Four Biases Against Religion News (1995)

And What Newspaper Editors Can Do About Them

By Terry Mattingly

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The Southern Baptists’ 1984 convention in Kansas City, Mo., was a donnybrook, with waves of angry debate cresting as leaders of America’s largest non-Catholic flock said women shouldn’t be ordained because Eve sinned first in Eden. I wasn’t surprised, when I got home, to learn that my Charlotte Observer stories about the event were drawing cheers and jeers from readers.

Before long, I heard whispers that SBC “moderates” might form a rump organization and were about to meet in Charlotte. This was national news, with a strong local angle. I sent a note to the city desk and dashed out to do research.

Later, I noticed the story wasn’t in the daily news budget. I asked why and was sent to see an editor. I’ll never forget why he spiked my scoop. He didn’t want to see any Southern Baptist stories for a while, he said, because they made readers get too emotional and “every time you write about that stuff we get too many letters to the editor.”

I am convinced this was a rare case of an editor actually saying what was on his mind when talking about religion news.

It was, and is, impossible to argue that religion isn’t news. Everyone from Billy Graham to Shirley MacLaine has preached sermons to journalists noting that religious groups shape the lives of millions, control budgets containing billions of dollars and play pivotal roles in an unusually high number of gripping local, national and international stories. It was, and is, hard to argue that stories about religious trends and institutions aren’t appealing — or in some cases appalling — to many readers. These stories get read and often provoke strong reactions.

I’ve been studying this beat for nearly two decades and I’m happy to report that we’ve reached the point where few, if any, editors will openly claim that religion isn’t news. The best thing I can do, when discussing this issue, is to refer you to the work of Dr. Stewart Hoover at the University of Colorado (303-492-4833 and Hoover@colorado.edu).

Suffice it to say that, for some reason, many editors continue to get sweaty palms when talking about religion coverage. When asked why newsrooms don’t do a better job with this beat, most journalists tell me two things: religion news is too boring and religion news is too controversial. There’s the rub: the world is just full of boring, controversial religion stories.

So, you’re a manager in a newsroom and you’ve decided to improve religion coverage. What can you do?

There are only three ways that editors show what they think about a subject: what kind of reporter covers it, how much coverage it receives and where the stories appear in the newspaper. Thus, the solution is obvious: hire one or more quality journalists who are committed to covering religion and give their work the kind of display that is granted to subjects editors consider important.

Religion is a stunningly complicated beat, with dozens of major and minor religious groups and institutions dotting the intellectual and emotional landscape. Buddhists don’t talk, pray or do business like Baptists. Catholics and Pentecostals have totally different concepts of what it means to be a “charismatic” leader, except, of course, for Catholics who also happen to Pentecostals. It’s impossible to navigate these waters without a working knowledge of the charts.

Now, the nuts-and-bolts questions begin.

  • So how do you find a real reporter who either is, or wants to be, a religion writer?

Start by contacting the Religion Newswriters Association, the network of journalists who cover religion in secular newsrooms. The RNA’s newsletter is edited by Charles Austin (201-836-2379 and 74156.760@compuserve.com). Often, RNA leaders hear when religion writers are job hunting. Also, the RNA awards include a contest, named for the late UPI religion writer Louis Cassels, honoring work in smaller newspapers. This produces an annual list of 10 first- round draft picks in the field of religion writing.

  • Should you have a religion page and a religion column? In my opinion, the answer is “yes.” A religion page can be a pressure valve that makes it easier for a skilled specialty reporter to get somewhat nuanced stories into print. Also, if journalists who cover basketball, rock ‘n’ roll, politics, the arts and movies can have columns, why not religion writers? However, a religion page can be a travesty if that is the only place religion news ever appears — the classic Saturday ghetto.
  • What about advertising? My advice is to break up the bargain-basement “church directory” advertising block and strive to develop attractive and affordable advertising packages targeting congregations, counseling centers, religious publishers, concert promoters and others. One resource in this field is the Church Ad Project, led by the Rev. George Martin (800-331-9391 and Geoinmn@aol.com).
  • Where do you put the religion writer in the structure of the newsroom? Many of my colleagues will disagree, but I am now convinced that the best place for the religion writer is the features staff, not the city desk.

Why? I have three reasons:

(1) The turnover rate for features writers and editors is usually lower than in the revolving chairs at the city desk. It’s hard enough to explain the ins and outs of the religion beat to some editors. Changing editors every few weeks or months doesn’t help. Continuity promotes informed, accurate coverage.

(2) Truth is, it’s hard for most religion stories to thrive in a hyper-competitive daily budget meeting, which places such a high priority on politics and breaking news. Tossing daily religion stories into this meat-grinder will usually result in a skilled reporter spending most of his or her time writing 15-inch stories that will be cut to five inches and buried. If a truly significant, breaking religion story comes along, it’s always possible to cross back over to page one and the local front — when city-desk editors commit to the story.

