A few months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, got into a bit of a media tangle over comments about making arrangements for religious law systems to be accommodated within UK law. His comments were quite detailed and in depth, and took a bit of listening to, had to be heard in context, and took some work to understand exactly what he was meaning. Unfortunately much of the media didn’t get that far. They heard one word. Sharia. And the media frenzy that followed seemed to focus on this word and soundbites.
Now, was Rowan right or wrong to say what he said? Perhaps using the word ‘sharia’ was unwise – he might have forseen the difficulties it would cause. Perhaps Rowan might learn to communicate in shorter sentences. But either way, my point is that the media at large did not take the time to understand what he was trying to say, but instead opted in favour of a sensationalist headline. Bound to get attention, but not necessarily reflect Rowan’s opinions.
Alex Kirby of the BBC wrote this about him, a few days afterwards:
“The first is his inability, or refusal, to say everything in the neatly-packaged soundbite most of the media now demand. It’s hard work understanding an archiepiscopal speech or sermon these days. But it’s always worth the effort, which has certainly not been the case with all his recent predecessors.” (from an article by Alex Kirby on the BBC website)
More recently, Barack Obama has been in the news. This time, not over things he said, but over things his pastor said. Pastor Jeremiah Wright was accused of being unpatriotic in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost”. This quote was used as an example of what a bad pastor he must be, and hence what a bad President one of his congregations will make. However, once again, the soundbite does not do justice to the context. Without looking deeper, the intent of the quote is mistaken, and his real meaning is missed.
Anderson Cooper of CNN has quoted the relevant parts of the sermon here, and the youtube of the actual sermon can be found here. (The gist of the sermon was a call to social transformation and to examine your own life and society)
It takes time and investigation to discover the context of peoples’ statements. Life cannot be summed up in media soundbites or editorial comments. In trying to do that, we lose a lot of the depth, insight, and subtlety that is essential in thoughtful comment. We lose a lot of life’s substance and we are reduced to sensationalism