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GetReligion points out 'ghosts' in religion reporting among mainstream media

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The news-checking website GetReligion.org is in its 18th year of looking for “ghosts” in mainstream media. The “ghosts,” as co-founder and current editor Terry Mattingly calls them, are holes in news coverage that exist either because the media does not want to cover the religious aspect of a story or because the reporters are unaware that a religious component is present. 

“The goal was to openly advocate for an old style, liberal approach to journalism where you are striving for accuracy and striving to let people on both sides of controversial issues have their voices heard in a way that is accurate and shows them respect,” Mattingly said. 

GetReligion was founded in 2004. Mattingly and fellow co-founder Douglas LeBlanc set out to dissect news coverage and brought with them a number of experienced religion writers, including Richard Ostling, Ira Rifkin, Julia Duin and Bobby Ross. Together, they hoped to shed light on the inconsistencies in religion reporting or religion bias in the news.

In one such case, then-columnist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway was credited with shedding light on the lack of coverage of the Kermit Gosnell mass murder trial. Hemingway’s post argued that the media ignored and downplayed the trial because it involved the subject of abortion. 

“We’ve never managed to have in many cases, fair, accurate, balanced coverage of issues related to abortion,” Mattingly said. “GetReligion was created to defend on topics of religion coverage.”

Mattingly said they rarely criticize a reporter by name because the mistake, or “ghost”, might have been written in—or removed—by an editor. They also, he said, look for the positives in media coverage of religion, and are open to corrections should they commit an error in their columns.

GetReligion.org sees high traffic and engagement on Catholic news stories in particular, which led to Mattingly’s hiring of a dedicated Catholic columnist. Current Catholic columnist, Clemente Lisi is an affiliate assistant professor at The King’s College in New York City and blogs twice per month about the coverage of Catholic news in mainstream media. 

“Of all religions, Catholicism gets the most attention, which keeps us busy on the website too,” said Lisi, who joined GetReligion in 2019. “In American culture there is a mystique around Catholicism, whether that comes from the movies or the past, there’s this idea that the Church is this gigantic institution. It’s constantly something people are interested in reading about or engaging with. 

Lisi’s post about the coverage of church vandalism in France in the wake of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris in 2019 remains one of the highest trafficked posts on GetReligion.com. The story of the fire, he said, got very little-to-no attention in the news media as it was actively burning in Paris. When it was covered, he said, it was as if Notre-Dame were a museum rather than a place of worship. 

“A lot of times I think the mainstream press doesn’t really delve into it [the Church] because it would require a lot more reporting or a lot more interviewing of people within the church who could give them context,” Lisi said.

Mainstream media, Lisi said, is really only interested in covering the Church well when there is a new pope because having a new pope is like a political election, where there is a lot of pageantry. Papal election coverage, he said, is mostly positive, wherein other day-to-day coverage of the Church can be clouded by the sex abuse scandal.

“The impetus often is that it has to be negative, or the impetus is that the people who are saying something against the Church are the ‘good guys’ and the Church is the ‘bad guy,’” Lisi said. “We see that with a lot of issues, cultural issues that come up.” 

“We see that now with Joe Biden being president, being Catholic,” Lisi said. “You see a lot of politicization of the Church, where everything in the Church is seen through a political lens—which isn’t the way the people in the Church see the Church. The Church is apolitical.”

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GetReligion.org was hosted on the website Patheos for some of its history, but is back on its own domain as of August 2014. The project continues to have a specific focus on media literacy, with the goal of helping people find, consume, and understand media in a balanced way. 

“We as journalists need to be more transparent in the way we get our news and the way newsgathering happens,” Lisi said. “My contribution to GetReligion is to give people an idea of what conversations happen in newsrooms, how stories come about, and oftentimes, why stories are unfair or why they are framed a certain way.” 

Ultimately, GetRelgion.org argues for a traditional American model of the press, where both sides are given an equal chance to tell their side of the issue at hand.

“More and more Americans, both left and right, are living in what scholars call ‘information silos,’” said Mattingly, who sees a specific need for GetReligion.org in today’s media landscape. “They are getting their information from narrower and narrower sources.”

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“How do you do journalism without any sense of agreement that we’re going to try to be tolerant and live with people who have opposing views?” he said.

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