Wanted: More evangelical journalists?

APvisitsWJCSeveral GetReligion readers (and former students) have written to let me know that there is a strange picture of me in their local newspapers.

Actually, that’s an Associated Press photo with a story by reporter Rose French that was taken about six months ago, when she was researching journalism programs in Christian colleges. It appears that the latest round of media-bias wars in the White House campaign has provided a news hook to get this story into print.

Here’s the top of her report, which AP has given this pushy headline: “Evangelicals are in the news, but not in newsrooms.”

Here is a foolproof way for politicians to score points with evangelical voters: Attack the media, an institution widely seen as lacking conservative Christian voices.

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain and his evangelical running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, have done just that at times during the campaign, with repeated jabs at the “liberal media.”

One way to change this perception, some church leaders, social commentators and journalists say, is for mainstream news organizations to employ — and keep — more evangelicals in their newsrooms.

“Journalism has become more of a white-collar field that draws from elite colleges,” said Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and a religion columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. “While there’s been heavy gender and racial diversity … there’s a lack of cultural diversity in journalism,” including religion.

Well now, that is kind of what I said. I was quoting a 2004 report from the Pew Research Center that focused on the lack of diversity in American newsrooms. I cited religion as one example of the cultural problems affecting many newsrooms, problems also linked to — cough, cough — social class. The people at the Project for Excellence in Journalism were worried that American journalism was becoming more and more detached from the lives of readers.

You can see that in the quote, right? The problem is that it sounds like I think the solution is hiring more evangelicals. That might help, but only if those evangelicals are real journalists. This is where I wish that French had included what I thought was The Big Idea of our interview, which is that journalism will be improved by people who love it, not people who hate it. More Christian colleges and universities need to create real journalism programs that are rooted in a respect for the crucial role that the press is supposed to play in American life and public discourse.

Oh, and what about the flip side of that? Does the press also need to respect the role that religious groups play? Does the press need to “get religion”? You need to ask that?

What French’s report does nail down is a sad reality — many young Christians are simply afraid of working in the mainstream press. I should stress that I know young liberals who, when push comes to shove, are just as afraid of secular newsrooms as their more conservative counterparts.

41WGZWF06FL  SL500 All of this brings us back to familiar territory:

It’s unclear exactly how many evangelicals work in newsrooms, and federal laws against religious discrimination prevent news managers from asking about a job candidate’s beliefs. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in 2007 that 8 percent of journalists surveyed at national media outlets said they attended church or synagogue weekly. The survey also found 29 percent never attend such services, with 39 percent reporting they go a few times a year.

Pew polling of the general public found 39 percent of Americans say they attend religious services weekly.

In seeking a greater voice in the media, most evangelical leaders say their goal isn’t to evangelize inside newsrooms, which demand that journalists set aside their beliefs for the sake of objectivity.

“They have to be journalists first,” Mattingly said. “You don’t need more Christian journalists. You need more journalists who happen to be Christians if they’re going to contribute to any real diversity in newsrooms.”

Read the rest of the article and see what you think. But let me end with one other comment about the use of the O-word in this AP article — that would be “objectivity.”

Frankly, I don’t think journalists are supposed to unplug their brains and their hearts. I’m not sure that we can, as individuals, achieve some strange state of perfect objectivity. I do think that newsroom managers who care about issues of balance and fairness can hire people — seeking cultural and intellectual diversity — who are committed to striving toward a kind of objectivity, methods that the classic The Elements of Journalism refers to as a “Journalism of Verification.”

Of course, it helps if open-minded editors and publishers seek this kind of diversity. It also helps when a wide variety of schools produce journalists who ready and willing to do this work, journalists who truly love journalism. We are dealing with a blind spot that has two sides.

PHOTO: Associated Press photographer J. Scott Applewhite visits the Washington Journalism Center. Photo by student Harrison Keely of Lee University.

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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.

  • http://www.southern-orthodoxy.blogspot.com Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    About that “strange picture” …

    Maybe it’s just me, and I can’t be certain (Lord knows my eyes ain’t what they used to be), but it looks like a skinny Muppet of Boy George is looming behind you there, tmatt.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    No, it’s a piece of folk art, combining almost every journalism stereotype ever used in a movie and then turned into a kind of clown/tribute. Kind of a Holy Fool of journalism….

  • Jerry

    There is a certain kind of irony that you were subject to a report distorting your real beliefs considering how much time you spend commenting on the sad state of religious journalism today.

  • Russ Pulliam

    Terry:

    Nice work is raising this flag in another forum. You managed to get across two messages, and that is not easy these days.

    I like the word impartiality as an alternative to objectivity, but I suppose any word we use will be variable in meaning depending on who is listening.

