The late, great Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell noticed a striking pattern as he dug into a 1981 survey of journalists in elite newsrooms such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, ABC, CBS and NBC. In the space marked "religion," 50 percent of these elite journalists wrote one word -- "none."
"They wrote 'none' and many even underlined that word," said Cornell, in an interview conducted for my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Parts of the interview were included in my 1983 cover story on religion-news coverage for The Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In the religion slot, he noted, they "didn't just say 'none.' They said 'NONE.' "
Other numbers jumped out of that controversial report by researchers S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, such as the fact that 8 percent of the journalists said they attended worship services weekly, while 86 percent said they seldom or never did so. In contrast, the Gallup Organization has consistently reported that about 40 percent of Americans claim to attend services of each week.
Ever since then, I have heard clergy quote those numbers as evidence of a deep chasm of hostility between journalists and religious believers, especially religious traditionalists. I have returned to this topic many times during the 24 years -- the anniversary was this past week -- I have written this column for the Scripps Howard News Service.
In response, I keep quoting commentator Bill Moyers, who once said many journalists are "tone deaf" when it comes to hearing the music of faith. I'm also convinced we're dealing with a "blind spot" that has two sides, because leaders on both sides of the First Amendment simply do not respect each other and the roles their institutions play in public life.
Readers of this column, and of the GetReligion.org blog, constantly ask me if I have seen signs of progress through the years. Yes, there were some flickers of hope in the late 1990s and early in the following decade, as a few more news organizations hired journalists with the experience and training to improve religion-news coverage.
You see, almost everyone agrees coverage improves when editors hire trained religion specialists and then give them the time and space they need to do their jobs -- just like journalists on other complicated beats. Also, religious believers can do fine work on this beat and so can skeptics. The key is that they need to know what they're doing and be committed to accuracy and fairness.
The question people like me keep asking is this one: Why don't more editors hire pros to cover such a pivotal beat in national and international news?
Alas, this is where recent polls have, for me, caused some nasty flashbacks.
Consider, for example, that recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey indicating that a mere 19 percent of Americans feel that journalists are "friendly" toward religion in this culture. Only 11 percent of Republicans see the press as faith-friendly, while 24 percent of Democrats hold that view.
Meanwhile, researchers with the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion and the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics have released a new survey indicating that two-thirds of the American public says that mainstream religion coverage is too "sensationalized" and focuses too much on scandals and politics. Just under 30 percent of the journalists agreed.
In this survey (.pdf is here), nearly 60 percent of the journalists said they think "religious people are far too sensitive about religion stories." At the same time, a sizable minority of news consumers -- 37 percent -- remain convinced that journalists are "hostile to religion and religious people."
Wait a minute. That 37 percent figure is uncomfortable similar to the consistent Gallup finding (the previously mentioned 40 percent) on the number of Americans who claim to attend weekly worship services. Is there a connection?
This correlation is relevant, but these groups "do not overlap completely," said veteran religion-news researcher John C. Green of Akron.
Nevertheless, he said, "there is a connection between regular worship attendance and the perception that the news media are hostile to religious people." At the same time, "less religious journalists are more likely to agree that religious people are too sensitive."
The standoff continues. It's kind of deja vu all over again.