Anyone need to study religion?

money1When media critics — like me — start arguing about why mainstream journalists often fail to “get religion,” the discussions almost always turn into a discussion of the various biases that affect news coverage.

In my summary of the biases — as detailed long, long ago in the journal The Quill — I have the news landscape carved into four regions. Briefly stated, they are:

* The bias of space, time and resources. Simply stated: You cannot print a story if you have little space in which to print it, time to write it, or the money to hire a professional to do so. …

* The bias of knowledge. Fact: You cannot write a story if you do not know that it exists. …

* This leads to the bias of worldview. Simply stated: It is hard to write a good story if you don’t care that it exists. The result is, at best, a blind spot on religious issues, and the people who care about them. …

* Finally, there is the bias of prejudice. It’s hard to produce balanced, fair coverage of people you dislike, distrust, or whom you feel are irrelevant. …

I am convinced that the first three biases play greater roles in shaping religion coverage, with the “bias of worldview” being the most important.

Most people who study media-bias issues say that the most powerful force is bias No. 2 in this list — knowledge. However, I argue that this fails to explain why so many mainstream editors go out of their way to avoid hiring trained, experienced professionals to cover religion news, while seeking trained, experienced professionals to cover subjects such as politics, law, the arts, sports and other subjects. I argue that this points toward a larger bias. At the same time, I disagree with conservatives who blame everything on prejudice. Apathy affects religion news much more often than any kind of outright prejudice.

But we can all agree, I think, that more journalists need to take religious seriously, which means gaining more knowledge about the subject and a broader understanding about how faith shapes the lives of millions of people day by day.

Thus, your GetReligionistas are pleased to pass along this note:

Journalists, editors eligible for $5,000 scholarships for college religion courses

(Columbus, Ohio) – Religion Newswriters invites all working journalists, regardless of beat, to apply to its Lilly Scholarships in Religion program. The scholarships give full-time journalists up to $5,000 to cover the cost of taking college religion courses.

With religion in the headlines more than ever, now is the perfect time to dig deeper into today’s hottest religion stories. More than 200 people have already taken advantage of Religion Newswriters’ Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program for Journalists. Some of the timely topics they’ve studied include: God & Politics, Culture of the Contemporary Arab World, Islamic Movements, Understanding Japanese Religions, Science & Religion and Evangelism. …

And note:

The scholarships can be used at any accredited college, university, seminary or similar institution. Journalists can take any course they choose as long as it is in the field of religion. Scholarships cover tuition, books, registration fees, parking and other costs. Online and travel courses are also included (as long as travel costs are a part of the curriculum). All full-time journalists-including reporters, editors, designers, copy editors, editorial writers, news directors, researchers and producers-are eligible, regardless of whether or not they cover religion.

And all the people said? “Amen.”

Click here for all the details. Pass this news along to editors, in particular. Hint. Hint.

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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.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “I am convinced that the first three biases play greater roles in shaping religion coverage, with the “bias of worldview” being the most important.”

    Even so, that’s not to discount the “bias of prejudice” as being significant either.

  • Jeff

    I’m obviously speaking out of personal bias here, but i really don’t think that the Lilly Endowment folks serve their ultimate purposes as well as they ought by limiting this to full-time reporters and columnists. Bang for the buck, i know, but with so many papers having more and more content provided by stringers/work-for-hire/part-time folk . . .

  • tmatt


    In my experience, that bias — prejudice — is important, especially on cultural and moral issues (check any study on abortion and other sexual revolution issues), but it is the weakest of the four in day to day reality.

  • Pingback: $5,000 Scholarship for Journalists and Editors to Study Religion at The Emerging Scholars Blog

  • Chris Bolinger

    I suspect that the biggest bias is #3, the bias of worldview. People who cover sports tend to love, live, and breathe sports. Same deal for people who cover politics. But who in the newsroom loves, lives, and breathes religion? How many reporters on any beat consider their faith central to their lives and, as a result, understand and empathize with others who feel the same way, even if those people have different faiths?

    Terry Pluto, arguably the best sports writer in the U.S., is one. How many others are like Pluto? Not many, I fear.

  • Jerry

    This is an interesting question: which is more of an issue: not covering stories or covering them badly? I don’t know the answer to that question.

    I’d add another point: not seeing the forest. This is probably a subset, at least in part, of the others, but I think it’s worth nothing separately. I’ve seen story after story that reports something but does not put it into any sort of perspective. It’s not the role of a news story to draw the perspective in full detail, but surely there should be a paragraph or two of perspective, at least to the level that I often see in political stories.

  • IC

    Amen and alleluia! This is a great idea. Lilly’s done right here.

  • IC

    I wonder if any of this came out of Stephen Prothero’s book, Religious Illiteracy.