The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets (1983)

Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets 
By Terry Mattingly

(Copyright) The Quill:

The Society of Professional Journalists
January of 1983

As was often the case, Lou Grant was working on two problems at once. At first the problems seemed unrelated.

The Los Angeles Tribune had lost its religion editor. City editor Grant had searched far and wide and, of course, no one was interested in the position. After all, what self-respecting journalist would want to be stuck with the religion beat?

Problem number two was how to get rid of lazy, often-drunk, no-good reporter Mal Cavanaugh. All through this episode of Lou Grant the management of the Trib had been trying to find a way to get Cavanaugh to resign.

Then, a spark of inspiration. The script is simple:

LOU: Congratulations, Mal. You're the Trib's new religion editor.

Lou sits back beaming. The information seeps in a bit slowly on Cavanaugh, who blinks at Lou.

CAVANAUGH: Religion editor?

LOU: That's right, Mal. And I can't think of a better man to interview the clergy ... take ministers to lunch.

CAVANAUGH: Are you kidding?

LOU: Detail the theological frontiers in this country and abroad.

CAVANAUGH: That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that, I'd quit.

LOU: Quit? You haven't even given it a chance. You can't quit.

CAVANAUGH: The hell I can't. Just watch me.

Grant's newsroom associates beam as Cavanaugh storms out.

The television audience is left with the impression that Grant's problems are over. The religion editor spot is still empty, but who cares?


The role religion plays in America and the world has been a well-kept secret in most of the nation's newsrooms. While reporters chase the latest stories in politics, sports, business, education and other subjects, the billions of dollars and hours Americans invest in religious activities receive minimal attention. Religion news is usually pushed into a tiny Saturday ghetto labeled "church news."

When news events escape the church page they are often covered by reporters with little interest in religion and little education in the style and language of religious leaders and organizations. Religion has almost been ignored by radio and television.

And the reporters who do specialize in religion coverage have had it rough. Tied to the church page and facing a career of church press releases and short news items on sermons and picnics, many religion writers have given up and switched to more prestigious beats. Others have fought the stereotypes and tried to convince their editors to listen to the voices in American religion. Religion writers noted clergy marching in the civil rights demonstrations, the changes occurring in morality and social ethics, the debates on church and state, the fights over prayer in public schools, and the waves of change sweeping through the Roman Catholic church. Religion writers mentioned the public's changing attitudes on abortion, marriage, sex roles, euthanasia, private schools, pornography, television and countless other topics.

Often the words fell on deaf ears. Religion and journalism were like oil and water. As Jim Stentzel noted in an article in the evangelical magazine Sojourners:

"Myth says that journalism is 'objective,' religion 'subjective.' Journalism is the public's business, religion supposedly a 'private affair.' In the press one turns over a rock to expose the dirt, in the pulpit one turns over the dirt to expose the Rock. In this corner we have the bad news bearers; in the other, the preachers of the Good News."

However, Stentzel notes, journalism and religion often attract idealists. Both the pulpit and the press attract individuals who still believe in social change. In most religious traditions, prophets have often resembled newsprint muckrakers exposing corruption in high places and dark corners of society. Both ministers and journalists hope to find and describe "the truth." Both are attempting to communicate vividly.

Still, little of the news in the nation's newspapers or on the airwaves is about religion. But there are signs the situation may be changing.

At many newspapers the church page has evolved into the religion news page and sermon summaries have changed to news roundups. At some papers, religion writers are now allowed to write for the regular news pages, seven days a week. Religion has begun to overlap with politics, science, and other traditional "news" topics.

And yet, advances made at The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and a few other newspapers have been slow to reach Peoria. The Associated Press and United Press International provide most of the news on the nation's religion pages. And each wire service still assigns only one reporter to the religion beat for the entire United States. When thousands of sports fans-spending millions of Americans -- spending billions of dollars -- go to places of worship or sit in front of their television sets, AP's George Cornell and UPI's David Anderson go it alone.

"You know, usually, where people put their time and money, that's where their interests are," Cornell said. "Newspapers give a great deal of space to professional sports ... [Americans] put into the local and national churches much greater amounts of money than they do into professional sports. And that money is their work. That's them. That's a projection of their own lives. "They are putting much more time and money into religion than they are into sports-and sports are getting the vast displays on television and in the newspapers. Whole sections of the newspaper. ... Newspapers' attention and space are supposed to be geared to people's interest. Right?"

