brian: I think media generally attracts atheists, but certainly not everyone who is in the media is one. Atheists are probably drawn to it because it’s a liberal industry.

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