Religion and digital culture:

Comments don’t replace the news

posted by Tom Heneghan

Pope Francis has called the Internet a “gift from God.” If that’s the case, one has to wonder what message the Almighty wanted to send with this kind of present. The Internet does many good things for religion, such as informing people about each other’s faiths and providing a forum for serious discussion about them. But the same medium that can foster understanding also spreads polarization and deepens existing prejudices. This divine gift sends some decidedly mixed messages.

For a reporter like me, feedback from the public used to consist of occasional letters to the editor, maybe a phone call or a discreet word from a source not completely satisfied with a report. Now, the publication of an online news story is often only the beginning of a long series of exchanges with readers. Some of these are enriching experiences—opportunities to learn more about the subject or to discover leads for further reporting. But many are, frankly, a nuisance and a waste of time.

My work on the God-beat started in 2003, when I became the first religion editor for Reuters after twenty-five years of political reporting in Europe and Asia. In the wake of 9/11, we were one of many news organizations that were seeing more and more religion in the news but had few journalists who understood it. So we created a specialist post for an editor to coordinate coverage of religions around the world. Based in Paris, I would also report on religion news in Europe and the Mediterranean. During the first few years, my articles appeared on the web without too much trouble. The launch of our religion blog FaithWorld in 2007 threw me into digital journalism at the deep end.

For the first time, I had lively interaction with readers and learned much from the best of them. One Muslim reader writing under a pseudonym, a man of deep learning and common sense, quickly popped up in my comments box with criticism and insights that helped me better understand Islam. But many readers only wanted to polemicize. Comments could be so crude and malicious that, before I learned the online term “flame,” I called them “drive-by shootings.” Rational argument seemed a waste of time. Over the years, the accumulation of negative experiences made me question the usefulness of being “way out there on the web”—where our online editor urged Reuters bloggers to be.

Back in 2009, a story bouncing around the blogosphere claimed that Carl Djerassi, one of the fathers of the oral contraceptive pill, had lamented the “demographic horror scenario” resulting from his invention. A militantly pro-life website said Djerassi had “expressed dismay at the severance of sexuality and reproduction made possible by widespread use of the pill” and wanted to wake people up to the problem. The blog post cited an article the 85-year-old scientist wrote in the Vienna daily Der Standard. What followed showed how reports on the web can be read, reposted, and remarked upon multiple times without anyone bothering to check that the underlying facts are true.

When The Guardian in London was the only major publication to pick up the blog’s version of the story, a U.S. website that critiques religion reporting in secular media launched into a round of bashing the “mainstream media.” “One of the inventors of the pill denounced his own invention,” a blog post entitled “Sex, Lies and Schnitzel” trumpeted. “It’s been all over the blogosphere and I have yet to find much of any mainstream media attention to this story,” the blogger wrote. “No matter where Djerassi dropped his bombshell allegation … there’s just no news justification for obscuring this story.”

Instant explanations for this supposed censorship quickly popped up in the comments box. “No great surprise that the story is either ignored or killed,” one reader wrote. “Never will a news story against (the pill) get wide play,” another said.

There was, however, a very good reason not to run this story: Djerassi had said nothing of the sort. His article was not about the pill at all, but about the recent electoral success of Austria’s anti-immigration far-right. He only mentioned the country’s low birth rate as a reason to let in more foreigners rather than shut them out. “Contraception, birth control, abortion or the pill were nowhere mentioned in my article,” he wrote in protest to The Guardian.

The original article itself was easy to find because some blogs provided a link to the original text in German. But apparently nobody had gone back to it to see if Djerassi had actually made this “confession.” The blogosphere’s flattening of the publication process often sidelines the role of the editor, whose job it is to filter out such basic mistakes.

In another example, the Netherlands province of the Dominicans, a Roman Catholic religious order, published a booklet in 2007 arguing that unordained ministers—including gays and women—should be able to celebrate the Eucharist if priests are not available. This of course is a radical departure from Vatican doctrine. An irate Catholic blogger declared that my news report, written after I’d read all 38 pages in a language I understood and he didn’t, was based on a mistranslation. As if to prove his case, he said he found a one-page Dutch report on the booklet, ran it through Google Translate, and couldn’t find any reference to priestless masses. It did not occur to him that there was more to the document than what appeared in a second-hand source read through an approximate online translation.