Stereotypes and prejudices die hard. Even though religion coverage has improved at many newspapers it is still a low-priority item, and religion writers at many newspapers are still viewed as second-class reporters. At major newspapers they still remember how difficult it was getting started.

Others can tell newsroom stories that would make fine plots for sequels to the Lou Grant episode mentioned earlier. Bruce Buursma, now religion writer for the Chicago Tribune, admits he didn't always want to be a religion writer. However, one editor at The Grand Rapids Press thought Buursma had all the qualifications that were needed to cover the religion beat. Buursma was made an offer he couldn't refuse.

"The managing editor called me in and said, 'Uh-you dad's a preacher. Right?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'You're the new religion editor.' And I was like 20 years old. I didn't know what to say, except, 'Okay.'"


The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said. " It seemed to be a cultural milieu which they reflect to a greater degree than the average citizen." He called the media's outlook a "cosmopolitan, Northeastern, liberal, highly educated point of view." However, other surveys find that just as high a percentage of college-educated Americans as of those with less education are religiously committed.

In fact, another survey shows the sector of the public that is the most religiously involved is also highly involved in the local news events that dominate daily newspapers. The survey, entitled "The Impact of Belief: On American Values in the '80s," was conducted by Research and Forecasts, Inc., and was commissioned by the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. About 20 percent of all Americans, a group the survey calls the "most religious," are the people most likely to be involved in, and interested in local news. The survey shows:

* The most religious are far more likely to believe the vote is the main thing that determines how the country is run.

* The most religious are highly inclined to believe that solutions to major national problems can be found through politics.

* The most religious are far more likely to do volunteer work for a local organization or political figure.

* The most religious are much more likely to attend neighborhood or community meetings.

* Finally, those who are most committed to religion are more likely to feel they "belong to a community."

The Connecticut Life survey found that 85 percent of the public considers adultery morally wrong. The Lichter-Rothman study found only 15 percent of the media elite consider adultery morally wrong. Similar splits occur on other "morality" questions. The leaders of American media are not typical of the culture they are in charge of reporting. (What people believe and what they do are not always the same, of course; as far back as 1948 Kinsey found that half of all husbands and a quarter of all wives had had extramarital affairs.)


The results of the two surveys accord with the experiences of some of America's top religion writers. The resistance to religion can take many forms.

"In some places it turns out to be hostility to religion," said Ken Briggs of The New York Times. In other places it turns out to be ignorance without hostility. So it's a little bit difficult at times to know what variety you are dealing with..."

Ironically, Briggs said, some editors who have grown up without exposure to religion are easier to deal with than editors who grew up with religion and then rejected it.

The person from a totally secular background is "not the same as the person who is still working off a lot of anger and resentment about a bad Sunday School experience or parents who forced things down their throats," Briggs said.

However, Louis Moore of The Houston Chronicle said he has had trouble with secular editors as well as "anti-religion" editors. Moore said the nature of the religion beat is different. Often the vocabulary and style of religion make writers and editors uncomfortable.

"The problem is that a lot of journalists have not come to grips with their feelings about religion," Moore explained. "And I'm not saying that they have to be born again, that they have to be evangelical. Many journalists are just not at ease with religious movements, with religious people, with their own religious feelings....

"Often, people carry with them elements of religion that are associated with the family. When they think of religion they think of mama poking it down their throats. They don't see religion in the wider context. I just see a lot of hangups in a lot of journalists."

In fact, Moore said he believes many of the stereotypes of religion reporting have developed because of hangups about religion. It is easier to say religion is "boring" than to admit you are confused by religion or afraid of religion.

"Many journalists are afraid of religion. I think what they are really saying is, 'I'm not at peace with this subject, and I can't see how you can be. I don't see how you deal with these people,' " Moore said.

Bruce Buursma said many journalists know religion is a powerful force in society, but they've "put religion behind them" and now feel guilty about it. Journalists also feel uncomfortable with beliefs and groups that talk about faith instead of facts. Newspapers are more comfortable with subjects that are obvious and easy to pin down.

