Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Tips for journalists on overcoming false balance, rejecting hate material, and making sense of moral panics

Introduction

As someone who’s been familiar with Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run for three decades, I’ve noticed that press coverage varies widely in reliability and accuracy. Here are some tips for journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities. These tips also apply to Sri Chinmoy, the Peace Run, and related entities (some of which are secular, but are inspired by spiritual beliefs).

Note: Many people would to be quick to point out differences between “religious” and “spiritual” — with “religious” perhaps connoting dogma and ritual, and “spiritual” suggesting a personal quest for meaning. Yet, there is a continuum between the two, and in this article the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

Near the end, I include a list of resources which I find helpful in understanding Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run.

The problem of false balance

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

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