Book Review

Through A Lens Darkly

July 15, 2009 - Peter Stockland

Through A Lens Darkly

REVIEW BY Peter Stockland

After nearly 200 pages of meticulously verifying and detailing news media mistreatment of evangelical Christians, author David Haskell pops a courageous, if belated, question: so what?

As with so much of Haskell’s Through A Lens Darkly: How the News Media Perceive and Portray Evangelicals, the “so what?” question reverberates on numerous levels. Certainly the journalists Haskell surveyed for their attitudes toward evangelicals seemed, by and large, barely able to muster who-cares shrugs about the fairness or unfairness of their approaches.

With the exception of a few documented spikes in public opinion about the need to treat evangelicals more equitably in news reports, Canadians as a whole seem blissfully unperturbed about the raw deal given evangelicals by reporters and editors across the land.

Even among their mainstream Christian counterparts, Haskell shows, hard evidence that Canadian journalists have become almost hardwired for antipathy toward evangelicals provokes more extended yawns than a mumbled sermon on a hot August Sunday.

Given that, one answer to Haskell’s “so what?” might be: so this is a book of interest only to evangelicals, and even then only to the subset of evangelicals who are publicly concerned enough to notice how they are portrayed in the media. Another answer    might be: so this is a book with a potential audience so small it could be shelved in the Canadian poetry section of your local Chapters/Indigo outlet.

Neither answer would be justified. Through A Lens Darkly is a book that deserves to be read, studied and cited profusely. It is finely researched and fluidly written account not just of another instance of media abuse of an identifiable group, but of the intellectual poisons pervasive in contemporary journalism.  As such it should find the widest possible readership in journalism schools across this country and (like this is going to happen!) among professionals in the news business. Of course, Canadians of any faith would do well to encounter in its pages how caustically religion in general is regarded by the enlightened, progressive, diversity-proclaiming beacons of tolerance who populate the nation’s newsrooms.

However extensive or limited the book’s impact, though, Haskell’s clear intent is for it to contribute to some measure of reform or correction in the industry that he once served as a television reporter and now helps to shape as an associate journalism professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. He writes as a practicing Christian in a spirit of charity and fraternal correction, not as a grievance-monger for whom statistics are rhetorical ordnance and cutting one-liners are the apogee of argument.
“(T)he results of this (book) would be put to poor use if they served to only heighten the tension that already exists between evangelicals and the news media. (T)he findings would be better employed as a catalyst to positive action,” he writes.

It is a statement of quite remarkable grace following, as it does, page after exhaustive page of statistically-valid study results showing the vast majority of the country’s reporters and editors top-of-mind-response to evangelicals is to consider them intolerant, criminally-minded and un-Canadian. He complements this graciousness by adding counsel, in the last pages of the book, on practical steps both media organizations and evangelicals themselves could take to provide a truer, fairer, more complete journalistic representation of this aspect of Christianity.

It is within this advice-giving, however, that the ultimate “so what?” of Through a Lens Darkly emerges. So what if, over time, there is improvement, token or tangible, in the mainstream news industry’s depiction of evangelical Christians? So what if, working hard and applying themselves diligently, evangelicals are at last able to communicate effectively with (and through) Canada’s newspapers, radio and television stations? In fact, what will have been realized through the expenditure of effort on both sides is a gain for a lost cause. By that is meant the loss of the big media itself, not the cause of Christian evangelism.

In an era when more and more citizens care less and less almost daily about what mainstream media outlets are reporting, when many of those outlets are staggering on broken knees toward inevitable financial oblivion, when the means of infinite media production are a mere mouse-click away for everyone, so what if a group of anachronistic information gatekeepers in the nation’s emptying newsrooms think a particular way about evangelicals or anything else?

Haskell argues, and has the numbers at his fingertips to make the case, that the majority of Canadians still get the bulk of their news from traditional media sources. Using a concept called frame theory, he also shows convincingly how repetition of journalistic perceptions of evangelical Christians perpetuates negative images in the wider population. Finally, he shows the impact these two facts have had on specific public policy debates —namely abortion and same-sex marriage—to the detriment of the political positions taken by organized evangelicals. (Canadian journalists almost uniformly consider evangelicals “wrong” on abortion and same-sex marriage and so, in  a feedback loop that only a journalist could love, convert that “wrongness” into the essence of evangelical Christianity. You are what I say you are because you and I disagree about what you should believe.)

Conceding the general correctness of Haskell’s arguments does not diminish their belatedness, however. Through A Lens Darkly is a book that still considers mainstream journalism to be as important as it was when, oh, say, arguments over abortion and gay rights first began. It is an understandable position for a former journalist and current denizen of a university journalism to take, but it is yesterday’s position at best.

If we are not quite there, we are rapidly approaching a time when conventional journalists will be what buggy whip makers were at the dawn of the age of the automobile. Their power to drive things will be, shall we say, niche-market if it exists at all. 

In that sense, the real power of this book is as a case study in how the intellectual poisons of contemporary journalism helped to kill an institution once considered essential to the proper functioning of democracy. Evangelicals, after all, are but a subset of those who have suffered from the arrogance, rigidity, dogmatism, ignorance and superstition that constitutes the daily fare of Canadian newspapers, radio and television news. It is why, when the last of the mainstream newsroom lights go out, they will properly join the bulk of the population in shrugging and asking: “So what?”

 


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