"Also, I think [journalists] are skittish because religion is powerful. I think they don't want to admit it, but deep down they understand that religion influences people much more than a newspaper can," Buursma said. "Now, it doesn't do it in as spectacular a way as a newspaper occasionally does, or television might. But they are going up against a really strong institution... and they are trying to interpret it. That makes them pause."

Other reporters and editors have sometimes questioned Buursma's motivations. Journalists have pulled him aside in the newsroom and tried to talk him out of staying on the religion beat.

"You know, it is patently offensive to me ... for a co-worker to say to me, 'You're a pretty good reporter; when are you going to start doing something that will really make a difference in the paper instead of writing about religion?"

"Of course, there is no easy way to answer that except to maintain -- as I do -- that if religion is covered fairly and sensitively it's going to be very well read," Buursma said. "I mean, I've done a lot of different things at four different newspapers, and I never get as much mail when I've written about other areas of life as I do when I write about religion."


Often, newspapers that give religion coverage time and space are led by editors who know the role religion plays in America. Louis Moore said the Houston Chronicle's tradition of covering religion is a direct result of people in key editorial positions. He often thinks about what would happen if they left.

"Everybody has their blind spots," Moore said. "It just happens that more journalists have blind spot on religion that just about any other subject. You put one of those people in the right spot in a paper's power structure and you don't have any religion coverage.

"Even if you come back at somebody with hard, cold facts dollars and cents about how strong religion is in a town and how much that needs to be covered, they still don't have to listen to you. It's hard to get through that kind of bias."

This was made clear to Moore by an encounter with one editor at the Chronicle more than 10 years ago.

"The first week I was here an assistant city editor came up to me and said, "I just want to tell you, I don't think religion belongs in the paper. And I've hated that, as long as I've been here, the religion editor has been able to travel and has had page-one stories and I just want you to know that when I get to be city editor that's going to stop pretty damn quick.'

"I said, 'We'll just see about that, boy.' "

The editor is no longer at the Chronicle.

Russell Chandler, religion writer at the Los Angeles Times, said he is convinced many of the media elite are still interested in religion even if they don't think they are.

"Almost everyone is religious. Or, at least, they are concerned about ultimate issues and answers," Chandler said. "So even if someone writes 'none' when asked about religion, my guess is that they will read and be interested in good percentage of the stories that a religion writer will write if the stories are focused on things that touch all of us....

"Also, I think writing 'none' in the blank means the person ... still identifies with a specific religious group of philosophy. And even if a person says 'no' to that connection in the past, they still have some ideas about eternity, about death, about the meaning of like..."

However, Chandler admitted he has been lucky. He has never had to work with an "anti-religion" editor.


Buursma always opens his mail at the Chicago Tribune with a sense of anticipation. When you write about religion in a city as diverse and colorful as Chicago you receive some very interesting letters from readers.

"Now, it's true that some of it is very strange mail. There are some seriously disturbed people out there," Buursma said, and then laughed. "However, there are people out other who are disturbed who read about subjects other than religion. ... But the point is, all kinds of people are interested in religion. Almost everybody is interested in religion, whether they are personally religious or not.

"Some people want to read about religion to confirm their decision to leave it behind as a superstition or as a childhood fling. Others sincerely want to learn more about other faiths, denominations, and traditions."

It is interesting, Buursma said, that through the years religion writing has been stereotyped as stuffy, intellectual and boring. How the emotional, volatile world of religion became labeled boring, he said, is beyond him.

"Religion is always evolving, "Buursma said. "I think newspapers are missing a bet if they don't try to find out what it's evolving toward."

Religion is often the first part of a culture to be affected by major social trends, he added. The growth of the "religious right" of the mid 1970s into the political "new right" of the 1980 elections is one example. If newspapers and televisions stations had watched religion during the 1970s, the strengths and weaknesses of the Moral Majority and other fundamentalist Christian groups would not have been a surprise. Many journalists view the religious right with a contempt that has sometimes turned into fear. If a reporter has never been exposed to fundamentalism before, James Robison and Jerry Falwell and their followers can look and sound like the unwashed Vandals rushing in to sack Rome.

