Why journalists love “Mad Men” and not religion news

What does the “Mad Men” fad have to do with religion news and religion writing?

Hang on, we’ll get to that. I promise.

But first things first. I have been fascinated with the religion beat ever since I was in college, when I discovered that — even at Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist university — most of my journalism colleagues simply were not interested in writing news stories about religion.

Oh, everyone wanted to write opinion pieces about religious subjects — but not news. Everyone wanted to write edgy columns focusing on the many ways that our university was wrong, but no one wanted to interview people on both sides of the tough issues and then write balanced stories that attempted to chart the debates.

However, my mentor — the famous Texas journalist David McHam — once pulled me aside (after a particularly troubling episode of the student newspaper ignoring a valid religion-news story) and said something that changed my life.

McHam noted, and I promise you this quote is accurate: “I think religion is the worst covered subject in journalism. Do you want to try to do something about that?”

I did. So he introduced me to religion reporter Louis Moore, then of The Houston Chronicle, who was an officer in the Religion Newswriters Association. I started learning everything I could about religion writing and, here’s the key, that included asking people about all the reasons journalists offered for ignoring religion news and the role that religious faith plays in real life in America and around the world. Yes, we’re talking about “ghosts” and “blind spots.

This leads me to the spring of 1982 and some research I did in graduate school — 30 years ago, obviously. An interview way back then provided a hook for my syndicated column this week, which marked the 24th anniversary of the birth of my “On Religion” feature for Scripps Howard News Service. Here’s the top:

The late, great Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell noticed a striking pattern as he dug into a 1981 survey of journalists in elite newsrooms such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, ABC, CBS and NBC.

In the space marked “religion,” 50 percent of these elite journalists wrote one word — “none.”

“They wrote ‘none’ and many even underlined that word,” said Cornell, in an interview conducted for my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Parts of the interview were included in my 1983 cover story on religion-news coverage for The Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In the religion slot, he noted, they “didn’t just say ‘none.’ They said ‘NONE.’ ”

Other numbers jumped out of that controversial report by researchers S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, such as the fact that 8 percent of the journalists said they attended worship services weekly, while 86 percent said they seldom or never did so. In contrast, the Gallup Organization has consistently reported that about 40 percent of Americans claim to attend services each week.

Now, ever since that piece in The Quill, I have been listening to people argue about this question: Why do so many of the people who manage mainstream newsrooms refuse to take religion news seriously?

Of course, there are plenty of religious believers who simply assume that journalists hate religious believers — especially traditional believers.

That’s too simplistic. You can just as easily point a finger of blame at religious schools for failing to produce journalists with the skills needed to work in the mainstream press.

As I have said a million times, the religion-beat wars are linked to a “blind side” that has two sides. The bottom line: The two halves of the First Amendment just don’t get along. Far too many religious people simply do not respect the valid role that the press plays in a free society and far too many journalists do not respect the role that religious institutions play in that same free society.

I could go on and on. But before I get to “Mad Men,” you might want to look at this classic 2007 PressThink essay by Jay Rosen entitled “Journalism is Itself a Religion.” It contains a key question: The press may, by its nature, doubt claims of eternal truth. However, does this inborn skepticism require journalists to poorly cover the views of people who do believe in eternal, transcendent truths? In other words, is it tolerant to be intolerant (thus producing unbalanced often inaccurate news coverage) when dealing with true believers that you believe are intolerant?

Like I said, I have heard so, so, so many theories on why religion news gets so little institutional respect in the Fourth Estate.

Then, earlier today, one of my best friends — Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher — came up with an interesting new spin on this issue. His blog piece, which is full of interesting twists and turns (movie reviewing, “craft” beers, suburban news bureaus as visions of hell, etc.), is called “The ‘Who Watches Mad Men?’ Effect.”

You need to read the whole crazy thing, which focuses on why journalists tend to become so entranced with items in elite culture and pop culture (think “Mad Men”) that are simply not that relevant to, well, most of the people who once read daily newspapers.

Hang on:

“Mad Men” was, at least for a while, a really innovative, interesting drama (it may still be, I dunno). It’s relative lack of popularity may say very little about its quality, and quite a lot about the limits of mass consumer taste. Fifty skrillion more people drink Budweiser than drink craft beers. All the interesting stuff in American beermaking is happening at the craft level. What is there to say about Budweiser?

