NEW YORK CITY (Assist News Service) – The headlines blare genocide, persistent and systematically planned. The government stands on the sidelines, watching the unfolding horror while doing little to nothing. More than 70,000 are forced into horrific refugee camps and then ejected from them with no place to go. Returning home for this particular people may mean instant death or living the rest of their lives in constant fear and vigilance with the threat of forced religious conversion hanging over their heads.
Questions abound: Where is this happening? How long has this been going on? Families turned out of refugee centers with nowhere to go? Why is the government wordlessly condoning the terror afflicting its own people? Why isn’t this story in the mainstream media? Shouldn’t the mention of genocide call for world wide media attention?
The people featured in these articles are Christians from the state of Orissa in India. Christian news organizations, such as Voice of the Martyrs, Mission Network News, and Compass Direct have been following the events as far back as July 2007. The New York Times, on the other hand, had only two articles in September and October of 2008. The Los Angeles Times mentioned the violence in Orissa in one paragraph of an article about the Mumbai attacks on Thanksgiving. But VOM, MNN, and CD have 10 to over a dozen different articles each on the violence in Orissa. The blatant discrepancy in reporting raises questions beyond the news outlets’ coverage of religious violence. What does it mean to represent and report well when it comes to something as personal as religion? What other stories concerning the abuse and mistreatment of Christians around the world has the mainstream media neglected to report? Who are the Christians being attacked and abused around the world, and who is covering their stories?
“Over 200 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest, and even death for their faith in Jesus Christ, with another 200 to 400 million facing discrimination and alienation,” according to Open Doors, a faith-based mission supporting persecuted Christian believers.
The Voice of the Martyrs, another such group, says “more Christians have died for their faith in Christ in the past 100 years than in all of history prior to that.”
The Voice of the Martyrs is a Christian organization working to raise awareness and grant assistance to Christians who are persecuted and mistreated across the globe. Another is the Mission Network News, a “mission news service dedicated to keeping Christians informed about evangelical mission activity around the world.” As Christians mistreated because of their faith are hard-pressed to be found in the United States, many times this kind of news coverage is the only way information gets out. VOM uses the phrase “It Didn’t End At The Coliseum” in its posters, implying that a common misconception is that Christian persecution does not exist anymore in the 21st century.
Gary Lane, a senior reporter at the Christian Broadcasting Network and formerly with VOM, follows and reports on the persecuted church. He says most people think Christian persecution is limited to “the book of Acts and the Roman empire.”
Todd Nettleton, director of media development and senior reporter at VOM, says there is a Christian and a secular perspective on how persecuted Christian groups, frequently referred to as the persecuted church, merit coverage. From the Christian perspective, he frames it as a “family issue,” where the persecuted Christians are “brothers and sisters in the faith” and there is a “natural affinity” to know what’s going on with them, as part of sharing the same faith in Christ. This would explain why most of the coverage on the persecution of Christians comes from Christians themselves, as they feel a deeper bond and sense of obligation to those they are covering than the average reporter would.
From the secular perspective, Nettleton says, these people are being denied basic human rights, something that is of importance to the concerns of the greater human society. He says that this is usually the only way a story on Christian persecution would be framed in the secular media. The “spiritual side” of the issue, which he considers the most compelling part of the story, is commonly overlooked.
Lane says Christian news reports on the persecuted church are often written in a way not only to connect the reader to the people in the story, but to “move to action, think beyond ourselves, and respond to the situation.”
Critiquing the traditional value of fairness and balance in a journalistic story, Nettleton says that while the established media doesn’t want to give more weight to one system of beliefs over another, they “did back flips” to maintain political correctness. His criticism recalls the New York Times article that first mentioned the religious violence perpetrated by Hindu extremists against Christians in India in the story, “Violence in India Is Fueled by Religious and Economic Divide.” The article immediately identifies Christians as the victims of the premeditated attacks. However, it never says that the perpetrators of the violence are Hindus, but refers to them as “attackers” and “the mob.” The lone phrase “All Hindus are brothers” shouted by the mob identifies their religious affiliation. Though the violence is “among the worst in decades against Christians in this Hindu-dominated nation,” the story goes on to say that it appears to have been fueled by “discontent at a time when the gap between India’s haves and have-nots is growing,” citing economic turmoil as the reason for the violence.
