Getting it wrong on religion

April 4, 2005

Journalists may or may not be irreligious, but they do like ritual. Hence the refrain, which you hear each time news arises with strong religious resonance, that the media do a poor job covering the world of faith.

On Easter Sunday, as the Terry Schiavo story moved toward its conclusion, panelists on CNN’s Reliable Sources, the weekly program hosted by Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, were ruing the difficulty the media have in reporting on her partisans. A radio talk host and minister named Joe Watkins said: “The media seems to have a lot of difficulty talking to folks … about religious faith. Religious faith is something that most media folks try to stay clear of.”

Warming to the theme, panelist Steven Roberts, a 25-year New York Times veteran, offered this: “I could probably count on one hand in the Washington bureau of The New York Times people who would describe themselves as people of faith.”

Ah, so the media neglect religion because journalists themselves are impious.

Roberts continued: “I think one of the real built-in biases in the media is towards secularism. And I think that, when you talk about diversity, you want diversity in the newsroom … because you have to have diversity to cover the story well and cover all aspects of a society. And you don’t have religious people making the decisions about where coverage is focused.”

Roberts may know what he means by secularism, but I sure don’t. Would he like reporters to be looking heavenward to explain news events?

It was noted that neither Newsweek, U.S. News nor the three networks currently have full-time religion reporters. (Still, over on NBC’s Meet the Press was Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s managing editor, who had just written a cover story, “How Jesus Became Christ,” a title you’d expect on a devotional tract. Could you imagine: “How Mohammed Became the Prophet?”)

Host Kurtz then suggested religion coverage had been “ghettoized.” Fine, but does that mean the right way to cover religion is to routinely explore the ways it permeates social and political life? That was Watkins’ position: “I think that it ought to be something that journalists ask during the course of a regular interview with somebody who’s an elected official.”

Watkins envisioned an inspirational encounter in which the office-holder talks warmly about the comfort he derives from daily renewal of a personal relationship with the Almighty. And I started to wonder: Is that what reporters ought to be poking around in? Is this any of my business?

Roberts pointed out that the media under-reported the 2004 church-based voter registration drives. “And that was a perfect example of how the mainstream press missed an enormously important subject. Because they were not familiar with those churches. …They weren’t members of them.”

But failing to cover churches that play politically key roles isn’t a product of impiety, it’s journalistic incompetence, like overlooking the clout of any major player.

That’s the problem with this ritual shriving. It connects dots that ought to be separate. Journalists are supposed to be outsiders. That’s the deal. They’re trained to report fairly, sensitively and, one hopes, knowledgeably on realities they’re not a part of. No editor who assigned a congregant to report on her pastor would be acting responsibly. How could an active church member recount doctrinal fights that she’s expected, as a matter of conscience, to have opinions on?

Besides, religious people may say they want more coverage, but you have to stop and ask why. Have they forgotten what news is? Do they want stories about disgruntled congregations and intrigue within the archdiocese, or reviews of the new pastor’s lame homilies?

The answer is, like everybody else, religious people want favorable stories. They want testimonials, not news coverage. They want help spreading the Word.

The media, it is true, largely missed the huge doctrinal shifts within many U.S. churches and their enlistment into the conservative political movement. But was that impiety? No, in part it’s a function of the overall rollback in journalistic coverage, the shuttering of foreign bureaus, the fadeout of coverage of key government agencies and community institutions at all levels.

And in part it’s the routine response of the media when faced with powerful movements staffed by fiercely committed people: Either fawning deference or cowed silence.

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