Some familiar religion-news questions, after 25 years

What are the odds?

Several years ago, I realized that I was not really sure how long I had been writing the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. As some of you may know, aging brains often struggle with detailed information of this kind (especially when the brain in question also deals with 100-plus emails every day).

Anyway, I dug back into my analog files (thick folders full of paper printouts) and calculated that I would START my 25th year on April 11, 2013.

Then, a week ago, I pulled out the same folder and realized that I had looked at the front of the file, but that the columns were in reverse order with the oldest one at the back. Thus, I was one year off.

Thus, this week’s column marked the 25th anniversary of the column. You’ll be shocked, shocked to know that it focuses on the fact that mainstream news organizations continue to struggle, when it comes to covering religion news. More on that in a moment.

At the same time, I have watching the numbers at the GetReligion dashboard, by which I mean at our WordPress production page, climb toward another symbolic number — 8,000.

This post, as it turns out, is No. 8,000 — in just over nine years.

It’s kind of a Zen thing, don’t you think? The 8,000th post is about my 25th anniversary column which is about how the mainstream press struggles to “get religion.”

Anyway, when I sent the column out to friends, former students, etc., I put a note on top thanking five people in particular for their help and inspiration. The request for a national Scripps Howard religion column came from Harry Moskos, then editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, and it was backed early and often by William R. Burleigh, who spent his whole journalism career with the E.W. Scripps Company and ended up running the whole shooting match. Also, I thanked the late Ralph Looney and Ben Blackburn, the top editors at the Rocky Mountain News who hired me to cover religion and later backed the creation of the national column. And, of course, I thanked my mentor in journalism, Prof. David McHam, who is STILL teaching journalism ethics and law, and how to write ledes (currently an emeritus professor at the University of Houston).

So the column is out, and here is how it starts:

Every year or so, editors are asked to sit patiently while market researchers dissect thick reports about what consumers say they want to see in their newspapers.

That was already true back when Harry Moskos was editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel. But he immediately noticed something strange, when handed the executive summary of one late-1980s survey.

Two words near the top of the subjects valued by readers caught his attention — “religion” and “family.” Yet the professionals interpreting the data offered zero suggestions for improving coverage of those subjects.

“I remember saying, ‘Look at that.’ … Those words just jumped out at me, primarily because I knew people in Knoxville tend to see those subjects as connected,” said Moskos, 76. He recently ended his 60-year journalism career, with most of that work in Albuquerque, N.M., and Knoxville, Tenn.

Of course, he admitted, the fact he noticed the words “religion” and “family” also “says something about the life I’ve lived and how I was raised” in a devout Greek Orthodox family. “I just knew we had to do something … to respond to that interest among our readers,” he said.

Thus, Moskos asked his team to create a section on faith and family life. As part of that effort, he asked — at a meeting of Scripps Howard editors — if the newspaper chain could start a national religion-news column.

That’s how — 25 years ago this week — I began writing this “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. At that time, I was the religion reporter for one of the chain’s major newspapers and then I continued this work while teaching, first in a seminary, then in two liberal arts colleges and, now, as director of the Washington Journalism Center.

Through it all, I have been amazed that many people still think religion is a boring, unimportant subject that can be relegated to the periphery of news coverage.

So what are the key issues, the questions that won’t go away?

Well, why don’t journalists simply “follow the money” and realize the power of religion in public life?

Also, why do the people who run newsrooms turn their backs on professionals who have shown excellence on the religion beat?

That led me, naturally, to that famous Washington Post job posting in 1994 in which the editors said that their “ideal candidate” for the beat was “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

Thank kind of thinking does not amuse the reporter who was one of my inspirations, when choosing what I wanted to do with my life:

“The religion beat is too complicated today for this kind of approach to be taken seriously,” said Russell Chandler, who covered religion for years at the Los Angeles Times. I interviewed him for “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” from Oxford Press.

