What we're doing here, part II

tmatt demon.pngA reader’s letter the other day got me to thinking.

Because of our jump to Movable Type and a new server, your friends in the GetReligion non-Borg rolled right past a very important date on the calendar — Feb. 1 marked the blog’s first birthday. That is a semi-big deal and we totally spaced it.

As you may be able to tell, we are still getting used to the new software. It seems that many previously loyal readers are choosing to remain silent, rather than do that registration thing that TypeKey does. Hey, signing in over and over bugs me. I’ll admit it.

We also continue to struggle with some basic news issues. For example, when a major, major story breaks, how do three scribes with lives and jobs stop everything and read a representative sample of coverage and offer some kind of critique of it? And the more important the story, the greater the incentive to do a good job. Sometimes your brain locks and you can’t draw a bead on the topic. Often, the result is cyber-silence. At the very least, we hope to be able to put more topics in the newly improved Short Takes feature on the left sidebar.

In the meantime, what about all of those international papers?

And what about NPR and the broadcast networks?

And what about the Saturday religion sections in major papers, which would mean posting some important work on Saturdays and Sundays when readership is down?

And what about Peter’s letter the other day? Here is the key content:

I just discovered this site and have found it interesting, especially the “monitor the msm” slant. I realize, according to the “Civility in this space” rules, that participants are strongly encouraged to address the immediate topic/post at hand. . . . I do have a general question and hope you will bend the Civility Rule just a tad in accomodating a questioning newbie here.

In reading the blog trio bios, it struck me that all can easily be considered Mr. Mattingly, for instance, with his Scripps Howard gig (SH being about as mainstream as a news service can get). And the freelance pubs that LeBlanc and Lott have written for such as Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, are certainly mainstream.

So, how do you see yourselves, in that from this perspective at least, you’re all thoroughly mainstream. Outsiders? Stealth Christian journalists when writing for the likes of Scripps or other secular outfits? Just curious. And thanks.

I will have to let the others speak for themselves. I also don’t want to repeat some of the material from the very first post on this blog, which was titled “What we’re doing here.”

The goal is for the writers on this blog to be in the mainstream. We are committed to what historians often call the American model of the press, which is built on the idea that the press owes the public lots of information and viewpoints on lots of issues and that, in the end, people are supposed to be able to read the results and make up their own minds.

Personally, I have never liked the word “objectivity” because it opens up all kind of philosophical arguments. I prefer to say that the press owes the public accuracy, balance and a basic sense of fairness. The reporters I admire know their own strengths and biases and yet they are fiercely committed to being part of journalistic teams that, well, play fair. I tell my students: The goal is to report unto others as we would like them to report unto us.

On this blog, we have not tried to hide our beliefs. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a lifelong Democrat of the old persuasion that included lots of cultural conservatives, such as normal Bible-Belt folks and labor-union Catholics. As an Orthodox Christian, I am conservative on a wide range of moral issues, such as abortion and the meaning of tricky words like “marriage.”

At the same time, I have spent my whole life working in mainstream newsrooms. I have met very effective journalists on the religion beat who have strong personal religious commitments and those whose interest in the topic is totally intellectual — period. I haven’t met any solid religious reporters who are not driven to know more and more about religion and religious people.

But in the end, we are trying to promote better coverage of religion in the mainstream press — because we love journalism and we believe the mainstream press must cover religion effectively in order to cover the real lives of real people, in zip codes both blue and red. There are scores of journalism critics, especially on the cultural right, who seem motivated by hatred of journalism. That is not what we are about.

This is a blog about how the media cover religion. We look for the religion “ghosts” that haunt so many of the stories that dominate our age. That’s what we’re trying to do. We continue to urge you to send us comments and tips on stories. You see lots of things that we do not. Pitch in. Tell other journalists about the site and the other sites that are doing similar work.

So join in. Walk the aisle. Make a commitment. Make a profession of, well, interest. Choose your own metaphor.

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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.

  • ECJ

    Mr Mattingly,

    A question I have always wanted to ask.

    If you ask reporters why they became reporters, they will typically say something along the lines of “I wanted to make a difference.” My understanding is that reporters see their profession as a service. And the difference they wish to make is to advance that which they see as good, right, and true.

    Now reporters are stereotypically secular. And the secular world by and large sees religion as backwards, obscurantist, ignorant, reactionary, restrictive, authoritarian, hypocritical, obsolete, historically fading, and (most important) objectively false. In other words, they see religion as the opponent of that which is good, right, and true – the opponent of the very cause which motivated them to become journalists in the first place.

    How can you improve coverage of religion in the media under these conditions? Doesn’t this vision of improved coverage collide with the very image a typical journalist has of himself?

    Perhaps you would disagree with my expressed suppositions. Just interested in your thoughts.


  • Brian Lewis

    You say that reporters want to be reporters so that they can make a difference. How do you know that? I strongly question that assertion.

    Many reporters get into the profession because they like to write. They like to tell stories. It’s a fascinating profession and you get to meet amazing people. You’ve often got a seat at the table and get to ask tough questions. You question authority figures and sacred cows, both liberal and conservative ones.

    You get to make a professional living as a writer, using your head.

    If reporters are stereotypically secular, quite possibly it’s because you haven’t talked to many. Are Messrs. Mattingly, Lott and Leblanc the only reporters in the mainstream media who take values seriously. No, off course not.

    I don’t know why the three distinguished gentlemen who are responsible for http://www.getreligion.org got into journalism, but I didn’t sit down one day and say, hmm, I’d like to make a difference.

    Two big events happened:

    One, I read a column about Bo Jackson in my local newspaper when I was in high school and thought that looks like fun. I bet I could do it.

