Do religious readers really want quality religion coverage?

It has been awhile since our own Bobby Ross, Jr., quoted that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tweet by New York Times religion scribe Laurie Goodstein that said (all together now): “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Mocking the typical newsroom attitude that three anecdotes equals a valid news trend, Ross asked if it was time for someone to write a story about “why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore?”

Discussion ensued, including this item at Poynter.org, and Bobby quickly wrote a follow-up post covering the conversation. In the midst of all that, I asked:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

To be more precise, what I meant to say is that — in light of the current advertising crisis in the news business — it is understandable that some professionals are questioning whether the religion beat, along with other complicated specialty beats, can thrive in an age of 24/7 journalism, with fewer journalists trying to produce more and more digital news products. There are, of course, many people (see art atop this post) who are convinced that the advertising crisis is going to kill American-model mainstream journalism, period.

On top of this new reality, there is the sad old fact that I stated in The Quill back in 1983:

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.

You might even say that far too many newsroom managers simply do not get religion, or words to that effect.

As the discussion rolled on, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher posted an item under this blunt headline: “Why Are Newspaper Religion Reporters Quitting?” You need to read all of it, but I would like to respond to a few statements in his post. So, let’s proceed:

Here’s what I think. In a time when nearly all newspapers continue to contract, if I were a religion news reporter at a paper, I would not bet my future on my job being secure. A big part of this is due to the reason for Get Religion’s existence: often, decision-makers are among those in the press who flat-out do not get religion. That is, they don’t grasp the importance of religion in daily life, and may consider the religion beat to be something ancillary to covering the “real” news.

Cue the choir. Moving on.

But I wonder to what extent newspaper readers — that shrinking population — are responsible for this state of affairs? I have no way of knowing, but it’s a question worth considering. When I lived in Dallas and worked for the local daily, my social circles were mostly religious conservatives, and they complained all the time about religion coverage at The Dallas Morning News, if they bothered to read it at all. Maybe they had a point, maybe they didn’t, but that’s not an argument that interests me.

If heard those same voices for decades and it doesn’t help that some of their concerns are valid. It also doesn’t help that they have stopped purchasing mainstream news and calling their local editors to praise journalists when they get it right, as well as offering informed criticism when they get it wrong. Back to Dreher:

What does interest me is the possibility that many religious people do not like to read newspaper coverage that treats their religion as a phenomenon among others — that is, as something to be covered by the same standards as one would cover sports, politics, and other staples of daily journalism. …

(It) has been my experience that many religious believers conceive of religion reporting as “publishing nothing but favorable news about my faith.” Anything remotely critical, however hard the reporter works to be neutral and analytical and fair, is taken by these readers as hopelessly biased. I was not a religion reporter at the News, but I had to take these calls myself for things I had written. You talk with enough folks like this and you realize that they don’t actually want you to practice journalism, because they don’t value journalism. They want favorable publicity for their faith or faith community; anything falling short of that propagandistic goal is considered biased.

This is a totally valid comment, as far as I am concerned. In fact, I have made the critical examination of this slanted point of view one of the major themes in my teaching at the Washington Journalism Center, a full-semester journalism program operated by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. There are many, many religious leaders — right and left — who have a public-relations view of journalism and that’s that. As the president of a major Christian university once told me, what these people really want is “happy little Jesus stories.”

Is that an attitude that produces accurate, balanced, informed journalism? No way. Thus, I constantly tell my students that journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not by people who hate it.

So here is Dreher’s bottom line:

… I know … from personal experience, and from reading sites like GetReligion, that the bias against religion — either from malice or (more often, I think) ignorance — in American newsrooms is real. The less well-recognized aspect of this phenomenon is that many religious believers who read newspapers hold religion journalists to an impossible standard. If religion beats are dying off at American newspapers, and if some of the best people on the religion beat are losing confidence in the long-term prospects of their jobs, this is, in my view, not simply because many newspaper publishers and editors don’t value what religion journalists do. It’s also because too many newspaper readers do not value it either.

Let’s continue the discussion.

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.

  • Darrell Turner

    Whether religion is treated as a specific beat or incorporated into other coverage, it should be part of standard journalism for a reporter to understand the subject matter of the story that he or she is covering. In religion writing, this includes understanding that there are several branches of the major religions — such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism — as well as subgroups of specific denominational families, such as Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists.

    • Steve Bauer

      But what about the subject of the post?

      • tmatt

        Actually, Darrell is addressing the subject of the post. There is more to journalism than mere accuracy, but there is never less.

        • Steve Bauer

          I apologize.I thought the subject of the post was about religious news readers not being interested in getting accurate and fair coverage of their religious interests not about the importance of reporters’ understanding of the scope and history of religious issues.

  • Bob Smietana

    About a dozen years ago I interviewed Terry Anderson about this topic for a magazine story. He said many of the same things that Dreher said and many are still true.

    The kind of nuance needed to cover religion stories can make reporters gun-
    shy about writing religion stories, says Terry Anderson. Anderson, a former
    syndicated columnist and Associated Press Middle East correspondent,
    taught journalism at Ohio University before retiring this fall.

    “This is a very complex area,” Anderson says, “and because it is very sensitive, most journalists are going to say, ‘I am not getting into that. When they send me a press release about which pastor is being elected I am going to print it. But I am not going to start covering religious issues.’ ”

    Part of that reluctance, says Anderson, can be blamed on the reactions that religion stories can bring out in readers.