“If you don’t have experience you have to pay your dues and get some. Then you have to keep learning so that you get the facts right today and tomorrow and the day after that,” he said. “I have never really understood what this argument is about. It’s like saying that we want to sign up some people for our basketball team and we don’t really care whether or not they can play basketball.”

This logic also rings true for Moskos, who noted that he once interviewed five skilled sportswriters when seeking someone to cover University of Tennessee football — a quasi-religious subject for locals. Why not take that approach to religion news?

“If you send somebody out to cover the Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” he concluded, “you’d better find yourself a journalist who knows something about science. … If people are going to get the job done covering religion then they need to find some journalists who know a thing or two about religion.”

That makes sense to me. How about to you folks?

Anyway, read it all. And please keep reading.

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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.

  • Lola LB

    I would really like to know the answer . . . what is it that makes the religious beat “too complicated”? I think once we know what the answer is, this issue can then be better addressed.

    • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

      What is NOT complicated about the religion beat?

      Start with the vast number of different religious congregations and organizations and affiliations, just in the U.S. – to say nothing of globally. Each has a different structure, different doctrinal beliefs, different ritual and customary practices, different approaches to morality.

      Add to this the extensive role that each citizen’s religious belief and affiliation plays in his/her public and private life. Add the role of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, the role of the Prophets of the LDS Church, the role of the leadership of the Southern Baptists, the Episcopal Church, the “Religious Right,” the “Liberal Mainline Protestants”, the Anti-Defamation League, the Scientologists, and so on in shaping the cultural, economic, and political discussion/debate in our country.

      Recognize that any given adherent or practitioner of a religion does not always believe or practice according to the ideal, and that the divergences from the ideal are significant.

      Then expand beyond the U.S., to the at-least-equally complex situation of religion in other nations, and in international relations. Expand beyond politics and economics to the “human interest” dynamic between theology and philosophy, faith and science, religion and culture, ritual and art, morality and ethics, etc.

      Again, what part of this beat is NOT complicated?

    • sari

      Lola,
      It’s difficult because the U.S., in particular, is such a diverse country -and- because it is far less culturally homogeneous than it once was (or purported to be). Think of it this way: most religion professors are experts in a particular religion or in certain aspects of religious organizations. Very few have the kind of broad knowledge to write intelligently about all or even most religious groups. The same is true for journalists. The nest we can hope for is that they know where to acquire accurate information, avoid superimposing their belief systems on those not their own (cultural bias), and ask the right questions.

  • tmatt

    LOLA:

    Well, it IS complicated. That’s one reason that experience and training is so important. When I left the Rocky Mountain News I had research folders up and running on about 60 different forms of religion JUST IN COLORADO. And the vocabulary is so technical and specific. A Pentecostal “charismatic” is not the same as a Catholic “charismatic,” let alone a Mormon “charismatic” (thinking mainly in historic terms). All of those words, and historical realities, and doctrinal specifics, really matter.

    • Darren Blair

      As an example of the above, most Mormons wouldn’t respond to the term “charismatic” when used in the sense of religion; it’s not normally used in the theology. In fact, perhaps one of the biggest sore points between Mormons and other Christian denominations is the use of terminology.

      For example, you may hear Mormon congregations referred to as “wards” or “branches” instead of simply “congregations”.
      Why use two terms?
      In order for a congregation to exist, there must be a minimum number of religiously-active believers in a particular region. Once that number is met, a boundary is established based on existing physical and political boundaries for the area and all those who live within the boundary are considered to be the new congregation.
      A “ward” indicates that there are several hundred members listed on the membership rolls; this is the most basic form of congregation.
      In contrast, a “branch” denotes a congregation that does not meet the minimum number requirement to be a normal ward but that the decision was made to create a congregation anyway as there were just enough members in an area with a special need. This need could be anything from “they live too far away from their official parent congregation as to make attendance a hardship” to “there is a college, military base, or other facility that needs special attention” to “there are enough people who do not speak the language of the majority”.
      As you can imagine, it’s rather unlikely that the average reporter would know the rather significant difference between the two terms, and thus be tempted to use them interchangeably.