It is interesting that many journalists who call religion "boring" also say religion is too controversial to cover. Thus, many of the nation's boring, controversial religion stories are left uncovered.

The real problem, according to Ken Briggs, is that religious issues are usually a mixture of fact and faith, emotion and intellect. Covering stories that complex takes time, effort, inches of type in the newspaper, and minutes on the air. Observing that few newspapers of outstanding work covering complex fields like science, business and religion, Briggs said may newspapers never make it past the surface of religion, which often is boring.

"There's one kind of religion writing that deals with religion in a kind of bulletin-board fashion. This kind of reporting looks at what's going on in an uncritical manner," Briggs said. "And then there's another kind of reporting that is more valid, that raises questions and picks up trends that are more difficult to trace. We're in a period where I think it takes a lot of hard work to find out what's actually going on in religion..."

George Cornell also sees similarities between science and religion. Both fields involve abstract concepts that eventually affect day-to-day life. The problem, Cornell said, is finking a way to make abstract trends understandable.


Sometimes it is hard, The Washington Post's Marjorie Hyer told Sojourners, to write about beliefs and emotions that lie behind the events in the news.

"We have to cover a fantastically wide spectrum of religious groups and issues in this country," Hyer said. "To get at the deeper concern, like the growth of spirituality, is like peeling the layers of an onion. You can keep peeling and peeling through layers that involve the whole culture. It's very hard to get a news handle on the larger stories..."

It is hard, in other words, to write about a vague, complex subject like the rise of authoritarian ministers in many emotional religious sects before an event like Jonestown. The return of fundamentalism as a major trend in Islam was just another boring, intellectual religion story until the Iranian Revolution.

However, there is one type of religion story editors, even "anti-religion" editors, always love: religious scandal. As a result, religion writers are often pushed to cover the bizarre instead of the believers.

While working at The Dallas Times-Herald, Buursma learned this the hard way. One editor at the newspaper was interested only in stories that "made religion look stupid," Buursma said. The editor wasn't interested in anything that made religion look intellectually or even emotionally appealing, and Buursma spent almost three months of his short stay on the religion beat in Dallas writing stories about a strange Pentecostal church in Sherman, Texas.

"It was a good story, but the editor ran the story into the ground. I had no choice," Buursma said. The same editor later canceled Buursma's scheduled trip to cover the CELAM III conference in Puebla, Mexico. Instead of letting the religion writer help with the coverage of a crucial series of papal addresses, the editor sent Buursma back out to Sherman to write yet another update on the Pentecostals. Buursma soon switched to the writing staff of the Times-Herald Sunday magazine before returning to religion writing in Chicago.

"Money and religion and sex and religion have always been interesting to editors," Briggs said. "Everyone loves to gossip about that. Some of that needs to be covered, but that is hard to keep in balance. The religious groups set themselves up for such problems because they make claims of moral aspiration...."

"They are setting themselves up as models in some way and everyone likes to catch the preacher in the soprano's bedroom." The problem, Russell Chandler said, is that stories about religious fanatics and church scandals can turn into another way for some editors to express their anti-religious feelings. The key, Chandler said, is to find a balance between "circus-tent stories" and solid reporting about religious trends and events.

"Sure, everyone loves a scandal. I do a number of these every year," Chandler said. "I'm working on one right now. Sex and money and hypocrisy. Sure -- that's part of the scene. I don't personally relish doing such stories ... but it's part of the job of the secular press to work on some of these things, because it's the avenue by which some of it will come to light. It's the only way some people will be made to be accountable.

"So the sideshow -- the circus -- is there. But you can't let that keep you from covering the real issues and trends."

Louis Moore said he thinks creativity can make any religion story interesting or even exciting. If editors assign reporters to the religion beat who think religion is boring, then it will produce boring stories.

"It's like a lot of reporting. In large part you are going to find what you want to find. You want to find scandal stories, then you'll find scandal stories. You want to write fluff pieces, you'll write fluff pieces," Moore said. "But there are all kinds of stories in between. There are interpretive stories. There are personality stories that really show the depth and quality of individuals. There are stories about issues."