You get the point. And yet, I wonder about this same dynamic applied to the coverage of religion in America. Unlike the arts, fine dining, beermaking, etc., religion is not about connoisseurship and innovation. Yet if one follows the mainstream media’s coverage of religion, one generally sees a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the kinds of religion stories that are conventionally interesting than to the kind of religion stories that reflect how many, even most, religious Americans live. The Episcopal Church, for example, is the “Mad Men” of American religion. Slightly more people watch “Mad Men” on a given week than belong to the Episcopal Church, which has about 2 million members, and steadily falling. There are vastly more people in suburban megachurches on a given Sunday than in Episcopal parishes. Yet who gets the media attention? Part of this is because TEC really is and has been at the forefront of a huge religion story: the way churches are splitting on the subject of homosexuality. What was pretty much only an Episcopal phenomenon 15 or 20 years ago is now unquestionably mainstream.

My guess, though, is that the disproportionate press attention paid to TEC’s Sturm and Drang has as much to do with what interests the people in newsrooms who decide what’s news. Newsrooms, as has been firmly established, are highly secular places. They are also places where one’s progressive bona fides are not established by one’s position on economic issues, but on culture-war issues, especially on sexuality. This is why the pope can talk all day long about the poor, or about peacemaking, and the US press is ho-hum about it. But let him say something about sex, and it’s stop-the-presses time.

Anyway, I’m generalizing, but it’s still interesting to think about why certain things, and certain issues, get covered by the media, and others don’t.

In other words, religion — especially in its traditional forms — is simply not cool to the kinds of young-ish, urban, secular and/or “spiritual but not religion” people who tend to populate newsrooms (or even urbane Baby Boomers such as former New York Times editor Bill Keller).

This brings me to one final point, one troubling juxtaposition of religion-beat statistics that caught my eye the other day when I was following up on Sarah Pulliam’s post about the new religion-news study (.pdf is here) from the University of Southern California and The University of Akron.

Thus, here is the end of this week’s Scripps Howard column:

In this survey, nearly 60 percent of the journalists said they think “religious people are far too sensitive about religion stories.” At the same time, a sizable minority of news consumers — 37 percent — remain convinced that journalists are “hostile to religion and religious people.”

Wait a minute. That 37 percent figure is uncomfortably similar to the consistent Gallup finding (the previously mentioned 40 percent) on the number of Americans who claim to attend weekly worship services. Is there a connection?

This correlation is relevant, but these groups “do not overlap completely,” said veteran religion-news researcher John C. Green of Akron.

Nevertheless, he said, “there is a connection between regular worship attendance and the perception that the news media are hostile to religious people.” At the same time, “less-religious journalists are more likely to agree that religious people are too sensitive.”

The standoff continues. It’s kind of like deja vu all over again.

Cheers. Sorry for rambling about a bit. There is so much I could say on this topic after 30-plus years on the front lines.

NOTE: Please focus your comments on the key issues: Why do so many mainstream newsrooms (many, but not all) struggle to cover religion news in an accurate and balanced manner? Why is religion so hard to “get”?

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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.epablumlaudanum.blogspot.com Aaron Schnurbusch

    “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” Most of us weekly-attenders live in the invisible castle of CS Lewis’ book. It’s hard to understand each other when you live in different realities.

  • Martha

    Why is religion so hard to get? I suppose because (1) everyone already thinks they know about religion – it’s basically about believing in some kind of God and being nice, isn’t it? and (2) like all stories, the ones that the newspapers and other media are going to be interested about are the ones that involve excitement, which means conflict, and if you can manage a religion story involving conflict about sex and/or politics, with money thrown in for a bonus, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

    So a story about “Thousands of people go to church on Sunday and say their prayers” isn’t going to go anywhere; on the other hand, a story about “Hundreds of people decide to go golfing on Sunday instead of going to church” is going to be news. That’s why “Pope says God exists” is never going to be a front-page headline, but “Pope (or “Vatican”) slams/condemns/attacks” is going to be perennially popular. I can’t lay my hands on the exact quote, but Chesterton said something to the effect that newspapers are full of the latest American movie starlet getting divorced but no editor would think of placarding the streets with headlines about all the hundreds of happy marriages.