  • Spencerian

    One might note that politics itself, whether it be at a local or international level, has many of the same complications as religion. Unlike the religion beat, however, expertise is prized throughout reporting circles for getting politics, even to the point where journalists are practically advocates.

    Perhaps reporters don’t care to get religion because politics makes for a more grounded, tangible substitute for belief itself. Adding another belief just muddies the report, and “we journalists” have outgrown such silly superstitions, anyway–and don’t report them to encourage you to see as they do, in the faith of the people’s politic.

    • Darren Blair

      Personally?

      As much as legitimate ignorance of the importance of religious issues may play a part, I suspect that some reporters and media outlets secretly fear that if they were to confront religion head-on they would be forced to admit facts that don’t fit their established narratives (for example, Mormon money did *not* sweep Proposition 8; as the LA Times was forced to admit – http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-moneymap,0,2198220.htmlstory – the “No” crowd had the edge in both total funds *and* total funds raised from out-of-state) and/or be forced to ask questions that they would rather not ask (like “Why were Mormon plural wives among the most vocal *defenders* of polygamy during the 1800s?” – http://www.fairlds.org/authors/armitage-suzanne/o-that-my-voice-could-reach-the-ears-of-those-uninformed-and-misinformed).

      I’ve noticed similar tendencies in history and civics textbooks to whistle past the graveyard when it comes to religion, and in a lot of instances it comes right down to a desire to keep the skeletons in the closet as long as possible. For example, did you know that at one point in time a religious pogrom took place right here in America? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missouri_Executive_Order_44) You wouldn’t be able to tell that just by looking at the average American History textbook.

  • Darren Blair

    Lola –
    As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the “Mormons”?

    The amount of misinformation floating around about the faith is *staggering*, due in large part to the fact that the theological and socio-political opponents of the church frequently feel no compulsion to be either honest or accurate in their criticisms. This was infamously highlighted back in 1997 by Evangelical graduate students Carl Mosser and Paul Owens as part of their master’s thesis – http://www.cometozarahemla.org/others/mosser-owen.html – wherein they compared a sampling of the then-current Mormon apologetic works and a sampling of the then-current critical works. M + O found that most of the critics failed to do independent research, instead simply throwing their own personal spin on the works of others and calling it a day. The end result is that “facts” which are not just false, but have been known to be false for years, decades, or even *centuries* continues to be circulated.

    I myself have seen this first-hand, and not just in religious debates, either; I’m talking about purportedly-reliable media outlets of all shapes and sizes pushing bad information, often with a visible agenda. And it’s actually gotten *worse* over the last decade or so as more and more Mormons – and people who claim to be Mormon – have gotten media attention.

    For example:

    *About eight years ago, Justice Clarance Thomas was considered the “sure” pick to become Chief Justice. In response, Sen. Harry Reid explained that he felt Thomas tended to be too vague when writing decisions; he wanted a Chief Justice who would speak in no uncertain terms. Cue a World Net Daily editorial writer accusing Reid – and, by extension, the entire church – of racism. The writer’s “newest” source was from 1968, and when I e-mailed him about it he confessed to having halted his research and so being totally unaware of everything that’s happened since.

    *The raid against the FLDS compound here in Texas might have made national news, but you had to resort to increasingly local outlets to continue following the case. Why? Texas Child Protective Services so *greatly* overstepped their boundaries in prosecuting the case that several employees could have been arrested for an assortment of crimes, something that didn’t fit the narrative that most of the national outlets had been trying to weave. The most critical offense was that the CPS officials were actually guilty of kidnapping: several of the “underage girls” they “rescued” were actually legal adults, and CPS reportedly refused to view the birth certificates and other documents being offered as proof of their age. Due to how badly CPS fumbled the raid and the investigation, *everything* could have been thrown out by the courts, meaning that Warren Jeffs could be a free man right now.