"I think that a lost of newspaper people, a lot of journalists, grew up in a tradition where religion at least the substance of religion was out of the ballpark as far as newspapering is concerned, "said AP's Cornell. "Religion is supposed to be private, a part of people's private lives.

"I think that ideas has varied over with many people. They hesitate to cover religion because they see it as a private matter they don't want it in the newspaper. Of course, this attitude could also be due to their ignorance of religion."

Religion is much more than private convictions, and Cornell said he thinks the past two presidential elections have finally made many journalists realize that. "When religion is authentic, it's working influence on the world around it," he said.

James A. Wall, editor of The Christian Century, said other parts of our culture have locked religion into a separate compartment as well. "Religion" the noun often changes to "religious," an adjective. Religious television. Religious music. Religious films. Religious studies. And, of course, religious news.

"Religion is supposed to be confined to personal feelings. Confined to the dynamics of faith. Therefore, it isn't supposed to be fit for grimy daily newspaper coverage. Religion is too sacred, "Wall said. "Of course, these are all images that have no basis in reality, except that just happens to be the way our culture views religion."

Also, there are editors who believe it is a conflict of interest for a reporter with strong religious beliefs to work on on the religion beat. Buursma said he has never me a editor who has asked a political reporter to give up his or her interest in politics. "This is like saying someone who has worked a day in his like shouldn't be allowed to cover the labor beat," Buursma said. "This is a ludicrous argument. Nevertheless, there are editors who think that the only possible person who can cover religion objectively is an agnostic or atheist. Which is bullshit."

This does not mean Buursma believes religion writers should be able to use the religion beat as a bully pulpit for personal causes or beliefs. Buursam said he isn't comfortable calling his job a "ministry" or a "calling."

"I don't know precisely what a 'calling' means, in the first place, "he said. "I think that's a little pietistic... But I think it's important at least to have a passing intellectual interest in religion."

Russell Chandler is willing to us the word "ministry" if you let him define the term. Chandler, who was a pastor before switching to journalism, calls his work a "ministry of interpretation and clarification." He does not see his work as evangelism.

"My own defense of my job is that John 8:32 talks about knowing the truth and the truth making you free. ...I just try to makes sure my facts are accurate and that my timing is fair," Chandler said. "I think the best defense of the Gospel and this is speaking from my perspective of faith the best defense of religious faith is the truth.

"And the truth is no good to anyone, let alone people in the church, if it isn't out in the open."


Louis Moore said he believes there are two kinds of effective religion writers. The first is a quality journalist who is assigned to the religion beat and becomes interested in the field. The second kind, Moore said, is a person who is involved in the study of religion who becomes interested in journalism.

Like many religion writers -- including Chandler and Ken Briggs -- Moore has theological training. Moore became interested in journalism while studying religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and eventually majored in both subjects. After he received his master's degree in divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Moore decided to seek newspaper work instead of a job with the institutional, or religious press.

"You do have many people like me who are covering religion and have connections to religion and to the institutional church," Moore said. "The important thing is that you also have to have a strong commitment to journalism and balanced reporting . ... If anything I am harder on Baptists and evangelicals because I am a Baptist."

The descriptions of religion reporters offered by Buursma, Chandler, Moore and others are backed by a 1979 study by Don Ranly, associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The purpose of the study, published in Journalism Quarterly, was to explore the backgrounds of the nation's religion reporters and their perceptions of religion and religion news. Of the 57 reporters who responded to the survey, seven had graduate degrees in theology and 27 had taken courses in theology or church history. Only seven of the respondents said they never attended church, except as reporters. Thirty-seven said they attend services once a week or more. (See "Unheralded Religion News," QUILL, Dec. 1979, p.14.) The key, Moore said is to remain idealistic about your job.

"There is a certain sense of an ability to crusade in the media," he said. "Of course, that is a temptation for any reporter on almost any beat at the paper. There's safety in the media. You aren't as personally vulnerable in the media as you are in a pulpit... I think I can say things, tactfully, in my column that the average minister cannot say in his pulpit and get away with."


From his office in the Carter White House, Bob Maddox, who was in charge of liaison with religious groups, watched America change in the late 1970s. Often the events he watched in the White House and at Camp David didn't look the same when he saw them on television or read about them in the newspapers.

