10 years of GetReligion: Why we are still here, part II

Truth be told, your GetReligionistas do not have the power to bust ghosts.

However, we have been known to spot ghosts on a regular basis and to sound warnings. Ultimately, only the editors and reporters who work in mainstream newsrooms can do anything about all of the religion ghosts that haunt so many of their news reports.

So what is this “ghost” thing all about and why, for the past 10 years, has this concept mattered so much to us here at GetReligion? Let me explain.

Many of our readers continue to assume that GetReligion.org exists (a) to provide coverage of religion news events or (b) to provide a platform for people who want to argue about religious doctrines and trends in the past, present and future. In response, we keep chanting: This is not a religion-news site. This is a site about how many professionals in the mainstream press struggle to cover — to “get” — religion news.

As you would expect, we spend some of our time looking at the work of religion-beat professionals. However, it’s important to note that we end up praising the work of religion-beat professionals as much, if not more, than we criticize it.

After all, lots of people who have spent time researching religion-news coverage — including me — have concluded that the quickest way to improve coverage of this beat is for newsroom managers to hire experienced, trained religion writers and then give them the time and space they need to do their work. Consider, for example, that landmark “Bridging The Gap” study (.pdf here) done by the Freedom Forum more than two decades ago.

The bottom line: The main journalistic problem that GetReligion.org was created to address was not that professional religion writers are blind to the religion angles in major news stories.

Heavens no! The big problem is that so many other journalists are blind to the essential religious content and even context that helps shape the news on other beats — politics, science, entertainment, education, sports, economics, etc., etc.

As I have said many times, here at GetReligion.org we are convinced that if you want to cover news rooted in the real lives of real people who live in the real world, then you need to devote serious attention to religion. Newsroom managers need to grant religion news the respect that they give to other serious, complex topics in news at the local, national and global levels.

And that brings us to all of those “ghosts.” Thus, let’s review a few passages from that very first GetReligion.org post that went live on Feb. 2, 2004, as Douglas LeBlanc and I set up shop.

Here is now that piece began:

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The article then discusses a few case studies from news coverage, some of them — alas — that are still relevant today. How often do you see journalists use the word “Arab” when they mean “Muslim,” those forgetting that there are millions of Arabs who are Christians?

The goal here at GetReligion.org, I stressed, was this:

We want to slow down and try to pinpoint and name some of these ghosts.

But I don’t want to sound like we see this as a strictly negative operation. There are many fine writers out there … who are doing an amazing job of taking religion news into the mainstream pages of news, entertainment, business and even sports. We want to highlight the good as well as raise some questions about coverage that we believe has some holes in it.

Most of all, we want to try to create a clearing house of information and opinion on this topic. This is what blogs do best.

So this is why Doug and I started this experimental blog. We hope it grows. We hope it forms links with other sites that are digging into the same issues, each with their unique viewpoints and resources. We will point some of those out as well and include them in our links page.

Let’s begin.

Or, 10 years later, we want to say: Let’s carry on.

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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.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Congratulations for ten years of religious ghostbusting! And you rarely have crossed journalism streams in that time (that would be bad, Ray…er…Matt).

  • The Ubiquitous

    This is a little off-topic, but is there any chance of doing a write-up of the recent New York Post op-ed by Kyle Smith? He wrote about misperceptions of Pope Francis, and I think he really did his homework. Any chance you could send some props his way?

    Oh, and by the way: Congrats, and keep up the good work, yourselves!

    • tmatt

      As a rule, we don’t look at editorial page work that often. However, there is some material in there that could interest pros on the beat. I’ll consider including it in a piece that I’m currently working on….

  • Julia B

    Glad you are here doing what you do.


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