(3) The trend in religion news is to stress themes and issues, not institutions and hierarchies. This approach may, once or twice a year, result in a page-one package. But most of the time, it’s better suited to features. Please note that in-depth knowledge of religious groups and issues is just as important when researching and writing a feature as when handling breaking news. Try to imagine an editor saying, “We need a really solid feature on the demise of our state’s courts. Let’s get somebody who knows nothing about the legal system to do that one. OK?”

  • What if I’m in a middle-sized or smaller market and I can’t afford a full-timed religion specialist?

I believe that an honest look at the role religion plays in many smaller markets, especially in the Bible Belt and the Midwest, will result in a full-time beat. Beyond that, the goal is to create a job that makes sense, in your budget, yet will appeal to a professional who wants to focus on religion coverage. Here are two ideas to help bring in someone who could be the newsroom’s “institutional memory” and human fact file on religion:

(1) I believe it would make sense, in almost any smaller newsroom, to create a flexible “faith and family” beat, focusing on religion and a spectrum of lifestyles and family issues linked to morality and values. Study any poll that addresses the interests of readers and I believe you will see the logic of this approach.

(2) Perhaps, in this age of the “empowered wire desk,” you could attract a specialist by offering a job that blends copy-desk work and religion writing. In addition to some regular desk duties, this person would handle all religion wire copy and would be freed up, perhaps one or two shifts a week, to write local and regional religion stories and sidebars to wire stories.

In conclusion, let me once again stress that the goal is to promote accurate and in-depth news coverage of a subject that is crucial to American life and has been proven to be important to mainstream readers. The way to improve religion coverage is by doing the same things you do to improve work on any other beat.

To offer a variation on the quote from the ’92 presidential campaign: It’s journalism, stupid.

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Sidebar to the main article

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The roots of the religion-coverage dilemma run deep into the news process. I believe there are four major biases that affect coverage of religion news. These are the biases of:

  • Space, time and resources. You cannot print a story if you have little space in which to print it, time to write it, or the money to hire a professional to do so. Many editors insist resources are too thin to support religion coverage. But anyone who understands newsrooms knows budgets are windows into the priorities of those who manage them. Budgets help shape news.
  • Knowledge. You cannot write a story if you do not know that it exists. Journalists work hard to become trained political, arts or sports reporters. But editors do not consider it a high priority to hire professional religion writers. Why not?
  • Worldview. It’s hard to write a story if you don’t care that it exists. The result is, at best, a blind spot on religious issues and the people who care about them. I believe this is the most powerful bias that shapes coverage of religion news.

A now infamous case came in February, when The Washington Post printed a news story — not an editorial — that said evangelical Christians are “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” A Post correction bluntly said there was “no factual basis” for this statement. Reporter Michael Weisskopf repented, sort of, and said he should have written that evangelicals are “relatively” poor, uneducated and easy to command. Later, Post ombudsman Joann Byrd made the following point: “When journalists aren’t like, or don’t know, the people they are writing about, they can operate with no ill will whatsoever and still not recognize that a statement doesn’t ring true. It may be even harder to see how deeply offensive a common perception can be.”

  • Prejudice. It’s hard to produce balanced, fair coverage of people you dislike, distrust or whom you feel are irrelevant.

For example, I raised a style question at the Rocky Mountain News while working on a 1988 story linked to abortion. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp “pro- choice,” its chosen label, and the other “anti-abortion,” a term it abhors? We could, I said, use more neutral terms. I wasn’t fond of “anti-abortion,” but at least it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as “pro-abortion rights.” This might be wordy, but would avoid the spin of “pro-choice.”

The assistant editor said “pro-choice” was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use “pro-life.”

The city editor stepped in. Minus a few descriptive words, here’s what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren’t really pro-life. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we’ll call them whatever we want to call them.

Naturally, conservatives tend to argue that religion news is often shallow or twisted because journalists are simply biased against religious people, especially traditionalists. Meanwhile, most journalists deny that bias is a problem. Period.

Let’s be honest. Prejudice is real, but rare. The best content studies in this area — such as the 1990 Los Angeles Times series on abortion coverage — focus on our culture’s most controversial social and religious issues, especially those linked to sexual morality and education.

With issues as divisive as these, I believe newspapers should strive for what I call “visual fairness.”

Let’s say that a newspaper runs a major story on a lesbian couple’s battle to win acceptance in their neighborhood. This will, of course, create a stir among readers in most markets. But it is a valid story. Now, what would happen if this story were to appear right next to a story about a woman who, after years of life as a lesbian, experiences a major change in her life, marries, has children and becomes a leader in a church program to help gays and lesbians change their sexual behavior? This also is a valid story. Putting them side-by-side shows the reader that the newspaper is committed to provocative, but balanced, coverage.

Readers should be able to get out a ruler and, over a period of time, chart a newspaper’s coverage and see an honest attempt to offer informed, balanced coverage of groups on both sides. Often, this may require planning side-by-side, or first- and second-day features, that offer contrasting viewpoints and stories. Side-by- side op-ed page columns, or Q&A interviews, will please and anger people on both sides. This is good.

 

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