WWROD: Is bad religion-news coverage bad for news biz?

Warning to readers: The following post is blatantly self-serving and includes flattering remarks about the work of your GetReligionistas.

More on that in a minute.

A long, long time ago, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I did a bunch of pre-World World Wide web research into the forces that shaped a big problem in American newsrooms.

The problem I explored in a lengthy 1983 cover story for The Quill was, of course, the failure of many editors and reporters to grasp that religion plays a major role in shaping many of the biggest news stories of our age.

The thesis:

The role religion plays in America and the world has been a well-kept secret in most of the nation’s newsrooms. While reporters chase the latest stories in politics, sports, business, education and other subjects, the billions of dollars and hours Americans invest in religious activities receive minimal attention. Religion news is usually pushed into a tiny Saturday ghetto labeled “church news.”

When news events escape the church page they are often covered by reporters with little interest in religion and little education in the style and language of religious leaders and organizations. Religion has almost been ignored by radio and television. …

The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

In the original thesis manuscript, I quoted at length from studies showing this sequence of facts about life in modern America, as in all of modern American — as opposed to the elite Northeast. Here we go. The more people are committed to their local communities, the longer they live and work in them, the more likely they are to be heavily invested in them.

Well, DUH. At that time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the studies also showed that these highly committed members of the community were more likely to (a) take the local newspaper, (b) support local causes as volunteers and (c) participate as members of local religious institutions. In other words, there was a good chance that newspapers that consistently ignored or, worse, botched religion-news coverage could be running off core newspaper readers.

Well, DUH. What should newsroom managers do? The way to improve news coverage of religion was to take the same actions required to improve work on other complex, important beats. Editors needed to hire talented, trained, experienced reporters committed to professionalism on the beat and then give them the time and ink to do their jobs.

To cut to the chase: It’s journalism, stupid.

Here is why I bring this up. Over at the blog run by veteran religion-beat sage Richard Ostling (Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions), a reader asked a very important question:

PATRICK (no location posted) ASKS:

From a newspaper marketing perspective, is it good business to publish bad, one-sided journalism on religion? … When somebody writes something full of egregious errors are they disciplined? Accountable?…

Yikes.

And how did one of the top religion-news scribes of the 20th Century respond?

Well, you’re going to want to read it all, but here is a taste. This was written as the media ramped up for the papal conclave:

Let’s consider the big running story of the moment, the papal vacancy and Vatican election that occurs in coming days. The clever media analysts at “GetReligion” on patheos.com call attention to a Facebook rant by respected Jesuit James Martin, who’s no right-wing crank:

Martin feels “submerged by a sea of stupid articles, idiotic commentary and boneheaded op-eds about the Catholic Church. … The number of misinformed articles I’ve read about celibacy, the priesthood, the papacy, the church in this country, the causes of the sexual abuse crisis, church authority, papal infallibility, the role of the magisterium, life in a religious order, the vow of chastity, and Benedict XVI, just boggles the mind.”

Don’t hold back.

GetReligion is the ideal place to learn about media failings in treating religion, and it neatly nails a key problem: “Information is expensive, but opinion is cheap.” The Internet and news media are increasingly long on armchair commentary and short on reliable, factual reporting by non-partisan journalists who know what they don’t know and make a concerted effort to fill in the blanks. Too often, media operatives are so committed to one outlook on hot moral and religious issues that they barely attempt to understand and fairly characterize those with opposite views. And wouldn’t it be grand if news shops demanded the level of expertise in religion reporting that they expect for sports, politics, economics, or showbiz?

Does this affect red ink in news operations and the bottom line in budgets?

Why aren’t reporters held accountable?

Read it all.

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.

  • Deann Alford

    To complement this aspect of blindness in the newsroom regarding faith and values, just ran across this Columbia Journalism Review story link on Tony Carnes’ Journey Through NYC Religions titled “Why do evangelicals talk to journalists?” [ http://www.cjr.org/reality_check/american_evangelicals_in_secul.php?page=1 ] After all, the article acknowledges, evangelicals **know** they’ll be depicted as kooks in the worst possible light in this “us versus them.” Just give ‘em enough rope to hang themselves. So to answer TMatt’s question, reporters aren’t held accountable because regarding this huge segment of the population, there’s widespread agreement among journos that they’re simply not expected to be fair. That it’s all about media advocacy — who’s right and what’s wrong — has become a no-brainer. In today’s MSM environment, that’s not only okay but a given.

  • Martha

    From Pope Francis’ address to the media today:

    “All of this leads me to thank you once more for your work in these particularly demanding days, but also to ask you to try to understand more fully the true nature of the Church, as well as her journey in this world, with her virtues and her sins, and to know the spiritual concerns which guide her and are the most genuine way to understand her. Be assured that the Church, for her part, highly esteems your important work. At your disposal you have the means to hear and to give voice to people’s expectations and demands, and to provide for an analysis and interpretation of current events. Your work calls for careful preparation, sensitivity and experience, like so many other professions, but it also demands a particular concern for what is true, good and beautiful. This is something which we have in common, since the Church exists to communicate precisely this: Truth, Goodness and Beauty “in person”. It should be apparent that all of us are called not to communicate ourselves, but this existential triad made up of truth, beauty and goodness.”

    I think this is going to be an interesting papacy :-)

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