The Times neatly sidesteps the issue of exploring the fundamental difference and tension between Christianity and Hinduism as the cause of the attacks, going so far as to say “it has nothing to do with any particular religion.” But, Nettleton wonders, does the New York Times have trouble “calling a spade, a spade”?
The mainstream media outlets would do well to probe further into these issues. They would enrich not only the story, but the understanding of religious dynamics and tensions, and open the way for discussion about a topic that often has deep meaning and associations for people personally, but is never mentioned in depth in the public forum.
There are challenges, however, to following and finding these stories. Nettleton points out that one of the biggest difficulties in covering the persecuted church is “the mechanics of collecting the stories.” Some countries give restricted access to journalists and closely tail their whereabouts until the moment they board a plane and leave. Another issue, Nettleton points out, is putting the victims in more danger by exposing their stories. He says VOM tries to engage in “accurately portraying while protecting,” and stresses “not creating more problems” for the Christians because they spoke out about the injustices they were going through. According to Nettleton, this kind of exposure can potentially lead to “increased hostility from the government or group that is persecuting them.” The punishment Christians can receive for sharing their information can be anything from a simple questioning session to imprisonment and torture. The need to frame Christian persecution in a way that is”“comprehensible to the audience” to listen, pray and help, is also something Nettleton touched on. He says VOM chooses the stories it covers according to: the ones with the most impact, incidents from countries seldom reported on, and stories with direct VOM involvement, along with accounts that have accompanying photos and video.
Lane mentioned a similar list of criteria for the stories chosen for one of CBN’s outlets, Christian World News. He also said that the affordability of a story, covering the costs of round-trip flights, (mostly for international stories), bringing in equipment, and engaging in relief work, are concerns as well.
Lane cited economics as an advantage that secular media sources had over the smaller, Christian organizations. The money and resources available to them would not only allow them further access to the people they want to cover, but it would also allow for more widespread coverage and potential mobilization to bring justice and aid for these people.
On the inconsistency of the media with regards to selective coverage, Lane recalled the recent attacks in Mumbai and noted that an attack involving five-star hotels and many expatriates and tourists received blow-by-blow coverage while in the same country, churches were being burned down, huge mobs were hunting down Christians, evicting them and slaughtering them in broad daylight, while they were forced to flee to forests to survive. If the media had devoted even a third of the attention they gave the Mumbai attacks to coverage of the persecution in Orissa, Lane believes the situation would have been different for these Christians.
Both Lane and Nettleton share a deep need to get the word out, knowing believers want to be informed and have a role to play in responding to the situation, and the responsibility that “when one part of the body suffers, the rest does as well.”
Though Lane and Nettleton are informed by a Christian worldview, their words hold merit and interest even for those who are not Christians. The stories they cover are clearly gross violations of human rights. If we turn our faces away from the plight of these people, and as a result passively condone the atrocities being carried out, don’t we suffer as well in not holding human rights to be universal?
So why isn’t the mainstream media reporting on the persecution of Christians?
Lane points to the reporters who would be covering these stories. He notes that for someone who is not religious, it would be hard to “understand people who have faith, their motivations, and have sympathy for them.” Additionally, he says, many people have had negative experiences with religion, be it in the form of overly-aggressive Bible thumpers or judgmental figures who abused their authority.
But Lane created an innovative project that helps to bridge the gap. Early in his career, he began pitching stories from a human rights angle and tying it to current news stories for non-Christian news organizations. Perhaps the mainstream media today can do the same by reciprocating Lane’s actions. It would not just be something fresh and new to cover; they would also be initiating a long-overdue conversation and open forum on religion, how it turns people’s minds and hearts towards a common unity and informs their world-view, as well as simultaneously marking off dividing lines that are becoming increasingly important today.
Lane’s closing words are a reminder that it is not simply “our job to just report – God wants us to do something – as we all have a role to play” in the stories we cover.
We have the “responsibility to get on our knees and pray for our brothers and sisters in faith,” he said.