A newspaper editor would never send a reporter who doesn't understand football to cover a football game. So why do inadequately trained reporters cover religion? Maybe its time for the television and print media to undergo a religious revival.
It seems that almost everyone is complaining about the quality of news-media coverage of religion. Catholic bishops complain about sensationalism in stories about priest pedophilia; Evangelical Christians complain that they are stereotyped by the media; religious leaders complain that the media don't take religion seriously; Norman Lear charges that the media don't understand spirituality; the press ombudsman at the Washington Post bemoans the state of reporting about religion; and the White House complains that the media trivialized the first lady's call for a public debate about values and the "politics of meaning."
Some of these complaints charge media bias against particular religions or against religion in general. Some say that the media don't understand religion and that religious leaders don't understand the media. Others complain that religion coverage suffers simply because reporters and editors don't do what they were trained to do - or should have been trained to do - as professional journalists.
"There is very, very little difference among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and fundamentalist Protestants in their view about how the media functions," says John Seigenthaler, former editorial director of USA Today and director of a project on media coverage of religion with the Freedom Forum, a foundation that conducts research on the media. "They all think the media is unfair to religion generally - and specifically unfair to their denomination."
How should we sort out all of these charges and countercharges? How bad is media coverage of religion? How does media coverage of religion compare with coverage of other areas? How much is bias a factor? The best way to answer all of these questions is to look first at the expectations and views of the major players involved - religious leaders, reporters, editors, and readers - and to look at the amount, topics, and quality of media coverage itself.
Religious leaders offer perhaps the broadest criticism of media coverage. Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, charges that media coverage of the Catholic Church is shallow and "preprogrammed" toward divisive issues. Reporters tend to interview people with extreme views on either side of the spectrum, he says.
When Pope John Paul II came to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, Keeler says, the media focused on Catholic dissent on a few issues while missing the broader story of the pope's message. Similarly, a study conducted for the Knights of Columbus several years ago found that most coverage of the Catholic Church from the 1950s through the 1980s focused on the theme of dissent versus church authority.
Get my good side, please
Reporters who cover religion take a different view. There is a "culture clash" between reporters and religious leaders, according to a report from the Freedom Forum written by John Dart, a veteran religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, and the Rev. Jimmy Allan, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and founder of ACTS, a Southern Baptist cable network.
Reporters say their job is to "inform, not inspire," the report says. Reporters also say that religious leaders, like politicians, business leaders, labor leaders, entertainers, and sports figures, want to be seen in the best possible light. Jim Franklin, the veteran religion writer for the Boston Globe, says religious leaders have "unrealistic expectations" if they expect the secular media to advance their religious views.
But focusing too closely on the culture clash between reporters and religious leaders distracts from the focus on editors, who are the real decision makers when it comes to coverage. …