Are journalists too ignorant to cover religion news?

Are mainstream journalists too ignorant to cover religion?

Or are they too biased?

Or does the press struggle to cover issues of faith and morality because of apathy? If there is a problem with religion coverage in mainstream media, is it a matter of worldview? Or, as Bill Moyers likes to say, are most journalists merely “tone deaf” to the music of faith?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for decades, ever since I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most conservatives I know think the media is biased against religious people, especially, well, conservatives. Many journalists I know think religious coverage isn’t all that bad and that it’s getting better all the time.

My personal conviction is that the two sides of the First Amendment just don’t get along. They don’t respect each other. The religious people don’t respect the role that journalists play in a free society. The journalists get sweaty palms when they have to deal with religious people. This is a blind spot with two sides.

This topic flares up every year or two. At the moment, a piece that scholar Christian Smith wrote for Books & Culture is making waves now that it has been reprinted by The Revealer, another blog that dissects religion coverage in the mainstream press.

Smith is upset about a lot of things, including the fact that many journalists literally do not know what they are talking about when they discuss religious issues. They may not even know what words to use. They do not know that Episcopalian is a noun and that Episcopal is an adjective. For example, it is wrong to say that “where three or four Episcopals are gathered together, you will always find a fifth.”

Or take the word evangelical. Please.

Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as “evangelists” — as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau — or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy [Swaggart]. Hey, aren’t all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them — scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce “evangelicals” at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at “evangelics” and “evangelicalists” they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as “them.” These are the knowledge-class professionals who are supposedly informing millions of readers about religion in America.

Would editors, under any circumstance, settle for this kind of work on other newsroom beats? Business? Sports? Opera? Politics? Smith continues:

I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the “Democrizer” or “Republication” parties, or about the most recent “Supremicist Court” ruling. Surely reporters covering business and markets do not call economists asking 45 minutes of elementary questions about how the business cycle works or what effect it has when the Fed drops interest rates. So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?

Them’s fighting words for many religion-beat professionals.

Over at the home page of the Religion Newswriters Association, veteran scribe John Dart admits there are problems. But he is convinced that the trained professionals who cover the beat full time are doing solid work. The problem is when reporters with no training on the beat wade into waters that are over their head. Dr. Diane Winston sings harmony on several of these themes, in a follow-up essay at The Revealer.

Ah! But why do so few newspapers (not to mention television newsrooms) include a desk for a reporter who is trained to cover the religion beat?

This remains an important question.

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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.

  • Stacy L. Harp

    First I have to say that I love this blog! Thank you for taking the time to put up this information everyday! I will be adding the link to my website in moments.

    But to answer your question about whether or not journalists are too ignorant to cover religion I would have to say this – Yes and No.

    Yes, some journalists are ignorant about matters of faith. Some do not hold a worldview that is consistent with any religion or religious teaching and those who do not have any insight about religion or faith values except for what others write about religions are ignorant. Like what you cited above giving the examples of televangelists versus real men who actually preach the gospel of Christ.

    There are people who think that all Christians, as an example, are those people we see on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Then there are also others who think all Christians are like Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses where all they do is knock on your door and try to convince you to join their cult.

    Then there are people who think all Christians are like Mother Theresa – and the people and/or journalists who think this would be wrong.

    On the other hand, there are a few good journalists out there who do report on religion well. PBS has a show called Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, and even though it has an obvious liberal bend, with a Catholic host, overall, the show isn’t that bad. They do cover stories about all faiths and they do it relatively well.

    Then you have others like the Christian Broadcasting Network who have journalists like Lee Webb and others who report daily on the news from a decidedly biblical perspective. Some would say that is biased conservatively, and they would be correct.

    Then of course you have a number of religious magazines like Christianity Today or Charisma that report on religion and do it from various points of view. Some theologically liberal and others conservative and biblical.

    Over all though, I would have to say in answer to your question about MAINSTREAM journalists, from what I have read, I’d say they are just ignorant and need some more education. In the meantime, it’s up to people like you and me to make our voices heard and explain what we think and maybe we can make a difference.

  • Bubbles

    From the article: “I propose, for starters, that from now on editors assign religion stories only to reporters who know religion just as well as their publication’s political reporters know politics and their sports reporters know sports.”

    – Um, so in other words, no religion stories whatsoever? It’s my firm belief that most journalists, upon completing what can only be recklessly regarded as an “education” in journalism, receive a pair of contact lenses which render the wearer incapable of perceiving anything in other than political and sensationalist terms. Combine this with the generational template of narcissism and the ubiquitous and voracious ego of any given journalist, and you have a marginally skilled trade which is incapable of perceiving and communicating anything which might transcend their own precious self-righteousness. If you want a decent religion reporter working for a secular publication, you’re most likely going to have to seek someone who was born after 1964.

  • DPT

    >>Are journalists too ignorant to cover religion?<<

    I’m not sure if ignorance is the issue. I think on most topics, the media strives for the sensational….be it crime,medicine, science….

    Look at the SARS coverage last year…..relatively speaking very few cases. Just a couple months ago the media was hyping the flu season, and today there is hardly a peep.

  • ELC

    Nice new weblog.

    “Are mainstream journalists too ignorant to cover religion?” The Blogosphere involved some discussion last summer that, generally speaking, journalists do not typically have any real education or experience in subjects they cover regularly. See Ignorance Breeds Arrogance.

  • noname

    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.

  • Luanne Austin

    I’ve been covering religion at my mid-sized daily paper for seven years. When I started the only thing I knew about religion was what I was taught in the churches I attended as an adult. However, the subject interested me and I’d read the Bible a few times so I had an overall context in which to write. But boy have I learned a lot over the years. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    On the other hand, it is a lonely beat when it comes to the newsroom. No editor ever asks me what I’m writing, gives me an assignment or reads my articles without me specifically asking him or her to do so. I get no encouragement from anyone on staff. I must remind myself that what I do is a service to the community.

    As far as the paper is concerned, I’m just filling the space over the religion ads.

    I would enjoy it more – and my reporting would be better – if I was challenged by an editor, and if they felt that my work matters. It does matter to me, and I like this site because I can see it matters to a whole bunch of other religion journalists, too.