Are journalists too ignorant to cover religion? (cont.)

And this just in: a particularly interesting comment from a veteran out there in mainstream-journalism-land. He-she-it wishes to remain “noname” for obvious reasons.

But first, readers: Where do you think the views of this writer fit in the tmatt grid of four biases that affect religion news? Those are (1) space, time and resources, (2) knowledge, (3) worldview and (4) prejudice.

So, with those options in mind, let’s ask: “Are journalists too (your answer goes here) to cover religion news?”:

There is no simple answer to this question. I think baby boomer editors are partly to blame for bad or nonexistent religion coverage. They either have no religion and therefore don’t feel comfortable dealing with the subject and its terminology, or, having come of age in the ’60s and ’70s they view religion as stifling and unpleasant and therefore find it easier to parody than write about seriously, or they see it as “soft” news that should be lumped in with other family and lifestyle coverage on the homefront pages. In any case such an editor would likely assign religion stories to a reporter who isn’t seeking to advance his career on the front pages or somebody who is considered soft as opposed to “hard hitting,” or ignorant, or a rookie, or all of those things. Once the stories are written by such reporters they are then edited with the same sort of care and scrutiny that would be given to a story about hot apple pie or new couches or rosebushes.

I think also fulltime religion coverage doesn’t generate much serious revenue and it might be perceived as more complicated than it’s worth. I think the biggest problems facing the news industry now are these: more corporate control over the news, shrinking budgets, shrinking space, shrinking staffs, demand for ever shorter stories, 24-hour news cycle. Reporters are pressured to do more work in shorter amounts of time and not just compete with the paper across town, but with every news entity on the Internet. That means they are racing just to keep up with the competition, just to confirm the information that’s already out there and then onto the next story. Editors see that as covering their bases and oftentimes that’s what they settle for. There is no time and there are no resources for reporters to do much original reporting particularly on the religion beat when aces are needed to sit through the higher profile trials of murderers and terrorists, cover the tech industry, chase ambulances, find more SARS victims, hound politicians, and dig up anything having to do with the Jackson family.

Moreover religion is deceptively hard to cover. There are few public documents associated with religion and its leaders are harder to confront unless there is a sex scandal because they wear the intimidating and confounding (to some) mantle of holiness. Add to that the fact that most religious leaders are not media savvy. And religious situations are sometimes esoteric or dense and often difficult to “boil down” in terms of the typical formulaic news story. There is often much more at stake than meets the eye. But nobody likes to get into that. They’re afraid they’ll offend somebody, say the wrong thing, make a mistake. They opt to “stick to the issue” or keep things simple or simply “fudge it.”

Then when a big religion story comes along everybody panics and they send their best reporters out there who may be good on deadline and “hard hitting” but don’t know beans about the subject matter. The reporters are quick studies. They crib. They call sources and get crash courses over the telephone. They often make stupid mistakes that they and their editors don’t even notice because they and their editors are ignorant of the subject matter.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ken

    Do any studies detail the impact of a religious faith on one’s spending habits? Would a relgious person be more or less susceptible to advertising? more or less likely to spend rather than save extra money? In other words, might a tendency to save discretionary income rather than spend it on advertised goods, if such a tendency even exists, make a religious demographic undesirable to publishers?


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