Walking a Fine Line With Faith in Mind

When Islamic extremists killed 12 people at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, media from around the world rushed to Paris to cover the shootings, the subsequent hunt for the suspects and, days later, another horrific attack at a kosher market.

News organizations from religious TV networks, like their secular counterparts, struggled to get around a huge story with wide-reaching implications. They also wrestled with a decision that plagued editors around the world: whether or not to air the satirical cartoons that touched off the unfathomable violence to begin with.

“We tried to be very careful about it,” Christian Broadcasting Network news director Rob Allman said, citing security concerns, but also an understanding as a Christian broadcaster that certain images or words can be offensive to other religions.

“As a Christian organization, we want to be respectful because there have been many incidents when many media outlets have run images that have been offensive to Christianity,” Allman said.


Ultimately, CBN decided to air a single Charlie Hebdo cartoon only once as part of news coverage of the initial shooting, then aired the post-shooting magazine cover once while covering the event’s aftermath.

“The cover that came out afterwards was specifically newsworthy and that’s what everyone was talking [about],” Allman said. “It’s difficult to sit here and talk about not kowtowing to terrorism and talking about freedom of speech and freedom of the press and not follow through.”

Catholic network EWTN delivered reports from Paris as part of its News Nightly program, which debuted in 2013 as part of a buildout of the network’s news-gathering capabilities.

“It was a moment when we really utilized the resources of all of our news outlets that we’ve been building up over the last couple of years,” EWTN chairman and CEO Michael Warsaw said.

Following the attacks in France, the network’s website also featured investigative stories by long time EWTN reporter Dale Hurd that could be seen as race-baiting. Hurd reported earlier this year about “Muslim-controlled parts of France [where] it has become especially dangerous to be white.”

The myth of these so-called “no-go zones” was debunked and roundly dismissed as alarmist and sensational by many in the mainstream media and the French government after Fox News Channel made similar claims following the January attacks. The network’s goal is to treat all religions with respect, Warsaw said, but he added that EWTN won’t shy away from conversations about religious extremism.

Jewish Broadcasting Service covered the events on the In the News program and followed that up with a two-hour live special of the more than 1 million person anti-terrorism march held in Paris just days after the attacks. JBS interviewed Rabbi Tom Cohen, an U.S. rabbi who has lived and worked in France for more than two decades and attended the march. The network also opened up its phone lines to viewers concerned about what they believe to be growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

JBS president and executive producer Rabbi Mark S. Golub said the network took care to point out in its coverage that the Islamic world as a whole should not be held responsible for the attacks of extremists.

“We are hoping the Jewish community can somehow align with what we consider to be mainstream Islamic communities in an effort to bolster mainstream Islam’s ability to counter the jihadist movement,” Golub said.


Big-event coverage was rampant this winter on faith-based networks. EWTN carried extensive coverage late last month of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.

“One of the things we’ve seen in the last several years is that the March for Life clearly has become a young person’s event,” Warsaw said. With that in mind, the network worked to increase engagement on social media, encouraging people to send in or tweet photos or short videos of the anti-abortion march.

Passions ran hot, albeit in a much less politically charged environment, for the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl epic and Christian broadcasters were among those covering the big game. CBN’s The 700 Club sent reporter Shawn Brown to Arizona to interview players from both sides about their relationship with God.

Christian broadcaster TBN aired a two-hour pre-game show hosted by former NFL player Mike Barber, that featured interviews with religious players including Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Patriots wide receiver/special teams player Matthew Slater.

Spiritual Themes Entertain, Too

Non-religious TV networks continue to find success and audience growth through programming that resonates with those seeking spiritual themes. Take, for example, Oxygen. You may have thought the network was just home to bad girls and glam makeovers, but it’s giving the pulpit some pizzazz. Based on the success of its Preachers of L.A. series, the network has greenlit the spinoff Preachers of Detroit, set to debut Feb. 20.

“We didn’t intend for this show to be a Housewives franchise,” Oxygen Media senior vice president of original programming and development Rod Aissa said. “We want it to be about the question of faith, the question of religion and how millennials are approaching it.”

The show follows the ups and downs of preachers trying to help with the spiritual and political rebirth of the Motor City.

Preachers of L.A. became the most-watched first-year series in Oxygen history in the 25-to-54 demographic and averaged more than 1 million viewers.

The show’s producers, L. Plummer Media and Releve Entertainment, helped market it to a faith-based community that Aissa said gave the show its initial push.

GSN’s popular dating show It Takes a Church, in which a congregation looks for a love match for one of its single parishioners, will debut its second season this spring. Singer Natalie Grant is back as host as the show ventures to churches from California to Alabama. Season two debuts March 26 at 8 p.m.

National Geographic Channel is in postproduction on Killing Jesus, a three-hour scripted drama starring Kelsey Grammer that puts Jesus’s death into the political and social context of its time. Shot in the Moroccan desert over 40 days with more than 4,500 extras, the film is a huge production for Nat Geo. “This is the biggest project we’ve ever undertaken as a network,” executive vice president of programming and strategy Heather Moran said.

The film is the third based on a series of books by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. The first two, Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln, were the most-watched programs in the channel’s history.