This was not your typical New York Times headline: "For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened." The news report itself offered a flashback into an earlier age, back to the days before Vatican II or even to the tumultuous times of Martin Luther. On one level, this was simply a trend story about the Vatican trying to revive some old traditions. However, there were complicated details behind the blunt headline.
"In recent months," the Times reported, "dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago -- the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife -- and reminding them of the church's clout in mitigating the wages of sin."
For most Times readers, this was an isolated, mysterious story. But in cyberspace, this one report inspired waves of debate. Among the big questions: How could this door have been reopened, when it had never been closed? Were enough conservative Catholics quoted? Why didn't the Times cover a bigger story, the collapse in confession statistics?
Researchers later discovered that plenary indulgences remained a red-hot news topic for many days -- online.
"Religion is one of those topics that has a unique ability to gather in one place large groups of people who care passionately about it. That's the kind of thing that happens quite naturally online," said Jesse Holcomb, a research analyst with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The irony is that these online debates almost always start with a story from a big, traditional news source. Someone has to report the news before the bloggers can take over."
This is precisely the kind of issue that causes sweaty palms for folks -- like me -- who care about religion news. I've been reporting and doing research in this field for 30-plus years and, 22 years ago this week, I began writing this column for Scripps Howard. I also run a website called GetReligion.org, which is six years old.
At the moment, the state of religion coverage is somewhere between "evolving" and "on life support." Cutbacks in top 40 newsrooms -- organizations that once had the resources to support a variety of specialty reporters -- have sent many veteran scribes into early retirement. More than a dozen print newsrooms have reduced or eliminated their religion-news jobs in the past three years.
However, the amount of religion news remained surprisingly steady in 2009, at 0.8 percent, compared with 1.0 percent in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
As always, it was a good year to read about papal tours, especially when they cause controversy, and stories about religion and politics, especially about the beliefs, rhetoric and policies of President Barack Obama. As always, it was not a good year to read about how religious beliefs helped shape events in some of the world's most tense and bloody settings, such as Iraq and Iran. Holcomb noted that journalists even failed to probe the intense religious language and imagery in Obama's historic speech at Cairo University, which focused on improving relations with the Islamic world.
Meanwhile, additional Pew research into news and trends online found that 41 percent of Americans believe the news media should devote more attention to "religion and spirituality." Only news about science -- with a 44 percent score -- drew a higher response.
Who claims to want more "spiritual" news coverage? Women (44 percent) are more likely to say so than men (37 percent), which is significant since editors are worried about the rapidly declining number of female readers. Young adults, ages 18-29, are more interested in religion than readers over 50 -- 49 percent to 35 percent. African-Americans (57 percent) and Hispanics (43 percent) are more interested in religion coverage than whites (38 percent).
If readers want to find detailed coverage of religion issues, they are now more likely to find it online, said Holcomb.
"When it comes to breaking down the differences between various types of beliefs and rituals and practices and then trying to show how these things end up affecting people's daily lives, mainstream journalists are rarely able to get into all of that," he said. "But that is precisely the kind of thing that more people are writing about on websites and on blogs."
NEXT WEEK: The online buffet of religion news and opinion.