Rediscovering Religion — Religion Coverage: Past as Prologue? (2003)

Religion Coverage: Past as Prologue?
(Copyright) The Poynter Institute Poynter Reports, May 2003

Lou Grant had a problem.

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

First of all, the fictional Los Angeles Tribune had lost its religion editor and no self-respecting journalist wanted the job. Second, Grant needed to ditch a lazy, often-drunk, no-good reporter named Mal Cavanaugh.

Finally, Grant saw the light. He told Cavanaugh he was the new religion editor.

"That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that, I'd quit," said the reporter, before storming out of the room.

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

That scenario rang true to the editors and religion reporters I interviewed while doing my graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, researching a project that reached the cover of The Quill in January, 1983.

Many religion-beat veterans were proud of their work, but felt like Rodney Dangerfield in their newsrooms. Editors kept saying that they knew religion was news, but that religion-beat stories seemed too boring, or too controversial, to warrant dedicated coverage.

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

Much has changed in 20 years. For starters, newspaper executives have been bombarded by research showing that religion news ranks high in the interests of ordinary readers. Year after year, events rooted in religious beliefs and trends have appeared in the annual Associated Press list of top news stories.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Religion Newswriters Association are convinced that there have never been more reporters covering religion in the mainstream press.

"We've seen a great increase in the number of religion reporters in the past 10 to 15 years," said Dr. Debra L. Mason, the RNA's executive director. "We have more than 400 members and subscribers, about 250 of those who write about religion full-time. ... 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."

But major questions remain. I am convinced that issues related to religion, faith and morality remain at the heart of many clashes between journalists and their readers, a source of misunderstandings and lost opportunities for understanding.

Many news people continue to get sweaty palms when dealing with religion. Here are a few questions and reflections I shared -- 20 years down the road -- with participants in Poynter's seminar on "Faith, Religion & Values."

* If the goal is to improve coverage, does that mean journalists should cover more religion stories that are interesting to the people who inhabit newsrooms, or to people who frequent religious sanctuaries?

While teaching at Denver Seminary, I once developed a set of three questions to help future pastors study the power of the news and entertainment media in the lives of their people. I urged them to ask: How do my people spend their time? How do they spend their money? How do they make their decisions?

What if newspaper editors asked these same questions about the lives of their readers? If they did, I believe that would quickly affect the time and resources they dedicate to covering religion news.

* Is the goal of improved religion coverage to reflect the daily realities in a local community or to change that community's understanding of faith? I have heard journalists say that the purpose of improved religion coverage is to actively promote religious diversity, thus undercutting the power of established religious groups. To me, this sounds like a way to ignore and run off scores of long-time newspaper readers.

Here's a place to start. In recent decades, newspaper executives have gone out of their way to survey their readers and learn more about their lives and interests. The odds are good that most editors already possess this kind of data. Does it contain questions about religious affiliations, activities and beliefs? If so, has this information been circulated in the newsroom? If these questions have not been asked, why not?

* Is religion best covered by trained, committed specialists or by newcomers who offer a fresh, blank-slate approach?

This is not a new question. In 1994, Washington Post editors tacked up a notice for a religion reporter, seeking applicants from within the newsroom. The "ideal candidate," it said, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."

Now try to imagine a newsroom notice seeking an opera critic which states that the "ideal candidate does not necessarily like opera or know much about opera." Or how about seeking a Supreme Court reporter who "does not necessarily care about the law or have done any work in the field of law." How about notices for reporters who cover professional sports, science, film and politics?

Let me make my point by paraphrasing James Carville: It's journalism, stupid.

The way to improve religion coverage is for newspaper professionals to take precisely the same steps they would take to improve coverage on any other complicated, crucial news beat. They should hire qualified specialty reporters who have demonstrated commitment to the beat and then give these reporters the time and space necessary to do their jobs.

* We live in an age in which focus groups drive much of what happens in the hyper-competitive world of broadcast news. Should this affect religion coverage?

Peter Jennings once told me, during the time when ABC News offered regular coverage of religion news, that these reports elicited the highest positive response rates in the history of his newscast. Yet no other broadcast or cable-television news operation attempted to duplicate ABC's work. Meanwhile, at World News Tonight, the downsizing of the religion beat, with the exit of Peggy Wehmeyer, led ABC to turn to for team coverage.

So, where are the religion-beat specialists in television news?

"Even the agnostic cannot fail to notice that the headlines and airwaves are full of religion," commentator Bill Moyers once noted, speaking at Harvard Divinity School. Yet news broadcasts are so full of the "confused and condescending commentary of the religiously tone-deaf that there is little room for the authentic voices of religiously engaged people to be heard. So our ears are not trained to hear."

In conclusion, I believe that many journalists are still struggling to answer the question, "What is religion news?"

Yet America's best-known commentator on religion thinks that it is now time for journalists to ask an even more demanding question: "In the wake of Sept. 11, is there any news today that is NOT religion news?"

This question is especially intimidating for the elite journalists who believed that ever time they looked out their newsroom windows, "there was going to be less religion around than there was before," said Dr. Martin Marty. They were wrong. And they were wrong in believing that whatever "leftover religion" survived in the postmodern age was "going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on."

But in the mid-1990s, the University of Chicago historian directed a massive project to study the "militant religious fundamentalisms" on the rise worldwide. It concluded that the leaders of many such groups would resort to military action, when they failed to achieve victory through constitutional means. And if military might was not enough, Marty noted that the study warned that "they may very well take no prisoners, allow no compromises, have no borders and they might resort to terrorism."

How should networks and newspapers respond? How should they cover a part of daily life that can affect events at the global level, as well as in the quiet of ordinary pews, schools and homes?

It would help, he said, if they hired more journalists who are trained to cover this complex and emotional subject. But that response is no longer adequate.

"We are past that, right now," said Marty. "We are now dealing with issues that all journalists are going to have to try to understand. ... The horizons of religion and the news have touched and we all have to realize that."

For more information on this lecture at the Poynter Institute, click: