Media blind to 'real' religious life


The vast majority of Ukrainians say they trust the Orthodox Church more than all other national institutions, yet journalists fail to adequately capture the role of the Church in everyday life, according to Ukrainian television journalist Nataliya Lyubchenkova. Speaking to The Media Project’s conference on Defamation of Religion in Jakarta, Lyubchenkova described the "contradictions" of living in a very religious society.

More than 80% of Ukrainians are Christians of some sort, with the majority affiliated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A minority of the population are Catholic and Protestant Christians, along with very small Muslim and Jewish communities.

Many Ukrainians believe the country is mono-religious, and citizens and journalists alike can be uninformed about minority religions.

Perhaps the greatest contradictions stem from the very social ubiquity of Orthodoxy. Faced with such a rich and expansive tradition, media are unable to do much more than caricature the faith in their coverage. The tone of religion coverage suffers not so much from antagonism as it does from media and religious groups talking past one another, though cynicism is a common problem.

"People often perceive the Church as being united and holy, but often this is not so..." Lyubchenkova said. "When there is a conflict between major Church bodies, it leads to disappointment in society and makes journalists skeptical about religion."

Lyubchenkova spoke with Yulia Kominko, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s deputy chief of information. Kominko said that journalists display their ignorance when they apply business and political metaphors to the church. Kominko said the words “attack” and “fight” are frequently and wrongly applied to religious issues in Ukraine.

For a religiously literate consumer of news, such ill-fitting metaphors feel as awkward as wearing someone else’s clothes, according to Kominko.

Lyubchenkova believes that Ukraine’s journalists are stuck in stereotypical modes of thought. Low quality reporting comes not from malicious intent, but from overworked reporters - some of whom are reporting for two or three media outlets at once - who don’t have the time or inclination to go deeper into the details.

Lyubchenkova spoke with Tatyana Pushnova, editor of 1+1, one of Ukraine’s most popular television channels, about how media deal with religion. Pushnova said bad religion coverage stems mostly from a lack of professional religion reporters who can make an effective case for a newsworthy religion story.

The other problem, Pushnova argued, is religious groups’ lack of understanding of news business priorities and demands. If churches want more coverage, they should be more proactive about reaching out to media, or even in creating their own media content, said Pushnova.

Journalists are also quick to remind their critics that religious topics do not make very interesting stories.

“It’s more difficult to sell a positive story about a saint than it is to sell a provocative story about a lavish food menu laid out for a Russian Patriarch visiting Ukraine,” a journalist told Lyubchenkova.

The result is an over-reporting on the “provocative” margins of religious life because, simply put, that is where the profit is.

“In Ukraine, media’s sole interest is in making money because there are no public television channels,” Lyubchenkova remarked. “Owners of Ukrainian channels don’t feel it is their duty to teach people about anything.”

Also hurting religion coverage is the pervasive belief among Ukraine’s journalists that the Orthodox Church is too wealthy and politically powerful. According to this view, Lyubchenkova said, the Church is already benefitting from its connections to the State, this is simply not appropriate for a modern European nation.

Though media are paying little attention to the Orthodox Church, the Church is paying closer attention to journalism than ever.

Lyubchenkova said she was surprised at the sophistication of the Church’s communication specialists. What she found is that the Church's PR people understand quite well how journalism works, and as a result they don't expect much from journalists or from news coverage. But this grace has its limits.

The leaders of the Orthodox Church recently got so fed up with the poor coverage that they funded a news-content analysis. They found that, even among experienced religion reporters, inaccuracies abound. The most common error the Church study highlighted was the consistently negative tone of stories.

Yuliya Kominko hears a pattern in the noise.

“Journalists who write about religious topics infrequently try to be positive and informative, whereas specialist, analytical journalists are less likely to be impartial and do not hide their position,” Kominko told Lyubchenkova.

But Kominko acknowledged that problems in coverage aren’t always due to biased reporters. Kominko is aware that journalists are forced, due to constraints of time and space, to simplify and take shortcuts in their reporting.

Third party observers, such as Oleksandr Zayats, of the Ukrainian Institute of Religious Freedom, are heartened by the direction of the dialog between religion and media, though Zayats says much work remains to be done, especially in the area of coverage of Pentecostal Christians and Muslims.

Pentecostals, especially, have had to overcome outlandishly negative stereotypes dating to Soviet days, when people were told that babies were being eaten in Pentecostal church services. Though the Ukrainian public has given up the worst misconceptions, almost no one objects when Protestants or Muslims are caricatured in the news.

Zayats insists that important work is being done to mend old divisions among religious groups in a new more multicultural Ukraine, though it's rarely covered, and the warming religious relations has already had a positive influence in media. Religious pressure recently secured a ban on daytime advertising of alcohol and cigarettes that had targeted teenagers, for example.

Father Mykola Myshovsky, editor of the Catholic magazine CREDO, welcomes any exposure, whether international or domestic, that raises the media profile of religion in Ukraine, in hopes that this would provoke a nationwide social discussion and help to shake off the remnants of the secular Soviet past.

“Were this to happen, many journalists might take more care in being objective,” Myshovsky told Lyubenchova, “because everything published and broadcast would be more carefully scrutinized and a more informed public would give stories more consideration.”