It depends who’s asking

As David Haskell pulled together visuals for his report on a Christian school’s prayer garden, he suddenly found himself in a contentious position.

As David Haskell pulled together visuals for his report on a Christian school’s prayer garden, he suddenly found himself in a contentious position.

The controversial imagery in question? A chaplain saying a prayer.

“It was the fact he was saying ‘Jesus’ all the time,” he recalled.

Haskell said he was told the story would be pulled unless the visuals were removed. There were concerns their inclusion “would make people uncomfortable.”

The former TV reporter said this incident was emblematic of others that had taken place over the years, and was part of what inspired him to investigate how the news media cover evangelical Christians.

In Through A Lens Darkly: How The News Media Perceive and Portray Evangelicals (Clements Academic), Haskell examines news coverage as well as journalists’ feelings and perceptions about evangelicals.

“What I endeavoured to do was to try and find the link,” said Haskell, an associate professor of journalism and contemporary studies at the Brantford, Ont., campus of Wilfrid Laurier University.

“I was looking for the link between reporters’ attitudes and their coverage, and then also I wanted to run it statistically to see if there was statistically significant difference between different answers based on different opinions.”

Two people acted as “coders” and read transcripts to examine portrayals of evangelicals in 119 national news reports from CBC, CTV and Global from January 1994 to January 2005.

Reports featuring evangelicals involved in political actions or issues comprised about 29 per cent of all stories. Haskell said there was a spike in coverage on evangelicals in 2000 largely related to federal Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day.

That year, Day, an evangelical, was elected Canadian Alliance leader and became opposition leader.

Haskell said that coders said they found that in about one-quarter of reports evangelicals were framed as intolerant.

One such example identified by coders was a profile piece on Day which CBC aired during the 2000 federal election campaign.

A voice-over narration in the report pointed out that before entering politics, Day had worked at a Christian school 30 km down the road from a known Holocaust denier — a segue coders saw as “further evidence of negative framing — a type of guilt by association.”

In an email to The Canadian Press, CBC spokesman Jeff Keay said they had no particular comment about Haskell’s assertions, other than to note that they are publicly accountable for the accuracy and fairness of CBC’s journalism through an independent ombudsman.

“CBC News journalists are expected to be knowledgeable about the matters they report on; this is true for religion, politics or any other subject area,” Keay said.

Troy Reeb, senior vice-president of Global News, said when it comes to people who profess an intense faith, journalists will be skeptical of that faith.

Reeb said that’s largely because journalists generally to evangelicals only when they’re looking for them to advocate a political viewpoint, such as hot-button issues like abortion and right to die.

CTV declined to comment for this story.

The book includes a survey of national newsroom personnel at CBC, CTV and Global to probe general attitudes toward religion, and specifically to evangelicals.

Among the 21 journalists who participated, 14 stated they were not practising members of any religion, and most indicated they performed no religious rituals.

The dominant traits the participating journalists most strongly associated with evangelicals were arrogant self-righteousness and their opposition to homosexuality.

Fifteen respondents said they felt evangelicals were wrong to oppose homosexual rights and gay marriage, and 12 said they felt evangelicals were wrong to oppose abortion.

“Even if they don’t like the group, even if they don’t like what the group stands for, they have to report accurately. They have to report in a neutral fashion,” Haskell said.

“I’m not saying they need to be positive when they’re writing about evangelicals. They don’t need to make it candy-coated. In fact, I wouldn’t want them to do that,” he added. “I simply want them to report the ideas of the subjects they’re covering as the subject intended.”

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