While that may have just been shoddy work, another claim of a translation problem I faced that year was clear manipulation. “Intelligent design” theory, a controversial alternative to Darwinian evolution, was in the news at the time, and some proponents claimed that Pope Benedict XVI supported it. But he was quoted making clear that he didn’t in a book that appeared in German a year before it came out in English. On a leading U.S. website promoting intelligent design, a blogger trashed my report on the book by pontificating that Benedict’s statement was so profoundly philosophical, “you can be sure that exactly 0% of reporters and 1% of readers will understand (it).” When I challenged him by email to say whether he had actually seen the book—which I had read cover-to-cover in German—or even understood the language it was written in, he ducked my questions.

In both cases, these erroneous claims were quickly followed by readers’ comments that assumed the bloggers were right and the professional news story must be wrong. The eagerness of these readers to swallow this fraud without even checking the underlying facts was as worrying as the bogus claims themselves.

Those reactions were tame compared to the invective that anything about Islam could stir up. From the start, the FaithWorld comment box was moderated, which meant editors had to approve comments before they appeared on the public website. Reuters set only a few guidelines, such as rejecting any comment using obscenity. But I quickly found I had to draw up guidelines of my own, because various posts on Islam were attracting some unprintable, scathing comments.

One rule we made was not to allow insults to any faith’s core beliefs and leading figures. This came up because some comments called the Prophet Mohammed a child molester. Some challenged our use of the word “prophet” before his name because, they said, he wasn’t one. Explaining that we accepted widely known titles (without thereby endorsing their theological meaning) could prompt further derisive comments. Pointing out the fact that the titles “Christ” or “Buddha” could be contested by non-Christians and non-Buddhists didn’t help either.

Posts about Islam attracted more invective than any other faith. A given post could quickly become a springboard for a rant on any aspect of Islam that a commenter wanted to complain about. This was often the case when sharia was mentioned, since many readers didn’t know what it actually means. The debate around a planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” was a particularly striking example of readers misunderstanding, perhaps willfully, what was actually under discussion. We posted the comment “I say load them all back up on there camels” as a mild example of the level of ignorance we were dealing with.

A more benign type of comment asks for basic information because the reader does not know enough to follow the article. We always try to give background and context so that readers can understand a story, but they have to bring a certain level of general knowledge to the exercise. It’s not the role of a secular news agency to instruct the religiously illiterate. We often simply don’t have the available length to do it. There is also the danger that providing such elementary details will bore the majority of readers who already know them.

The misunderstandings that arise from religious illiteracy can lead to some curious complaints. During a visit to Lourdes in 2004, I noticed an unusual number of Indian women in splendid saris mingling with the other pilgrims. Some were Catholics, but many were Hindus who came to pay homage to the Virgin Mary. She reminded them of the goddess Mariamman, who has a special following in southeastern India and northern Sri Lanka.

In my story, I pointed out that Catholics revere Mary but do not consider her divine. An Italian-American reader fired off an irate complaint asking how I could be so misinformed. I had to remind him that Christians believe in only one God, even if they say he has three persons, and claiming that Mary was also divine would put him on the Hindu side of the monotheist-polytheist divide. His sheepish reply was so contrite that I felt sorry for him.

The scale of my sympathy begins to tip, however, with the common “but you didn’t say…” type of comment that berates a journalist for not including true but irrelevant information. Stories written for a general and secular audience should not get bogged down with inside baseball, but some readers deep in the debate may feel the story is incomplete without it. Such complaints are often so detailed that their real message is not that the story is wrong but that it’s not the one the reader wanted to read.

After keeping an open comments box on our blogs for over two years, Reuters concluded it was taking up too much of our staffers’ time and decided to allow only registered users to comment. The number of comments, especially the drive-by shootings, fell dramatically. The few that did come after that were more serious. I initially missed some of the lively exchanges, but I appreciated not being drawn into useless debates.

Despite all the trolls and flames, I still enjoy editing the FaithWorld blog. It highlights our religion coverage and follows trends that might otherwise get lost in the tsunami of daily news. It also expands our range of material to include photo essays and videos, verbatim texts of interviews and op-ed articles from outside contributors. We still post useful comments and I interact with some readers, often on social media networks other than our comment threads, but within limits. Being “way out there on the web” gave me a feel for readers’ reactions and a clearer idea of the journalist’s role in the digital age. For that alone, the Internet is a gift after all.

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