news media

2012: It's religion news deja vu

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 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.

Symbols & Substance in Alabama

Susan Pace Hamill's colleagues on the law faculty at the University of Alabama were puzzled when she decided to spend her hard-earned sabbatical studying the Bible.

Why study Greek at Samford University's evangelical Beeson Divinity School? What was a tax-law specialist who had worked in New York City and Washington, D.C., supposed to do with a Masters in Theological Studies degree?

Hamill wasn't exactly sure herself, but she certainly wasn't trying to start a political crusade.

"If you divide the world into people who are on the side of money and people who are not, then I'm on the side of money," she said. "I'm a corporate lawyer. It's what I do."

Then she read an article about Alabama's income, property and sales tax laws that shook her faith as well as her legal convictions. One statistic cut deep: A family of four had to pay taxes if it earned $4,600 a year, a figure that was light years below the $17,601 poverty line.

Before long before she was writing statements such as this: "Alabamians are, or at least claim to be, a Christian people. ... However, in one glaring case Alabamians have strayed far from the direction that God's moral compass provides. When one examines the suffering and hardship Alabama's tax structure inflicts on the poorest and neediest among us, one cannot fail to see the enormous gap that exists between what God's moral values demand and what we have allowed our state to become."

The typical essay quoted 20-plus Bible verses per page, with special attention given to prodding ministers and wealthy Christians. Hamill added hard statistics and legal scholarship, seeking "10 witnesses and DNA" to build an ironclad case. The bottom line?

"Alabama's tax structure," she wrote, is the "sort of system condemned by the Old Testament Prophets and by Jesus as inconsistent with God's Word."

Hamill called her Beeson thesis "An Argument for Tax Relief Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics" and, after a burst of local news coverage, lots of people started reading it -- including Republican Gov. Bob Riley. This rock-ribbed Southern Baptist conservative proceeded to propose the biggest tax increase in state history, telling Alabamians that "we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor."

The $1.2 billion tax package lost on Sept. 9 by a crushing 68 to 32 percent margin. Nevertheless, Hamill believes the cause might rise again. It would certainly help if certain media and political elites took off their ideological blinders.

She isn't the only person who thinks that. Gregg Easterbrook of the New Republic was appalled by the lack of support Riley's crusade received from the proud progressives in the national media. This is especially true in comparison with the oceans of digital ink spilled over a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda.

Major newspapers and networks, he noted, swarmed over the Ten Commandments story, but ignored the tax-reform effort. It's fair to ask, "Why?"

"Why does the crackpot judge get 24-7 coverage," he asked, "when the noble governor gets almost none? Because the snarling judge and his intolerant followers show Christianity in a bad light; by granting them attention, the media make Christianity look bad. Gov. Riley's crusade to help the poor shows Christianity at its luminous best. Therefore the media ignore Riley."

Hamill isn't that harsh. But she agrees that a symbolic chunk of granite received more than its share of coverage, especially in contrast to the substance of the tax-reform plan, which would have affected paychecks, schools, businesses and grocery bags.

The ultimate question, she concluded, is whether citizens honor the content of the Ten Commandments and the civic principles that flow out of them. That's a big story, too.

"The plan failed," she said. "Does that mean the moral message failed? I hope not. I hope and pray that the movement down here is just getting started. Sometimes grassroots movements take time.