When it comes to religion news, many journalists are in a class of their own

After reviewing relevant police reports, Americans Against Antisemitism released a 2023 paper that noted the obvious: that increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews were being attacked in New York City.

The Orthodox, especially Hasidic Jews, were victims of 94% of the 194 anti-Semitic attacks between 2018 and 2022 reported to the city’s Hate Crimes Task Force. Most of these crimes took place in Jewish neighborhoods and some were captured on video. Only two of the criminal cases led to convictions.

Attacks on Orthodox men and women “ranged from spitting, to punching, to someone being hit in the face with a rock,” according to Newsweek’s Batya Ungar-Sargon in her book “Bad News.” The crime wave generated few news stories until a 2019 mass shooting at a Jersey City Kosher supermarket and a machete attack at a Hannukah celebration in Monsey, north of New York City.

Then came COVID-19, and Orthodox Jews, along with others in close-knit ethnic and immigrant communities, were hit hard.

“Because the national news media saw that they could portray Jews as the villains of the virus rather than as victims, they suddenly couldn’t get enough of it,” wrote Ungar-Sargon, an Orthodox Jew. “Every outlet began circulating pieces…blaming Orthodox recalcitrance to social distancing or mask-wearing for spreading the virus not only among their own communities, but also to their neighbors.”

Many of these pandemic-induced stories were true – but riddled with errors about Orthodox beliefs and traditions.

Ungar-Sargon wondered: Why did journalists go into ‘hyperdrive’ in this case, after downplaying all those anti-Semitic attacks? Why do many journalists regard the Americans they view as “less intelligent and uneducated” as “irredeemable, irredeemable and full of hate”? She has continued her work in a new book, ‘Second Class’.

In the late 1970s, researchers began to wonder why journalists often have difficulty covering religious stories or avoiding religious news altogether. I wrote my 1982 graduate project from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on this subject, and some of that work was published by Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists.

This week marks the beginning of my 36th year of writing this “On Religion” column. I also led the project for 20 years, which closed in February, but its archive remains online for those who study religion and for the press.

A decade into this column’s life, a colleague at Scripps Howard News Service shared an unpublished manuscript that began by examining the addresses and zip codes of 3,400 journalists in markets such as Little Rock, Arkansas and Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as Washington, DC. and New York City.

Peter A. Brown asked marketing experts to analyze where journalists lived and found that they chose neighborhoods with labels like “Bohemian mix” and “money and brains.” Even domestically, journalists were more likely to be single than married with children. They read The New Yorker instead of Christianity Today. They preferred theater to suburban yard sales.

Brown concluded that journalists tend to share cultural and educational backgrounds, as opposed to articulated political or religious dogmas. Journalists often go to similar schools, are highly secular, and share similar cultural heroes and enemies.

Far too many journalists, he told me, “do not share political, religious or monetary values ​​with the general population.” As for journalism about traditional believers, he added: “Any company that doesn’t understand or respect the lives of anywhere from 25 to 40% of its potential customers is not a company that seriously wants to grow or even survive.”

That was a quarter of a century ago.

Today, Ungar-Sargon is convinced that unexamined class issues shape journalism about millions of Americans. For example, political reporters rarely explore the beliefs of church-going blacks and Latinos, as well as the cultural differences between religiously unaffiliated “nones” who are atheist-agnostic and those who are “none of the above” believers, who are often blue. -workers or unemployed.

“If journalists continue to downplay the role of religion, they will not understand how many people — blacks, whites, Latinos and others — look at life,” she said, reached by phone.

“You can’t grin and pretend that it’s completely stupid when people believe that God really exists and has something to do with the way they live their lives. … If you do that, you won’t understand ordinary Americans, especially people from the working class,” Ungar-Sargon said.

Terry Mattingly is a journalist and lecturer who focuses on religion and continues to study both writing and religion.