Guest View: Praying for better journalism at The New York Times

It was a perfectly ordinary invitation to gather for Christian fellowship, the kind of message believers often circulate among colleagues that they know share their faith.
Mar 21, 2014

It was a perfectly ordinary invitation to gather for Christian fellowship, the kind of message believers often circulate among colleagues that they know share their faith.

In this case, Michael Luo invited a circle of fellow journalists in The New York Times newsroom to breakfast, including one former pastor of an evangelical church.

Yes, this tiny Times flock plans to gather again. No, the veteran reporter was not willing to name any names.

“The Times is like a lot of other elite cultural institutions,” said Luo, speaking at The King’s College in lower Manhattan’s financial district. The newsroom is full of “cosmopolitan, urban types, highly educated people who went to the top colleges whose cultural sensibilities are probably more shaped ... by the Upper West Side and Park Slope, Brooklyn, than, you know, the Bible Belt.

“So it’s certainly not the easiest place to say that you’re a Christian. In fact, some of those people at that breakfast who have confided their faith to me have often sworn me to secrecy.”

After giving the matter careful thought, Luo did mention his public lecture at the evangelical college – “Articles of Faith: A Believer’s Journey Through The New York Times” – on his Facebook page.

The Harvard graduate has faced more than his share of tricky situations, whether reporting in war-torn Iraq or in the culture wars of two White House campaigns. After one of his many Times pieces on loopholes in gun-control laws, AmmoLand.com ran his photo with a caption that called him a “biased anti-gun” reporter.

During the 2007 Values Voters Summit, Luo tried to assure participants that he was a churchgoer who genuinely wanted to understand their beliefs. One activist then introduced Luo to a prominent conservative Christian by saying, “Don’t worry, he goes to church.” The leader responded, “Well, he’ll have to prove it,” with a snarl.

“I was thinking,” Luo recalled, “what am I going to have to do, quote my favorite Bible verses or give him the Four Spiritual Laws?”

On the other side of the church aisle are well-meaning Christians who insist that Luo’s goal should be to “bring Christian truth to the pages of the Times.” The implication, he said, is that he should smuggle an evangelical agenda into the “newspaper of record” and let it shape his work.

That would be a disaster, Luo said, and would allow other professionals to label him that “Jesus freak guy” or a “religious zealot.” This would destroy whatever trust and respect he has earned during his decade at the Times, which recently led to his appointment as deputy metro editor with much of his work focusing on investigative reporting and, yes, religion coverage.

Luo stressed that one of his goals is to live out the recommendations of a 2005 Times self-study – entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” – that urged editors to do more to cover “unorthodox views,” “contrarian opinions” and the lives of those “more radical and more conservative” than those usually found in their newsroom.

In addition to seeking diversity of gender, race and ethnicity, the report said: “We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason – to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.” It would help, the report noted, if Times editors sought out “talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths.”

Thus, Luo said he has tried to become a resource to help the newspaper do fair, accurate, informed news coverage of a wider variety of religious believers. The goal is to avoid “loaded language” that frequently confuses “theological terms with political ones.” It also would help, he said, if journalists spent more time covering religion stories rooted in the details of daily life, rather than focusing almost exclusively on political conflicts, both in pews and in public life.

“I would argue that when we screw up, it’s not because of some sort of overt prejudice,” he said. “The problem usually is that you can’t know what you don’t know. ... So ignorance can obviously lead to inaccurate and misleading characterizations and, yes, it can lead to bias sometimes seeping into the ways Christians are depicted.”

Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

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