    Two, I spent a semester in Jerusalem in 1996 when suicide bombers hit three buses in 10 days. The media coverage made me realize that journalists play an important role in society.

    Do journalists make a difference? Everybody makes a difference. Accountants, judges, lawyers, bureaucrats, nurses, doctors, hotel concierges… and on and on.

    But to assume that someone is a journalist because they want to make a difference is ridiculous and it’s not based on anything but stereotypes. And stereotypes never help anything.

  • ECJ

    Mr Lewis

    Actually I defined what I meant by “make a difference” but if you want it spelled out. I believe that the primary motivation for journalists to become journalists is to use their position to influence the course of events. Goodness knows they don’t do it for the money. And in fact the ex-journalist (who fits my profile exactly) with whom I work (see previous comment about money) did not consider the suggestion at all outrageous but immediately agreed to it. Perhaps this might have something to do with the desire to “sit at the table and ask the tough questions of authority figures.”

    As for stereotyping… I am an Engineer, and so I think in statistical patterns. When I say that most journalists are secular, I am making a probabilistic statement that is empirically verifiable – and which in fact has been verified repeatedly by media surveys over and over again. It is not so different from saying that feminists are stereotypically in favor of maintaining current abortion laws.

    But if you still don’t believe me, you might consider this. If the media didn’t inhabit a world almost completely severed from religion, this blog wouldn’t even exist.


  • Stephen A.

    I liked Brian Lewis’ statement about why folks want to be journalists – “they like to write. They like to tell stories. It’s a fascinating profession and you get to meet amazing people. You’ve often got a seat at the table and get to ask tough questions. You question authority figures and sacred cows, both liberal and conservative ones.”

    That rings true for me, and is partly why I like reporting, even if it’s reporting on three small New England towns, or on a small state’s often sparce religious news.

    However, I think the point ECJ was getting at is made also by the oft-quoted statement that when asked why they wanted to be reporters, most entering journalism schools BEFORE the Watergate scandal broake said they wanted to do just about the same things you mention – basically, “I want to tell a story, in an interesting way, about what happened.”

    But after Watergate, J-Schools were said to be flooded with kids who claimed they wanted to “change the world,” and advocacy journalism and investigative reporting were the hottest topics.

    Another stat often quoted by conservatives is that 80 percent or more reporters in the newsroom vote Democrat. It seems to some conservatives as if diversity doesn’t really apply to a diversity of worldviews. Maybe we need affirmative action and quotas in newsrooms to get more conservative voices. (kidding)

    The interesting thing is that many conservatives will nod their heads in recognition of the J-School story and the 80% stat I just quoted, since we hear and repeat them often and see a pattern of behavior there. For many liberals, though, the story and stats will be utterly new, and maybe even rejected outright as preposterous.

    And there’s the problem.

  • Brian Lewis

    The question is not whether the 80% stat quoted is new or preposterous but whether the study that produced it is accurate. Does the study reflect newsrooms across the country or a few select newspapers in east or west coast markets? Is the study accurate or biased? Are the newspapers major metropolitan dailies or small daily papers like the one where I work where a significant number of reporters and editors grew up in the community.

    And again, I doubt there’s any copy editor who got into the business to make a difference.

    It’s an overly simplistic view that journalists pre or post Watergate got into the business to influence the course of events, especially not in a liberal or secular humanistic way.

    Maybe I have a different view because I was a religion reporter and I knew where all the reporters who sat around me went to church that I know the numbers you cite don’t ring true to my newsroom experience.

  • Brian Lewis

    Furthermore, the reason this site exists is not because the media “inhabit a world almost completely severed from religion.”

    On the contrary, many of the journalists, and by this I mean religious journalists, I know inhabit a world infused completely with religion but they don’t feel comfortable talking about it in public or reporting on it in their newspapers.

    For them, religion is an intensely private practice and so they struggle with realizing where it fits in their professional lives.

  • Stephen A.

    Brian: You may be right in assuming that the 80%stat is reflective of “big city” newsrooms and not necessarily folks in Topeka or Macon or elsewhere in the center of the nation.

    On the other hand, when I worked in a company that put out small weeklies, we sat around the office on and talked politics. Turned out that four out of four editors were Democrats, and three of the four reporters were Democrats.

    The reporters in Bush’s hometown Crawford, TX are also known to be quite liberal.

    This is admittedly anectodal – until I get the study in hand – but it actually has been my experience that journalists lean leftward.

  • Stephen A.

    A Google search brought me a couple of articles (one with an interesting source!) that outlined the stats that are frequently quoted on newsroom attitudes. Some huge caveats: The data is from 1981, so it’s old, and the information on this older study is not on political parties, but on social attitudes.

    Here’s the first one:
    “According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation’s “prestige” media do not share the public’s interest in religion.

    “They’re very secular,” Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are “much less religious than people in general,” he added.

    In each “elite” news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled “religion,” 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word “none.” In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:
    “A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services.” (end)

    Source: Terry Mattingly (yes, OUR tmatt!) from “The Quill: The Society of Professional Journalists” January, 1983.

    The second article I found, from a 2000 speech given by L. Brent Bozell, III of the Media Research Center quoted a more recent study that dealt mainly with political affiliation. After noting the 1981 survey alluded to above, he said:

    “In 1994, the Gannett Foundation (now known as the Freedom Forum) commissioned a new survey of Washington reporters and editors to determine their political persuasions, and once more the numbers were remarkable. When asked their political affiliation, 50% declared themselves Democrats, only 4% Republican. Asked their ideological persuasions, 61% called themselves liberal, an insignificant 2%, conservative. When asked whom they had voted for in ’92, 89% said Clinton, Bush got an anemic 7%.” (end)