Looking For News at the Evangelical Press Association

COLORADO SPRINGS -- This year's national Evangelical Press Association convention theme was "Justice, Mercy and the Power of the Word" and much of the talk centered on hot social issues.

This week's early sessions included questions about racism, AIDS, poverty, abortion, hunger, teen pregnancy, immigration, divorce, drug abuse, gay rights and the tax status of religious groups, to name a few topics. All of this took place amid election-year talk about culture wars and family values, in a city known as a Mecca for today's breed of aggressive Christian activists.

Everybody had an opinion, but there was surprisingly little news to be found. While much has been written about the news media's blind spot on religion, gatherings such as this one offer ample proof that religious media struggle to handle news.

"Year after year, we come together and you can count on one hand the people who are really doing anything with news," said Joel Belz, the association's president and publisher of World, a conservative weekly that mixes news and analysis. "I guess that's just the nature of the beast. ... People don't want to do news."

Between sessions, writers and editors milled around tables covered with magazines, journals and newsletters from many of the association's 300-plus member publications. Most featured glossy photos and chatty, devotional stories about people whose lives have been changed by the ministry of the group that sponsors the publication. The emphasis was on emotion, more than education, and on inspiration, more than information -- even when dealing with complex, controversial issues.

Part of the problem is that most Evangelical Press Association members publish infrequently and have limited resources, said David Neff, Christianity Today's executive editor and the association's president elect. It's hard to "break" news stories in monthly or quarterly publications. Still, many who work in the Christian marketplace have backgrounds in news and it's disappointing that they don't take a more journalistic approach, he said.

"I would hope that these people just wouldn't be able to help themselves and that they'd find themselves doing some form of news just by instinct," said Neff. Also, the lack of news coverage "is intriguing because of the political activism that everyone assumes has taken over evangelicalism. You'd think that we'd be seeing more news-based writing about public issues."

Since the majority of Christian publications are public relations tools, no one expects them to publish hard-edged reports about their leaders. However, editors often go even further and avoid subjects that might require them to make references to competing organizations.

Recently, more Christian leaders have begun viewing their periodicals as part of their marketing efforts, said Ron Wilson, the association's executive director. Not only does this limit news coverage, it may even steer writers and editors away from practical articles about sobering issues linked to faith and ministry.

"The idea is that if your writing blesses people, then they'll turn around a give more to support that ministry; if you make people feel good, then they'll continue to make donations," he said. "Well, this often is interpreted to mean that you shouldn't write about anything that's too serious or has too much information in it. That isn't what people think of as `inspirational.' "

Thus, editors emphasize first-person narratives, devotional meditations and question-and-answer interviews. Also, it's easier and cheaper to produce "mood pieces," rather than well-researched news. On top of that, news tends to make people angry.

The result, said Belz, is that religious groups often keep their members in the dark and, for better or for worse, leave the reporting of hard issues and harsh realities to the secular media.

"The bottom line is that we're not getting the job done," he said. "I also think that it's kind of scary that people who are supposed to be so committed to truth and to the word have so easily accepted a communications model that's based so much on feelings and experiences. Everything's about how people feel. It's getting harder for people to focus on what's true and what's false."