Writing about Religion: The Old Church Beat Has Been Renewed but Reworked

By Kerwin, Ann Marie | Editor & Publisher, June 15, 1991 | Go to article overview

Writing about Religion: The Old Church Beat Has Been Renewed but Reworked


Kerwin, Ann Marie, Editor & Publisher


Writing about religion

The old parlor-manners adage "Never discuss sex, politics or religion" is not one that has ever been embraced by the press, and with good reason. Those three topics are what people get riled up about and, thus, what they want to read about.

Sex and politics have never been shied away from by the American press, but religion is an area that has gotten spotty treatment over the years, fading in and out of vogue. Religion writers say it is often hard to convince editors that this is a subject people feel passionately about.

Religion news has been "ghettoized" to church pages, and has run on the front page. Sometimes a reporter is assigned to it as a regular beat or it is treated as part of the calendar-of-community-events section, making it clear that religion writing remains inconsistent from newspaper to newspaper.

An April 10 front-page New York Times article reported on a study conducted by the Graduate School of the City University of New York confirming that the country is broadly religious and widely diverse. The survey of 113,000 people found that 90% identified themselves as religious.

"The survey indicates an interest in religious things, regardless of whether people are practicing their religion or not," said John Dart, religion writer for the Los Angeles Times and current president of the Religion Newswriters Association.

"I think most newspapers that take pride in having a good journalistic product recognize religion as a newsy and important field," said Dart, "but the coverage all depends on how much a budget will allow."

About one-third of United States and Canadian newspapers have reporters assigned to the religion beat, according to Ed Briggs, former president of the Religion Newswriters Association and writer for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, and the coverage runs from "bazaar and bake sale news to interpretive writing about beliefs," Briggs said.

What is a "religion beat" story is sometimes foggy. Briggs once wrote an article on Halloween about a "Lucifer-worshipper" but his editor ran it in another section, not on the religion page. Because Satanism was outside the norm of conventional religions, Briggs said reservations arose about including it on the religion page.

Many times social issues, such as homosexual roles in society, changing sexual mores, and abortion, inadvertently become religion stories as different denominations react to social currents and political policies.

Recently, religion news has been more prominent, as a new report endorsing the joy of sex by a national committee of Presbyterians shakes many of that flock, and 20/20, a television newsmagazine, airs an exorcist.

Religion is being recognized as part of daily life. The Atlanta (Ga.) Journal and Constitution offers readers a 900 telephone number to preview Sunday sermons.

A May 1 Wall Street Journal article reported on the volatile practice of religion being taught in some public schools, comparing various religions to the golden rule and the First Amendment.

"More and more editors are taking a second look at the religion beat," Briggs said.

"All the wars going on now are rooted in some kind of religious conflict-the Middle East and Northern Ireland, for example. Religion plays an important part in people's lives," said Ari Goldman, religion writer for the New York Times. "A lot has changed in the past 10 years. People take religion more seriously. It is a greater force in people's lives."

"The days of the old-fashioned church pages are very passe, you'll only find that at the smallest papers. Some will try to have a calendar of events, but that will usually be lowest priority," said Dart. "Most of the effort is geared toward keeping up on the beat, and getting stories in the paper wherever they are appropriate."

Which means reporters need to convince editors that religion is sometimes a Page One story. …

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