20 years on the God beat, part one

Lou Grant had a problem.

Actually, the city editor on this classic TV comedy had two problems.

First of all, the Los Angeles Tribune had lost its religion editor and nobody wanted the job. Second, Grant needed to ditch the lazy, tipsy, no-good reporter Mal Cavanaugh.

Then Grant saw the light. He summoned Cavanaugh and told him he was the new religion editor. He could look forward to years of talking theology with clergy over lunch.

"That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that, I'd quit," roared the reporter.

Grant played it straight: "Quit? You haven't even given it a chance. You can't quit."

"The hell I can't," said Cavanaugh. "Just watch me."

Grant's staff beamed. The religion beat was still vacant, but who cared?

That TV plot rang true to editors and religion reporters I interviewed during my graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, researching a project that reached The Quill magazine's cover in January, 1983. Religion-beat veterans were proud of their work, but felt like Rodney Dangerfield. Editors kept saying that they knew religion was news, but that most religion-beat stories seemed too boring, or too controversial.

That's the ticket - too boring and too controversial.

"The role religion plays in America and the world has been a well-kept secret in most of the nation's newsrooms," I wrote. "While reporters chase the latest stories in politics, sports, business, education and other subjects, the billions of dollars and hours Americans invest in religious activities receive minimal attention. ... When news events escape the church page they are often covered by reporters with little interest in religion and little education in the style and language of religious leaders and organizations. Religion has almost been ignored by radio and television."

Much has changed in 20 years. Editors have been bombarded by research showing that religion ranks high in the interests of readers. Year after year, numerous events rooted in religion have appeared in the Associated Press list of top news stories.

Meanwhile, the Religion Newswriters Association says the number of reporters covering religion in the mainstream press has risen sharply in the past 10 to 15 years.

"We have more than 400 members and subscribers, about 250 of those who write about religion full-time," said Debra Mason, the RNA's executive director. "More than a dozen newspapers have two or more religion reporters. Nearly every newspaper with a circulation of over 100,000 has at least one person who specializes in religion, and the vast majority of these folks do it full-time or nearly full-time."

Yet troubling questions remain. I remain convinced that issues related to religion, faith and morals remain at the heart of many clashes between the press and its public. Many journalists still get sweaty palms when dealing with religion.

But anyone paying attention in recent years would have to concede that coverage has improved, especially on sweeping stories such as Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath, said University of Colorado researcher Stewart Hoover, author of "Religion in the News: Faith and Journalism in American Public Discourse." Only a generation ago, even this staggeringly complex story might have been covered as yet another example of "power and politics dressed up in the clothes of religion," he said.

But events have forced journalists to face their ignorance of history, doctrine and tradition. Now, some are beginning to wonder if those other believers they have ignored or offended for years might be just as complex and fascinating as world religions -- such as Islam -- that are now growing in America. If it's wrong to stereotype Muslims, maybe it's wrong to stereotype conservative and liberal Protestants, Catholics, Jews and everybody else.

Maybe picky facts and nuances do matter. Maybe there really are pro-life atheists, Wiccan homeschoolers, left-wing Baptists, Muslim comics and Pentecostal philosophers.

"For many journalists," said Hoover, "Sept. 11 has become the object lesson, the ultimate wake-up call, that demonstrates just how complex, and powerful, and multifaceted the whole world of religion really is. ... Once only a few journalists knew that, but now everybody does. People can't close their eyes now and pretend religion is fading away."