In newsrooms around the country, religion is no longer a dead-end assignment -- but the media still have a long way to go before they get it right.
Top editors at The Los Angeles Times met one afternoon a few years ago with three reporters who specialized in religion news to talk about enhancing coverage of that delightful but daunting field--one that is now receiving more media attention than ever The L.A. Times gave good space to religion stories over the years. But the three of us were grumbling a bit. We worked in three different sections of the newspaper then, a situation we believed limited our ability to move fast on big national and regional stories.
However, the only decision made that day was a letdown: On Easter, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, and other major holidays, we were to make sure the Times had a story about it--to spare them a spate of reader complaints! Running a related article days ahead was fine, they said, "but write one to run on the actual day as well."
Writing holiday stories is a dreaded task for most experienced religion writers. We'd rather be explaining some new religious trend or scandal, profiling a new religious personality, delving into a religious-medical dilemma, or announcing a breakthrough in interfaith cooperation--events that stir our journalistic calling.
But the editors' discomfort over angry holiday complaints was not as trivial as it sounded. It reflected an important function of the news media--validating the religious (or political, ethnic, racial, economic) identity of readers who feel they and their values are noteworthy aspects of community life. People of faith want to see the media recognize via news coverage that religious expression is a significant American trait. "They want to see religion mainstreamed in the newspaper," said Stewart Hoover, a University of Colorado expert on religion in the news.
When it comes to churches, however, the feelings are mixed, according to a pivotal 1989 study by Hoover. Like other institutions, church bodies want to maintain control over descriptions of their symbols and stories, yet many also desire the validation and credibility conferred by appearing in the news. But going public with their news and views runs the risk of misinterpretation by journalists.
"This suggests that secular press coverage always will be somewhat unsatisfactory and unsettling for religious organizations and religious people," wrote Hoover. He noted also that "the religious press has a role to play in giving religious organizations an outlet through which they can tell their own stories their own way." Religious publications, of course, lack the wide impact of the secular news media. (The adjective "secular" should not be equated with "atheistic" or "anti-religious," even if cases of caustic commentators, careless writers, and bad headlines sometimes create that impression.)
IN 1992, I WAS asked by the then-new First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University to research and write a study on tensions between organized religion and the news media. My partner was Rev. Jimmy R. Allen, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the founder of that denomination's ACTS-TV cable system.
We concluded in Bridging the Gap, published in 1993, that there was little overt bias against religion in newsrooms, but that ignorance and avoidance of the subject by many journalists had led to inadequate coverage overall. For one thing, too few religion specialists were assigned to cover such a complicated topic. For another, general assignment reporters who should explain religious and moral aspects of major events often avoided doing so. The biggest reason was unfamiliarity with religious terms and contexts. Our survey found that clergy agreed that wrongdoers in their ordained ranks or church leadership should be exposed in the news. However, without a fuller range of religion news getting reported, the media portrayals of religion seemed to emphasize scandals and stereotypes. …