Ryerson prof examines ties between women, religion and journalism



The lack of women in prominent, high-ranking positions in both religious and media organizations is one of the many topics Ryerson journalism professor Joyce Smith tackles in a chapter for a new book about women, religion and journalism.

“You have two fields that are heavily dominated by men in positions of authority and leadership,” Smith said in an interview. “But they’re also fields where [there are] a very large number of females who are participating… Yet you’d never know they were there if you only talk to the people in leadership.”

Smith’s book chapter, “Occupying pews, missing in news: Women, religion, and journalism,” appears in Media, Religion and Gender (published by Routledge). Her contribution, which focused on Canadian news media, examines how women and religion helped shape journalism, and, in turn, how women and religion have been portrayed in the media throughout modern history.

Smith, who was approached by Media, Religion and Gender editor Mia Lövheim to write the chapter, said that the underrepresentation of women in journalism and religion wasn’t the only issue she found in her research. She also points to “the explosive mix of sex, faith and crime which fuels much sensational reporting on religion,” citing the Maria Monk stories published 1836 as a prime example. The stories, published in part in the New York Herald , were allegedly written by a nun from Montreal who, upon taking her vows, was told her duties would include “the sexual servicing of local priests,” and “that any babies resulting from these activities will be baptized before being thrown into a lime-filled pit.” Historians later debunked the stories and attributed them to ghostwriters trying to appeal to the anti-Catholic sentiments in the United States at the time. Meanwhile, all-too-true stories of sexual abuse within religious communities continue to make the front page today.

Smith said she is also troubled by how the religion beat has been considered one of the “lesser forms of journalism,” while beats like politics and hard news are viewed as much more important. Journalists themselves don’t agree on religion coverage: in a survey Smith did of Canadian journalists asking how they thought religion is presented in the media, their opinions ranged from “much too respectfully” to “often with suspicion and misunderstanding.”

Although the results expose many underlying issues in the relationship between women, journalism and religion, Smith notes in the chapter that there have been shifts over the years. For example, she compares a scene from over 20 years ago, when former CBC reporter Carole Jerome described the veil she had to wear while covering the 1979 Iranian revolution as a “rag,” to a 2011 panel on women in journalism where many of the journalists in attendance were veiled themselves. As well, even though they are underrepresented in positions of power, more women have been entering journalism and are no longer strictly confined to writing for “women’s pages” like they were in the earlier days of print news.

“Here at Ryerson, we’re a school that’s so dominated by women. But it’s really healthy to be reminded what things looked like not too long ago,” Smith said.

Smith, who is currently finishing a study of religious representation in Canadian news media, said in an interview that she plans to continue doing research on the topic, and that more people are starting to take notice of how, religion, media, and culture are interconnected.

“I’m really happy to be part of the collection,” she said. “It’s just really exciting to see the field really taking off.”