    “If there is by chance an implied criticism in a newspaper article,” says Anderson, “you are going to jump up and down on the editor’s desk, and scream and holler and scare the crap out of him so next time he isn’t going to cover it. Churches are
    extraordinarily sensitive about the media coverage they get.”

    That kind of reaction, says Anderson, makes him skeptical that churches or other religious groups are interested in improving religion coverage.

    What they want instead is more positive coverage.

    “I doubt seriously that you want more intelligent new coverage,” he says, “because if you ask for that you might get it. Then they are going to come and look at your church and its problems and they are going to put them in the newspaper and you are not going to like that.”

    • Howard

      “Anderson, a former syndicated columnist and Associated Press Middle East correspondent, taught journalism at Ohio University before retiring this fall.”

      You appear to be the kind who would write something like this: “Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, went on to practice law in Illinois. He died in 1865.” It’s true, of course, but don’t you think it leaves out an important detail?

  • Darren Blair

    To me, the key issue of religion reporting is that – as with news stories in other fields – far too many reporters are in such a hurry to get a big scoop that they often don’t wait for the facts to come out and/or don’t take the time to do basic homework on a topic.

    For example, back in 2012 news came out that, when Mitt Romney was with Bain Capitol, an astounding sum of money in the form of cash and stock flowed from his hands to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The vast majority of it came in the form of tithing, while the rest came from Romney convincing Bain to put the church on its “preferred charities” list.

    The church simply asks 10% as a tithe. However, there’s actually a debate amongst the membership as to whether or not one should tithe based on their gross income or net income. That Romney directly tithed shares of stock indicates that he went with gross income when calculating his tithe.

    A competent, knowledgeable news outlet could have spun the matter into a discussion of how tithing works in the LDS faith, and by extension how tithing works in other faiths. Readers and news outlets all over the nation had legitimate questions about the LDS faith at the time, and so such an article would have been an eager read from coast to coast.

    Instead, ABC News’ website all but accused Romney of embezzling from Bain; you had to read deep into their article to see the full picture.

    It’s incidents like this that cause people to question whether or not it’s even possible for the more mainstream media outlets to correctly and accurately report on religious news. IMHO, this is likely a large part of the reason why alternative news sources – like Christianity Today (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ ) or the official LDS Newsroom (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/ ) – are rapidly becoming peoples’ preferred destinations for religious news.

  • helen

    [What is your opinion of "the full picture"? Romney left the employees of Bain without jobs or their retirement fund. If he siphoned the money off to LDS, maybe ABC had the right word for it.]

    When I give to my church, it’s my salary, not other people’s living.

    As one who formerly read newspapers, yea, even NYT once, I have been so disillusioned with biased reporting in general that I don’t bother much about any of it. That reading religious reporting is now limited to “Get religion” is a by-product of my general dissatisfaction with news sources, not my disinterest in religious news.

    • Darren Blair

      I noted that he tithed from his personal income, which he was paid by Bain for his time there.

      Big difference.

  • Jack

    An old priest used to say that when the local paper’s religion editor does an irreproachable job for 10 years, he’s promoted to copy runner in classifieds.

    One man sent in a Holy Week schedule to the local paper, almost in words of one syllable. The paper STILL messed it up.

  • Ira Rifkin

    I recall one week during my religion reporting days when I heard American Muslims, American Orthodox Jews and American Buddists in three different Northeast cities complain bitterly about how they were treated in the press.

    Their complaints were all similar: the press just doesn’t get us.

    But what I heard was, the press doesn’t tell our story as we would like it to be told.

    So yes, reporters and editors, by and large, do not get religion. But equally true is that firm believers, regardless of their tradition, also do not get the press.

    Too often, they are trains passing passing in the night, just like so many other subjective human endeavors.

  • Julia B

    In the case of the Catholic Church, you will find as many who just love an article as don’t like it. This kind of shows that many articles are subtly or openly choosing sides on issues – sides within the church. Straight reporting doesn’t get that kind of reaction.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    “Do religious readers really want quality religion coverage?”

    Hmmmm. Might check the number of comments that GetReligion gets on posts that praise quality religion coverage or focus on exceptional journalism. Hint: Zilch.

    • tmatt

      Bingo.

    • jeffreyb

      Well, there’s also less to dispute about quality coverage. A better measurement would be the number of people who click on the link and read the articles.

  • http://www.credobiblestudy.com/ Irenaeus of New York

    I think the answer to the title is yes. EWTN is now going to be offering the news on television with a proper focus on religion. I hope it succeeds.

  • Howard

    I think a big part of the problem is that anyone serious about, well, pretty much any subject, does not turn to the general newspapers for accurate information. If I am interested in the Higgs boson, I may see an announcement about its discovery in the New York Times, but then I will go to a source that really understands physics to get the details. If I see on CNN that the Pope has released an interview, I leave CNN and find someone who really understands the Catholic Church so that I can get an accurate summary and analysis. As a result, the “major news sources” really cater only to the people who are ignorant and/or indifferent. With such readership, there is little incentive to do a better job.

    • Kristen inDallas

      This exactly. It’s to the point some days when I feel like the only truly acurate info I can glean from a paper is an account of how biased or superficial that paper has gotten. And I can get a pretty good take on that just by reading journalism critique blogs or watching the Daily Show. I want my information at a much higher (less distilled) level than my paper provides… and I want my commentary at a much lower (less pretentious) meta-level than my paper provides.


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