    *ABC News’ website published an article last year accusing Romney of embezzling large sums in cash and stock from Bain and funneling them towards the church. In reality, nothing of the sort had taken place. Rather, what had happened was that Romney had paid a consistent tithe during his time with the company; not only did he tithe on the money he received in pay, he also tithed on the stock options he received as bonuses. ABC didn’t understand that there was a difference between tithing and “funneling money”, and so came off looking like bigots.

    *ABC got yet another black eye when, just a week later, they aired an episode of hidden camera show “What Would You Do?” that quite obviously tried to play up several negative stereotypes about the church. Most shocking was the fact that one scenario they attempted was that of an abusive man threatening his girlfriend in the middle of a public diner. Although the scenario was likely aiming to expose the purported sexism among Mormons, it backfired spectacularly. Just like Texas, Utah is one of the last places in America where the Law of the West remains; only the intervention of the host kept the actor playing the boyfriend from being hauled off into the parking lot for some old-school justice.

    *The BBC did a “documentary” in which, among other things, they allowed to stand a claim that the church was hiring ex-FBI and ex-CIA workers to spy on dissidents, heretics, and former members. Current TV ran the “documentary” at least once every three weeks in the lead-up to the 2012 election.

    *Destination America’s “Hidden In America: The Mormons” is a case study in the phrase “Damning them with faint praise”, as just about everything positive they said about the church was immediately counter-acted with either appeals to the FLDS sect or innuendo about more sinister prospects.

    *Bloomberg Business Week infamously released an issue that had a religiously offensive cover image coupled with an article accusing the church of being a soulless business empire (in reality, most of the companies the church owns were created to fill a need among the membership, and are allowed to operate with minimal church oversight; some, like ZCMI, Zion Bancorp, and a life insurance company whose name I do not recall, were ultimately spun off as independent entities or sold off when the church felt that the need for them had passed).

    I am one of the local-level public affairs people for the church, and so as you can imagine the increasingly negative, hostile, and downright false material being reported by the media has kept me hopping.

  • Jerry

    Well, why don’t journalists simply “follow the money” and realize the power of religion in public life?

    I think this issue is very, very deeply routed in humanity way deeper than how the media covers religion. Media coverage is just one symptom of the problem. I’ve had the experience of, in effect, waving money in front of a salesman without any response to actually deliver a product and get the money.

    How deep routed is this problem. Well, how about Biblically deep: Jeremiah 5:21 Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not

    So if you sometimes feel like you’re “crying in the wilderness”, you’re in good company!

    Sigh.

  • tmatt

    Darren:

    Actually, in history materials that I read back in Colorado days — provided by the highest of church authorities from Salt Lake City — I was struck by the fact that early Mormon life included quite a bit of spiritual activity that, today, would be classified under “charismatic” terrain. My point is that the word, if used to communicate that reality to those outside LDS, would not mean the same thing to members of the LDS church.

    • Darren Blair

      Thanks for the reply.

      While the history of the church *is* filled with incidents that would be deemed “charismatic” by onlookers, I’ve almost never heard the term used outside of academic circles. The average Mormon would likely not even know what it meant.

      Rather, if you were to talk to the average Mormon about the historical accounts, you’d most likely get a conversation about how such miracles are still taking place today; although individually they might be special (in my case, I’ve taken so many injuries and dealt with so many illnesses that there’s no scientific or medical reason as to why I’m still alive), as a whole it’s almost taken for granted that miracles and whatnot can still happen.

      In other words, a lot of Mormons tend to be surprisingly casual about things that would cause most non-Mormon Christians a rather great amount of excitement.

      Kinda reminds me of the “Savage Chickens” comic strip in which it was pointed out that tourists tend to love about a town what the residents tend to find uninteresting.


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