Keep Reporting on Religion

Article excerpt

And then there were none.

For seven years, media critics could point to the religion reporter at ABC News as evidence that the networks were starting to take religion seriously.

But no more. Recently, ABC announced that Peggy Wehmeyer, the only full-time network religion correspondent, will leave in October.

The reason ABC gave? Budget cutbacks.

If that's so, I guess God didn't make the cut.

The loss of one religion reporter would be a small story if other influential media outlets were doing a good job of covering religion. But with few exceptions, that isn't the case.

True, religion reporting in print and broadcast media has improved somewhat in recent years. A study released last year by the Center for Media and Public Affairs documented the increase in religion coverage over the past three decades. Given the intensity of the culture wars of the past 15 years, it's no surprise that the sharpest increase was in the coverage of religion in politics.

But more doesn't necessarily mean better. The study noted the lack of context in most religion stories. Religion is mentioned in stories (often as a source of conflict), but the religious foundations for public-policy positions are rarely presented as newsworthy.

A second study, conducted by the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media, analyzed coverage of religion in major print and broadcast media during a six-month period in 1998-1999. Apart from stories dealing with international conflict, religion was rarely hard news. Though daily newspapers did a better job than television news, both failed to provide an adequate understanding of religious beliefs or practices.

Of course, the marginalization of religion isn't confined to the media. For much of the last half of the 20th century, many other institutions that dominate American public life - especially higher education and public schools - largely ignored religion.

Why should this matter?

Let's begin by stating the obvious: Religion isn't something that people used to believe in, in the distant past. For the vast majority of the world's population, religious convictions are at the heart of culture, politics, economics, and every other dimension of life.

Even in a "secular nation" like the United States, religion matters. America begins the 21st century as the most religiously diverse society on earth - and, among developed nations, the most religious.

How will we negotiate these religious differences if we know so little about one another? Poor media coverage of religion is dangerous, because it undermines our ability to engage our fellow citizens across religious divisions that are deep and abiding.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of religion; it does not guarantee that the press will cover religion. …