  • sari

    Why do so many mainstream newsrooms (many, but not all) struggle to cover religion news in an accurate and balanced manner? Who is religion so hard to “get”?

    The same question could be asked about science, engineering, math and medicine, economics, statistics, and the arts. Is it the personality types that self-select for journalism or is the education journalists receive at university lacking in depth?

    I have a sib who’s been a journalist for close to thirty years. With a journalism degree from the Merrill School, my sib worked up from local to national papers, and then to freelance with the major wires and television. Every conversation almost immediately devolves to a Q&A, where the sib asks the questions and determines the course of the conversation/interview. Very frustrating, since questions asked and answers received determine the story told.

    The problem arises when the person steps out of their field and does not know the appropriate questions to ask or lacks the background to understand the answers. While my sib is considered an expert in a particular field of journalism, there’s a lack of overall depth in the knowledge base–huge gaps are immediately apparent when we push past areas of expertise.

    You also touched on something else–the emphasis on advocacy journalism. Unfortunately, such pieces rarely place the issues in context. The recent Seattle Times article, for instance, had huge gaps, lacking not just interviews with applauding parishioners, the Reverend or the Archbishop, but the clergy’s history relative to the new and previous Archbishops, correct terminology, definitions of that terminology, the churches’ integration into the larger community (e.g., whether the church provides outreach and support for HIV-positive individuals or is a member of a larger consortium of local churches that work together to address community issues, the demographics of the profiled church, etc.). The reader gets no sense of the church, its leader(s), its history, its place in the larger community, let alone a nuanced discussion on the referendum in question or the religious grounding in the various players’ responses.

    That speaks to an inability to see how multiple threads intertwine to make a story.

  • ceemac


    * Journalism as a profession a product of both the Enlightenment and the Progressive Era. Without those two movements journalism does not exist. So it seems reasonable that journalists would reflect the values of those two movements. So there would naturally be tensions between journalists and practitioneers of religions that did not embrace the Enlightenment and/or the Progressive Era.

    * Did you ever ask your journalism peers at Baylor why they were not interested in covering religion? It’s not like it was a foreign language to them. I’d assume that most were Baptist and even a few had a chain of perfect attendance Sunday School pins.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Are there any stats for how many journalists think people are “far too sensitive” about politics? GR shared a very funny tweet from the parody FakeAPStylebook that said, “Always capitalize ‘Bible.’ You don’t want to get letters from those people.” A cranky letter to the editor is viewed as “too sensitive,” but how many religious attack ads do you see on television? There’s nothing bizarre (to journalists) about politicians raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do nothing more than criticize their opponents. I follow many political and religious professionals on Twitter, and the ones involved in politics seem to do far more bickering and nitpicking than the religious tweeters. But religious people are “far too sensitive,” according to the survey above.

    As GR and commenters have said many times before, it comes down to the idea in newsrooms that politics are important, and religion isn’t.

  • ceemac

    I live in Dallas.

    I thought of a local intersection of religion and Mad Men.

    There have been a couple of mentions in GR lately about the end of the stand alone Religion section in the Dallas Morning News a few years back.

    One of the reasons the paper’s leadership gave for ending the section was that it did not generate significant ad revenue. I always took that to mean that they could not get the businesses that advertise in the rest of the paper (cars, furniture, dept. stores etc.) to buy space in section.

    Soooooooo…. I wonder why the local Mad Men had no interest in placing their clients ads in the Religion section?

  • Jeff

    “As GR and commenters have said many times before, it comes down to the idea in newsrooms that politics are important, and religion isn’t.”

    In newsrooms, politics *is* religion — *liberal* politics.

    And it’s *fundamentalist* religion.

    It’s as simple as that.

  • Jerry

    Yet if one follows the mainstream media’s coverage of religion, one generally sees a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the kinds of religion stories that are conventionally interesting than to the kind of religion stories that reflect how many, even most, religious Americans live.