He watched the private lives of Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell turned into television humor while most of the staff lived calm and often dedicated Christian lives. He saw Carter's carefully-worded positions on "religious-social" issues like abortion and world hunger attacked on the news but never explained. He saw the Moral Majority and other "far right" religious groups rise without the press explaining the ethical and theological differences between leaders like Carter and the Reverend Jerry Falwell. He often wondered why newspapers sent political reporters to the White House to cover religious issues. Maddox says he knew most of the nation's religion writers would have done a better job covering many of the events in the Carter White House.

"I think religion is exceedingly important in American life," Maddox said. "It is exceedingly important in the lives of many people in Washington...." Sometimes, he said, the connection between faith and a vote on Capitol Hill is not obvious. In other cases -- he named Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Representative Paul Simon of Illinois -- the connection is obvious. "I'm saying that religion is important and it should be covered by the press," Maddox said. "But I'm also saying the reason it isn't covered is that the role religion plays in our national life is not always obvious.

"The only reason the press picked up on the Moral Majority trend is that Falwell and the others moved into the political arena in such a heavy-handed way. The press still doesn't understand the Moral Majority, however."

Russell Chandler said he realizes there are many good newspapers do not cover religion. Religion is often controversial. Times are tough and it costs money to have specialty reporters for areas like labor, science, business and religion. The public is not used to seeing religion writing, so there is little pressure on editors to assign reporters to cover religion. Religion is complex.

"Papers that are well-managed and have good editing and where good news concepts are practiced and encouraged usually do well covering the difficult subjects," Chandler said. "But there are cases where papers that do well on other subjects just have a blind spot on religion. Things are getting better -- but the blind spots are still out there."

Ken Briggs also says progress has been made. There are many good religion writers working at smaller papers, and Briggs believes the future looks good. "I'm not as downcast as some people are. I think all specialties are in a period of recession... The present weaknesses in the system I regret, but I don't think they are independent of other factors that make all newspapers a bit shaky these days."

Like many other religion writers, Briggs said he thinks the Religion Newswriters Association and its newsletter have helped morale and improved religion reporting across the nation.

Bruce Buursma said he thinks the RNA has helped young religion writers know they are not alone. Religion writers know they are not alone. Religion writers today are less likely to sit back, give up, and say, Well, that's just how they treat religion here. "You have to struggle," Buursma said. "The easiest thng in the world to do is give up... I tell people to work their ass off and get religion stories in the daily paper."

Reporters just have to be vocal, he said. Sometimes an editor will listen if the story is explained in clear, vivid language. "You know, sometimes you have to walk up and say, 'Now listen. This is your best story today. You may not think so right now, but this story needs to go on page one,'" Buursma said. "Then, if they don't put it on page one you have to bounce back and fight again another day."


Meanwhile, George Cornell, who has fought the good fight as long as any religion writer in the nation, sits and works on his own mission impossible at the Associated Press office in New York. How does it feel to be the AP's Lone Ranger of religion?

"Kind of lonely. And it also makes me feel kind of frustrated that I sometimes have to pass up a lot of things I should have covered," Cornell said. "I mean, there are many important things that I just don't have the time to do. If I'm away from the office working on a project then there is no one here to handle things. An important announcement will arrive in the mail and it will just sit there on the desk until I get back."

All of the AP bureaus around the world and in the United States are supposed to cover religion stories that break in their areas. However, the number of AP reporters with skills and the desire to write sensitive religion stories is small.

"AP tries to give religion a pretty fair shake," Cornell said, and then paused. "I'm defending my organization, you know," he added, and laughed.

It's just a matter of time until editors realize how important religion is, Cornell said. He sees young writers doing fine work all across the nation. Eventually, they will be given the freedom they deserve to cover religion in print and on television.

"I mean, look at every major flash point in the world. There's almost always a religious element involved -- and it's almost always a powerful one," Cornell said. "The same thing is going on in the human-rights struggles around the world. That's why the religious forces get into so much trouble with authoritarian regimes...

"But to think religion is dull and boring -- I can't understand that. People just don't see where the hammer is falling -- where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it."

Note: This first ran as a cover story in The Quill. It is a much-shortened version of Terry Mattingly's graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.