Getting (More) Religion

Article excerpt

Spirituality beat expands in size and scope When President Clinton sought counseling from his pastor last year after his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Austin American-Statesman reporter Kim Sue Lia Perkes brought the story home by profiling religious leaders who minister to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and other local politicans.

At a major science conference, Chicago Tribune writer Steve Kloehn's reporting augmented discussion of new drugs and research results by examining how the scientists balance their religious faith with often- conflicting scientific law.

And, when Indianapolis saw its murder rate climb for the third straight year in 1998, Star and News reporter Judith Cebula went beyond political and police officials to get reaction from local pastors who began holding vigils at murder sites.

These are just a few of the ways that newspapers are expanding religion coverage beyond the usual church news and parish happenings to include in-depth studies of how readers are practicing religion and what beliefs they hold.

Instead of relying solely on the latest archdiocese programs and pastoral reaction to religious issues, reporters and editors say they are giving readers more issue-driven stories, covering faiths out of the mainstream religious community, and pushing the issue on Page One.

"My marching orders have been not to write church news, but how religion affects the broader public," says Kloehn, who has held the Tribune religion beat for three years. "Religion affects not only those practicing it, but the entire population."

Other news veterans, such as Deborah Howell, Washington D.C. bureau chief for Newhouse News Service, which owns Religion News Service, say reader interest in religion is not new, but the willingness of editors to focus on it is.

"I think readers have been clamoring for more coverage, but editors are just now taking a look," says Howell. "It has always cropped up in reader surveys, but now, to a greater extent, editors are listening to what readers want."

Howell, who started the first Washington bureau-based religion beat in 1990, says religion also is showing up more in other issues. "It is really expanding in the '90s," she says.

A 1993 survey from the Freedom Forum says that 90% of Americans believe in God or a higher power, 80% pray regularly, and 70% identify with a religious group. "More people go to church than go to sporting events, than vote, than own stock, or go on the Internet," Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddlebrook Community Church in Mission Viejo, Calif., said during a religion reporting seminar in San Francisco last month. "People want to know how religion relates to life, business, parenting, and other big issues."

Since 1994, membership in the Religion Newswriters Association has jumped from 150 members to 240, according to executive director Debra Mason, who says 50 joined during 1998 alone.

"We're definitely seeing larger newspapers adding more religion reporters and some creating bigger sections," says Mason, whose membership includes only full-time religion writers. "We also are seeing increased interest at smaller papers who are adding to a beat that has really languished in the past."

The Editor & Publisher International Year Book lists 357 religion editors and writers, although some carry both titles and are not necessarily full-time on that beat.

In a 1996 Religion Newswriters Association phone survey of religion reporters, 64% said their coverage had increased in the last five years, 75% said quality had improved, and 67% of editors said they were more interested in religion coverage. At Religion News Service, a national wire service that dates back to the FDR administration, the number of clients is booming, with a jump from 200 to 400 customers in the last five years.

An April report from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication showed that 77% of religion editors were assigned full-time to religion coverage, compared to only 55% in a similar 1987 study. …