    That is very very true. I noticed an article that I recommended to GR making much the same point: Religious Premeds Plan to Have Faithful Bedside Manner

    In recommending that article, I made a point about all the coverage of celebrity religion in sports, Tebow, and in other areas. But how doctors deal with religion touches the life of most Americans. I thought the article was a good one but, then again, I’m not as good at spotting issues as the GR staff is. I was struck by this:

    Connecting with patients on a faith level is something that researchers at the Pritzker School of Medicine at University of Chicago have also found to be important, though often ignored.”We can talk to people about their sexual practices, but not about their own spirituality,”

    How many people are not interested in how a doctor deals with religion. Atheists to strongly religious people care about this issue. And as the article pointed out, appropriately bringing religion into the doctor-patient relationship can be critically important.

    Of course, as the article pointed out, great care is needed but shouldn’t something so important and needing great care be covered more than it is?

  • Patricia

    THis article caught my attention because I like religious news stories , i sort of like MadMen, and I was curious how these tied together. From what i deduce from your article i think you said they are alike in that they both enjoy a small but loyal following, like craft beer. .I guess this means they appeal to picky palates, not mass consumption. Religious reporting , or journalism requires a certain amount of deep thinking on both the part of the journalist and the reader. This could be where the mass appeal and interest problem is rooted. We the modern populace, have been weaned on inane sitcoms, flashy commercials ,60 second sound bites and articles in People magazine not exceeding 1000 words. This world is in the grip of the devil, (who does not like to have his work acknowledged ) and as such his modern day victories of relativistic thinking, human secularism, hedonism , crass mass consumption,shallowness, and naval gazing are all repelled by any soul searching , truth seeking, deep thinking , heavenly reflection, or God centered living. Modern day journalism is like fast food , quick and easy , though not really good for you. Think of your religious reporting as the salad on the menu . You aren’t really popular but those of us watching what we ingest we are sure glad you are there. And your tie in to Mad Men was a very crafty lure by the way.

  • WSquared

    Sari, I think you raise some interesting points. I have taught history to classrooms full of students that sometimes have a good number of journalism majors. I often tell them from the get-go that in this class, they will learn to think like historians, and from their essays, I try to take what skills or training they have as journalists to help them take that step. The really good ones catch on quickly and do very well. But one thing I often noticed is that quite a few of them were ever so eager to point out “bias”– that this, that, or the other sundry thing was “biased”– but far less willing or able to write or speak extensively about why *these particular biases* at this particular time. Some were clearly struggling with– and could barely get beyond– the fact that *everything* has its biases (the more important matter is what they allow or do not allow you to see), and that to point out that something is “biased” simply says everything and nothing. Those who were either unwilling or unable to really grapple with that issue just went into default mode, and I’d get a lot of papers of think pieces that would say that such and such a source was “biased,” would point out what they thought the biases were (and almost always without examining the obvious fact that they themselves, as 21st-century students had biases of their own), and then leaving the whole thing hanging.

  • MatthewH

    I had a boss once, city manager of a city of about 50,000 people not part of a metropolis. While I worked for him, the local paper’s city hall reporter did something stupid (I forget what, exactly) and hacked off his boss and was reassigned. This caused a certain amount of consternation in city hall because now we were going to have to break in a new reporter.

    It was pretty much assumed that the new reporter wouldn’t know the first thing about city government, any of the people or history involved, let alone be able to grasp how all of this stuff connects. Hence, my boss was going to get to explain all this to the new reporter. Breaking in.

    The new reporter was a bright, young, blonde woman with a perky demeanor and the nice earnestness of a cocker spaniel (though that image might be provoked by the curly hair). And despite this was, as expected, entirely ignorant of everything in her beat. Much to her credit, she was aware that she was grossly ignorant of the beat, and spent several weeks doing background interviews with everyone -off the record -to get up to speed.

    What I remember about my boss was that he would give a statement and then pause, and explain what was going on leading up to that point, explaining the personalities and the conflicts -sometimes going back 2 or 3 elections -so that she would have the proper context. And a lot of this information was -well, not basic, but also not advanced -civics.

    This convinced me of two things: 1.) Journalism is hard work. 2.) Journalism School is inadequate preparation. Certainly, her job would have been easier if she had taken a course in state and local government, knew how counties were organized, understood local party organization, a dabbling of public law wouldn’t have hurt…

    Anyway, absent personal experience, proper education, or someone like my old boss to explain everything to the journalist -I would expect journalism to continue to fail to get religion -or any subject. They are covering complicated stuff they don’t understand, and even if they have the tenacity and proactive characteristics of the reporter I met, they still have to get lucky and meet someone like my boss.