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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Sri Chinmoy Encyclopedia Article

Making sense of a teacher whose contributions were both diverse and prolific

Sri Chinmoy reading from his aphorisms for The New Millennium

Sri Chinmoy reading from his aphorisms for The New Millennium

There are many articles about Sri Chinmoy in bona fide print encyclopedias, and most are good (like this one). Recently I revisited an archived “community” article written in encyclopedic style and last updated in 2008. It comes from an emic or inside perspective, and reflects a nice balance between biographical facts, significant quotes, and understanding Sri Chinmoy’s “path of the heart” in historical context. Proof that emic accounts can sometimes be more accurate than etic ones. It includes good footnotes and many details not found elsewhere.

From reading other encyclopedia articles about Sri Chinmoy, I gather that one challenge is to understand what’s unique about his teachings, and how they relate to the Hindu tradition from which he emerged. At the same time, a purely historical or philosophical approach might fail to catch the spirit of a movement which is lively, colourful, musical, and vibrant. Sri Chinmoy is an eminently quotable writer, so an article jam-packed with quotes is a definite plus.

He was active in a number of fields: meditation, music, poetry, art, athletics, humanitarianism, and peace studies. Another challenge is to explain how these diverse activities fit together within the larger context of his teachings. This is an area where an emic account can hopefully shine.

Beginning from any facet of Sri Chinmoy’s artistic output, one may gradually experience a “worlds-within-worlds” quality similar to late period Beethoven. A friend once told me a story about a man who was visiting the U.S. from a foreign country. He stopped by Sri Chinmoy Centre to learn more. He was very inspired, but as the day wore on he became a bit bewildered because there was always more about Sri Chinmoy to take in. “You mean he paints too?” is the quote that stuck in my mind. 🙂

Sri Chinmoy painting

Sri Chinmoy painting one of his Jharna-Kala (“Fountain-Art”) abstracts

If you’re interested in an encyclopedia style article which tries to pack Sri Chinmoy’s worlds-within-worlds quality into something you can read in a few minutes, then check out this PDF:

Sri Chinmoy Community Article
https://ethicsandspirituality.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/sri-chinmoy-community-article-53.pdf

Disclaimer: I was one of the contributors to the article. Continue reading