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Leaping Into Faith

Last night, there were two religion-themed specials on television: "The Mystery of Christmas," an hour-long CBS special from the "48 Hours" team, and "Heaven -- Where Is It? How Do We Get There?," a two-hour Barbara Walters-hosted special on ABC.

It's hard not to be skeptical of national reporting on religion. The target audience of religion-themed specials is, in large part, people of faith, and ratings-conscious network executives aren't looking to alienate that audience by doing anything too controversial. But when trying to deal in a serious way with a topic like religion, which is so sensitive to so many people, controversy isn't easy to avoid. The result, too often, is that media outlets settle for unserious reporting, the kind that relies on inspirational music and stock montages of streaming clouds but never really poses serious or important questions.

To some extent, the problems of reporting on religion are unavoidable. Serious journalism requires a certain adherence to provable fact, after all, while religious belief is grounded in faith. The two often seem incompatible. "It's practically impossible to cover religion," says Columbia Journalism Review's Gal Beckerman, who recently wrote a piece asking why journalists don't "get" religion. "You're using a form [in reporting] that demands a certain level of basis in fact. And faith is almost the polar opposite – the idea that the test of your belief is how much you're willing to give up the notion that it needs to be based in reality."

Kim Lawton, Managing Editor for PBS' Religion And Ethics Newsweekly and a longtime religion reporter, says that "journalism is about the search for truth, and a lot of people would argue that faith is a search for truth. But you come at it from different starting points, so that is a big difference. There are objective realities when you're covering religion, but it is a tricky business."

The two specials that aired last night, despite their related subject matter, took surprisingly divergent approaches. The ABC program was a celebrity and pop-culture soaked affair – at one point, Walters asked Maria Shriver if she expected to see "Uncle Jack" and other members of the Kennedy family when she got to heaven. It wasn't all bad – the program did feature a number of different viewpoints, from everyone from evangelicals to nonbelievers to people from a number of different religions. But to understand the program's seriousness, you don't have to go much farther than that title. The piece was a fast-moving litany of interviews and footage that danced around serious issues without ever really taking them too seriously. It was the television equivalent of cotton candy: Easy to digest, low nutrient religio-tainment.

"Heaven is something that is empirically unverifiable," says Krista Tippett, host of American Public Media's "Speaking of Faith" public radio program. "It's hard for any media to do justice to a subject like that." Tippett finds most religion coverage "wanting," and argues that discussions of religion should center on questions of "how we live with ambiguity and complexity." "What happens to religion and religion ideas in traditional journalistic modes," she says, "is you present people with competing sets of answers."

The "48 Hours" piece focused on scholars who debated questions around the accuracy of the gospels, and went so far as to ponder whether or not the Virgin Mary was really a virgin. It was surprisingly heady stuff for the network to take on, particularly considering how loathe media outlets are to alienate viewers already predisposed to distrust a mainstream media that has been tagged liberal and secular by conservative media critics. Before the piece aired, says producer Miguel Sancho, e-mails were already coming in condemning the network for even raising the questions. On the blogs, meanwhile, there were complaints about how "CBS News Hits a New Low -- The War on Contemporary Christianity."

The piece itself was not, it should go without saying, a broadside on Christianity. (In a nation so overwhelmingly Christian, that wouldn't do much for the ratings.) But it did offer sophisticated arguments from serious scholars who were interested in going beyond the traditional black and white religious rhetoric. Perhaps because of this, viewers were specifically told the topic would be approached "with curiosity and with respect" – a refrain sounded by "48 Hours" executive producer Susan Zirinsky. "The intent was not to throw a firebomb ... and run screaming from the building," she says. "When you're exploring the gospels, there is a way to approach a sensitive subject and not have people feel that you're casting doubt on their beliefs."

When it comes to religion, however, it can be hard to seem like a neutral observer. "I think that people tend to brand you right now because of the way that politics has hijacked religion," says 48 Hours correspondent Maureen Maher, the correspondent on this piece. "It's a big topic and anyone who starts to bring it up – people either want to claim that person or they want to repel that person. There doesn't seem to be any medium space for someone to exist." Maher identifies herself as a person of faith, and says many people in the news business are afraid to do so "because they're afraid people will say they can't be objective."

According to Sancho, there were some concerns within CBS News about the program's tone. "Some of the senior managers during the revisions process thought that we had to put certain opinions in more context, to couch things a bit more," he says. "I think everybody at CBS knows that we do not want to be perceived as just trying to exploit controversy about the bible for the sake of our ratings. We are legitimately trying to do religious programming because it's fascinating, it's a departure, and because there are a lot of people who are devout Christians. We want to include them, not alienate them."