    Russ Pulliam

  • Michael V

    Heh, I didn’t know Terry is an “Evangelical Leader”…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    I would not say the report distorted my views. I know Ms. French is a skilled reporter and I know she understood what I was saying. This is more a question of omission not commission.

    RUSS:

    Thanks! I know your views on that topic and respect them.

    MICHAEL V:

    That’s a rather obvious point. But, hey, I teach for the CCCU. Introducing Orthodoxy in this kind of story would have really shaken things up….

  • steve

    As a long-time working journalist, I have always tried to be as objective as possible. The key words are “as possible,” because, as Terry said, journalists cannot unplug their brains and hearts. There have been stories which really interested me a lot, were fascinating and fun to cover and consequently I know my bias showed no matter how much I and my editors tried to make it “objective.” Likewise, there have been stories I did not like, had no interest in and consequently I know my bias showed. Currently I’m a columnist, the one journalism job where bias is required (but where doing research and having facts right is also required.) Being a good journalist in the best sense of the term is hard work. Being a good Christian in the best sense of the term is also hard work. I’ve known a few journalists who are both. I’ve known many who are trying to be both, including myself.

  • Chris Bolinger

    …the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in 2007 that 8 percent of journalists surveyed at national media outlets said they attended church or synagogue weekly. The survey also found 29 percent never attend such services, with 39 percent reporting they go a few times a year.

    Sobering.

  • Jerry

    Terry, as you well know, there are sins of omission as well. After all, as you said, I would… say the report distorted my views. I know Ms. French …understood what I was saying.

  • rw

    From the article: “Many evangelical journalists start out in secular news organizations but they soon join Christian media that offer an environment more accepting of their beliefs and more family-friendly than the long hours and low pay of secular journalism…”

    Where do I sign up for the Christian media job with short hours and high pay?

    I wonder if (Nashville-based) French knows that AP has two Wheaton College grads in its DC bureau. There are a lot more Evangelicals working in news than conventional wisdom might dictate. There’s plenty of room for anyone in this business who is good at what they do, pay their dues with hard work, and have a thick hide. (McCandlish Phillips is a great example.)

  • http://www.christianchronicle.org Bobby Ross

    Had to smile at the mention of “Christian media job with short hours and high pay.” I left AP in 2002 after three years covering religion in Nashville and Dallas to become managing editor of The Christian Chronicle, an international newspaper for Churches of Christ. I took a nice pay cut, but I do have more flexibility in hours. I mean, I work just as much or more, but have more control over when.

    I agree with Terry that newsrooms need evangelicals who are, first and foremost, strong journalists. The last thing journalism needs is people with an agenda, hidden or otherwise. The AP story’s suggestion that evangelicals have failed to wield their power in the media makes it sound like there is some vast right-wing conspiracy to infiltrate newsrooms with evangelicals. If I were a hiring editor, I would be a bit apprehensive if I found evidence online that a potential reporter saw his mission as bringing his Christian way of life to the media.

    In fact, what newsrooms need is more diversity in worldviews. In my time at AP and other secular media, I never felt that the media was liberally biased. I just felt like many of my colleagues’ worldviews (news talk shows and NY Times on Sunday instead of worship assemblies and church potlucks) were so different than mine that they just couldn’t understand where many conservative Christians were coming from. Add to that the fact that journalism is by its nature a liberal profession, and you can see why it seems to be a hard nut for conservatives to crack.

    Hope I have made some sense.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Add to that the fact that journalism is by its nature a liberal profession, and you can see why it seems to be a hard nut for conservatives to crack.

    Bobby:

    Expand this, please. Liberal in the classic marketplace sense? Surely you do not mean in a doctrinaire political sense.

    If so, contrast with:

    In fact, what newsrooms need is more diversity in worldviews.

  • http://www.christianchronicle.org Bobby Ross

    No, I don’t mean liberal in a political sense.

    I mean, liberal in the sense that the best journalism is questioning and probing and not willing to accept pat, black-and-white answers. Liberal in the sense that journalism explores and gives a hearing to all kinds of ideas and perspectives, even those that I might not agree with. For example, a journalist writing about an abortion debate would attempt to treat all sides fairly and include the best arguments from pro-choice and pro-life sources and those sources somewhere in between.

    To some extent, I guess I mean that journalism is a liberal profession in the same way that academia is a liberal profession, as much-maligned professors at Christian universities could attest.

    Does that help or did I just muddy up my thoughts further?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Bobby:

    No, that’s what I mean by LIBERAL, too, in the classic sense.

    The problem, today, is that the illiberal, advocacy model of journalism is just as popular on the cultural left as on the right.

    Only many of the new liberals run newsrooms.

  • Julia Duin

    For those who want to see a dead tree copy, the article, complete with photo of Terry, is today’s Washington Times ‘Plugged In’ section. See http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/oct/23/religious-voice-faint-in-media/


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