Is bad news good business?

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?…

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Obviously Patrick is among America’s serious-minded news consumers who are deeply disappointed these days, disappointed by sloppiness and unwanted slant, and in this instance by the quality of religion coverage. He offers no specific gripes but YOU RELIGION Q & A READERS OUT THERE are urged to send examples to The Guy.  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?

Nostalgia time. To be perfectly candid, The Guy thinks a golden age in religion news reporting has passed us by, along with a golden age for the whole of print journalism. (Radio and TV news have rarely provided consistent, thoughtful treatment of religion.) There are still excellent newswriters at work on the best beat journalism has to offer. But if I start naming colleagues (except for Rachel Zoll, The Guy’s esteemed partner when he was with The Associated Press) I’ll inevitably commit sins of omission.

The Guy pleads for patience from readers like Patrick and from religious figures who have to explain what’s going on for journalists. Even the best news agencies have frightful budget problems nowadays. A newshound working on a story may have to juggle assignments on assorted topics simultaneously, since full-time religion experts have become a luxury. The reporter may face space limitations, ill-informed or cranky editors, or the anguish when a good article never even sees print. Religion stories are usually tricky, and most scribes attempt to do their best.

Marketing? There’s considerable evidence that readers desire good religion coverage, but they’re likely to be disappointed if top editors aren’t interested. Accountability? The best tactic is for an unhappy reader to send in a clear, concise, fair, and accurate complaint — minus personal attacks or special pleading for one’s own ideology — to help educate reporters and editors. A prayer now and then wouldn’t hurt.

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • FW Ken

    Anything by Ann Rodgers is worth reading.

    • Richard Ostling

      The Guy is also a fan of Rodgers (of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) who incidentally is the president of our Religion Newswriters Association (www.rna.org)

  • Thinkling

    Agree, Ann Rodgers does good work.

  • Jerry

    I have one minor bone to pick: Marketing? There’s considerable evidence that readers desire good religion coverage, but they’re likely to be disappointed if top editors aren’t interested. . Unless the newspaper business is very different, the ones that would need to be interested is upper management. If the owner of a business comes to an employee and wants something to happen, the odds are decent it will happen. If the business says “we need to cut cut cut” without guidance beyond that, then we’ll see cut after cut in what the editors aren’t interested in. If the business says “cut but preserve what drives sales: good local coverage including religion”, then we’d see that carried out.

  • http://www.ironiccatholic.com IC

    Another fan of GetReligion here. Sure wish other journalists seemed to be fans of them too.


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