Four Biases Against Religion News (1995)

And What Newspaper Editors Can Do About Them

The Southern Baptists' 1984 convention in Kansas City, Mo., was a donnybrook, with waves of angry debate cresting as leaders of America's largest non-Catholic flock said women shouldn't be ordained because Eve sinned first in Eden. I wasn't surprised, when I got home, to learn that my Charlotte Observer stories about the event were drawing cheers and jeers from readers.

Before long, I heard whispers that SBC "moderates" might form a rump organization and were about to meet in Charlotte. This was national news, with a strong local angle. I sent a note to the city desk and dashed out to do research.

Later, I noticed the story wasn't in the daily news budget. I asked why and was sent to see an editor. I'll never forget why he spiked my scoop. He didn't want to see any Southern Baptist stories for a while, he said, because they made readers get too emotional and "every time you write about that stuff we get too many letters to the editor."

I am convinced this was a rare case of an editor actually saying what was on his mind when talking about religion news.

It was, and is, impossible to argue that religion isn't news. Everyone from Billy Graham to Shirley MacLaine has preached sermons to journalists noting that religious groups shape the lives of millions, control budgets containing billions of dollars and play pivotal roles in an unusually high number of gripping local, national and international stories. It was, and is, hard to argue that stories about religious trends and institutions aren't appealing -- or in some cases appalling -- to many readers. These stories get read and often provoke strong reactions.