Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage? (1993)

Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage? Orthodox bishop on hot spot

(Copyright) The Quill: The Society of Professional Journalists July/August of 1993

Denver, 1988: Deadline was three hours away and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion protests.

I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp ``pro-choice,'' its chosen label, while we call the other ``anti-abortion,'' a term it abhors?

The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more neutral terms. I wasn't fond of ``anti-abortion.'' It seemed to fit Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as ``pro-abortion rights.'' This might be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial spin of ``pro-choice.''

The assistant editor said ``pro-choice'' was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use ``pro-life.''

The city editor stepped in.

Minus a few descriptive words, here's what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren't really pro-life. They're nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we'll call them whatever we want to call them.

That settled that.

This newsroom scene isn't typical, but it isn't unprecedented, either. This is precisely the kind of story that causes religious people to salivate while sharpening their rhetorical knives for another stab at the media.

Evangelical thinker Chuck Colson put it this way, during a National Press Club speech last March: ``We have sometimes claimed that you will not rest until you've strangled the last abortion protester with the guts of the last televangelist.''

But there is more to this than cross fire in a culture war. I am convinced that prejudice is a minor problem in news coverage of religion, in comparison with apathy and ignorance.

Many different religious leaders -- from Billy Graham to Shirley Maclaine -- have made similar observations: media leaders shun professional coverage of religion, one of the most powerful and complicated parts of American life.

A recent tally by religion writer Julia Duin in Editor & Publisher found that fewer than 50 daily U.S. newspapers, out of nearly 1,600, have full-time religion writers.

For years, Graham has asked why newspapers assign thousands of professional staff to cover sports and only a handful to cover religion. Any statistical comparison of these subjects -- in terms of participants and the dollars and hours they invest in these activities -- will favor expanded coverage of religion.

Lo and behold, Maclaine preached a similar sermon in an April address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, noting that there is more to religion news than blood and bullets.

``We are bombarded daily with the anger, terror and seeming insanity of `religion-related' global mayhem. ... We are seeing, hearing and learning of these religious conflicts through exploitative headlines, glib sound bites and tabloid-style journalism, which predictably sensationalize the craziness but rarely undertake investigation of themes which resonate with man's deeper nature,'' she said.

Most journalists seem uncomfortable with the proven fact that millions of people in America and around the world order their lives with the help of religious truths and experiences.

``What has happened to us? Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age?'', asked Maclaine. ``Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''

Good questions. After nearly two decades of studying this issue, in academic settings and while working in the media, I am convinced four different forms of bias are to blame for this media blind spot. They are:

* The bias of space, time and resources. Simply stated: You cannot print a story if you have little space in which to print it, time to write it, or the money to hire a professional to do so.

An example: In 1983 I received a series of anonymous calls from a PTL Club insider. He offered proof of a scandal involving Jim Bakker, but he said we must meet in an airport far from Charlotte. My editors said there were few, if any, funds for religion travel. The source refused a local meeting and signed off by saying: ``Just remember this name -- Jessica Hahn.''

Many editors insist resources are too thin to support professional religion coverage. But anyone who understands newsrooms knows budgets are windows into the priorities of those who manage them. Budgets help shape news.

* The bias of knowledge. Fact: You cannot write a story if you do not know that it exists.

Recently, I saw a feature article on prayer based on quotes from three small-church pastors in Denver. The newspaper's region included at least four internationally known groups that specialize in prayer ministries, yet their leaders were not quoted. The big question: Did anyone in the newsroom know these groups existed?

Many journalists work hard to become trained political, arts or sports reporters. But editors do not consider it a high priority to hire professional religion writers. Why not?

* This leads to the bias of worldview. Simply stated: It is hard to write a good story if you don't care that it exists. The result is, at best, a blind spot on religious issues, and the people who care about them.

A now infamous case came in February, when The Washington Post printed a story that said evangelical Christians are ``largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.'' A Post correction bluntly said there was ``no factual basis'' for this statement. Reporter Michael Weisskopf repented, sort of, and said he should have written that evangelicals are ``relatively'' poor, uneducated and easy to command.

Post ombudsman Joann Byrd made the following point: ``When journalists aren't like, or don't know, the people they are writing about, they can operate with no ill will whatsoever and still not recognize that a statement doesn't ring true. It may be even harder to see how deeply offensive a common perception can be.''

What's the problem? In the Lichter-Rothman media surveys in the early 1980s, 86 percent of the ``media elite'' said they rarely if ever attend religious meetings and 50 percent claimed no religion, at all. Polls indicate about 40 percent of the U.S. population regularly attends worship services, while about 90 percent claim some religious affiliation.

* Finally, there is the bias of prejudice. It's hard to produce balanced, fair coverage of people you dislike, distrust, or whom you feel are irrelevant.

Yes, many on the right like to blame all poor, negative or shallow religion coverage on this fourth bias. They note surveys indicating that about nine out of 10 journalists back abortion rights and a large majority supports gay rights. Journalists insist this does not affect news, but evidence suggests that it does.

I am convinced that the first three biases play greater roles in shaping religion coverage, with the ``bias of worldview'' being the most important. The bottom line: A vast majority of Americans, and this is a proven fact, know more about religion, and care more about religion, than most journalists.

This affects how much space is given to religion and who is assigned to cover this complicated subject. Sad, but true. From 1990 to 1992, 10 major newspapers have passed up chances to fill religion-beat jobs with professional religion reporters, according to Duin's E&P piece. Television remains a void, when it comes to serious religion coverage.

How can religious groups take part in public life, in this media age, if journalists ignore them? At the same time, can the ``media elite'' afford to write off a large segment of the population in an age of declining interest in newspapers and traditional network news?

``The two camps which you and I represent should make peace,'' said Colson, at the National Press Club. ``My proposition is this: we need each other for the greater good of our society.''

Note: Portions of this article were taken from 1992 lectures by the author at Wheaton College in Illinois.