Faith Meets the Press at Seminar
By Sharon Boehlefeld, Features Editor
April 19, 2018
DEKALB—Even the panelists were amused as a seminar about religion reporting began April 12 at Northern Illinois University.
After all, they were an imam, a rabbi, a bishop and an Evanglical church spokesman.
But the discussion, sponsored by the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, at times lighthearted, also included a number of serious elements.
Members of the panel were Bishop David Malloy of the Rockford Diocese; Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, Imam Mohammed Labadi, president of the Islamic Center of DeKalb, and Todd Hertz, communication director of Christ Community Church in St. Charles.
Bishop Malloy told the audience, mostly of journalists, public relations professionals and educators, that the “complexity of issues” and the “differences within the religious traditions we have here” lead him to ask, “How are you going to get enough familiarity (to cover religion)?”
He suggested, as did other panelists, that reporters need to “come and ask us.”
He also suggested that using a “political frame” to look at religion doesn’t reach the heart of a faith tradition.
“The Catholic faith is not a policy program,” he said. “Policies can change. ... The faith and the tenets of the faith do not change.”
Citing a Pew Center study on religion, he said, “fifty-five percent of respondents said they prayed every day.” Adding those who pray often, but not daily, increases the number of people to whom religion is important. 
A shared sensibility of “some sense of something beyond ourselves is ingrained in us,”  he said, and is one reason covering religion is important for the media.
Each of the panelists was sent a few questions before the seminar. One about how fair media coverage of religion is generated both varied examples and common suggestions.
Rabbi Frisch Klein, who worked briefly as a journalist herself, said, “We’ve blended opinion and news in this country.” She recommended “listening (to) or reading from more than one source” as a way both media consumers and journalists can get a more accurate picture of religion in the U.S. and the world.
As to fair treatment of the Jewish faith, she said, “not always, not always.”
Imam Labadi reminded the audience that “ninety-nine percent of ISIS victims are Muslims,” before offering definitions of several Arabic words used to describe Islam and activities related to it.
“Sharia (law) ... is my way ... to be kind,” he said, adding he has no problem following both sharia, traditional Islamic law, and the Constitution of the United States. 
Jihad is usually translated as “holy war” in U.S. media. “Jihad means to do the best at anything you do,” he said. “It’s not a bad word.”
Media coverage of Islam “surpasses the faith,” he said. “It becomes politicized.”
When something “bad happens,” he added later, the press wants “to talk to a Muslim so we can apologize for what happened.”
Bishop Malloy said local and national media differ in their coverage of religion. 
“We’ve often received a more ... fair treatment on a local level,” he said, citing coverage of the ongoing diocesan education planning process, the annual outdoor Good Friday Stations of the Cross in Aurora, and his holy day Masses at the Winnebago County jail. 
The last two, he added, give the press an opportunity to focus on  neighborhoods and populations that usually generate negative news.
But, he added, “The higher you get into the national level (there) is a more political model.”
The issues being covered tend to generate varied responses. If, for example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops makes a statement about racism or immigration, “We get positive comments,” he said.
But when the topic is more about the family, he said, “We can feel the chill coming in through the door.”
Hertz, the only layman on the panel and a former reporter, drew agreement from the others when he encouraged “more nuanced” coverage of religion. 
“In our culture as a whole, I think we’ve lost a lot of nuance in general,” he said.
But he said journalists, by asking questions, can fill “gaps in reporting ... from being assigned to cover a story they know nothing about.” 
After a question and answer session, Imam Labadi offered the last remarks, saying, “Continue to drive these kinds of conversations. Ask the questions. (Drive) for the facts.”