The Religion Beat (1983)

Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets

By Terry Mattingly

(Copyright) The Quill:

The Society of Professional Journalists

January of 1983

A s was often the case, Lou Grant was
working on two problems at once. At first the problems seemed unrelated.

The Los Angeles Tribune had lost its religion editor. City editor Grant
had searched far and wide and, of course, no one was interested in the
position. After all, what self-respecting journalist would want to be
stuck with the religion beat?

Problem number two was how to get rid of lazy, often-drunk, no-good
reporter Mal Cavanaugh. All through this episode of Lou Grant the
management of the Trib had been trying to find a way to get Cavanaugh to
resign.

Then, a spark of inspiration. The script is simple:

LOU: Congratulations, Mal. You’re the Trib’s new religion editor.

Lou sits back beaming. The information seeps in a bit slowly on
Cavanaugh, who blinks at Lou.

CAVANAUGH: Religion editor?

LOU: That’s right, Mal. And I can’t think of a better man to interview
the clergy … take ministers to lunch.

CAVANAUGH: Are you kidding?

LOU: Detail the theological frontiers in this country and abroad.

CAVANAUGH: That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that,
I’d quit.

LOU: Quit? You haven’t even given it a chance. You can’t quit.

CAVANAUGH: The hell I can’t. Just watch me.

Grant’s newsroom associates beam as Cavanaugh storms out.

The television audience is left with the impression that Grant’s
problems are over. The religion editor spot is still empty, but who
cares?

Secret

The role religion plays in America and the world has been a well-kept
secret in most of the nation’s newsrooms. While reporters chase the
latest stories in politics, sports, business, education and other
subjects, the billions of dollars and hours Americans invest in
religious activities receive minimal attention. Religion news is usually
pushed into a tiny Saturday ghetto labeled “church news.”

When news events escape the church page they are often covered by
reporters with little interest in religion and little education in the
style and language of religious leaders and organizations. Religion has
almost been ignored by radio and television.

And the reporters who do specialize in religion coverage have had it
rough. Tied to the church page and facing a career of church press
releases and short news items on sermons and picnics, many religion
writers have given up and switched to more prestigious beats. Others
have fought the stereotypes and tried to convince their editors to
listen to the voices in American religion. Religion writers noted clergy
marching in the civil rights demonstrations, the changes occurring in
morality and social ethics, the debates on church and state, the fights
over prayer in public schools, and the waves of change sweeping through
the Roman Catholic church. Religion writers mentioned the public’s
changing attitudes on abortion, marriage, sex roles, euthanasia, private
schools, pornography, television and countless other topics.

Often the words fell on deaf ears. Religion and journalism were like oil
and water. As Jim Stentzel noted in an article in the evangelical
magazine Sojourners:

“Myth says that journalism is ‘objective,’ religion ‘subjective.’
Journalism is the public’s business, religion supposedly a ‘private
affair.’ In the press one turns over a rock to expose the dirt, in the
pulpit one turns over the dirt to expose the Rock. In this corner we
have the bad news bearers; in the other, the preachers of the Good
News.”

However, Stentzel notes, journalism and religion often attract
idealists. Both the pulpit and the press attract individuals who still
believe in social change. In most religious traditions, prophets have
often resembled newsprint muckrakers exposing corruption in high places
and dark corners of society. Both ministers and journalists hope to find
and describe “the truth.” Both are attempting to communicate vividly.

Still, little of the news in the nation’s newspapers or on the airwaves
is about religion. But there are signs the situation may be changing.

At many newspapers the church page has evolved into the religion news
page and sermon summaries have changed to news roundups. At some papers,
religion writers are now allowed to write for the regular news pages,
seven days a week. Religion has begun to overlap with politics, science,
and other traditional “news” topics.

And yet, advances made at The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and
a few other newspapers have been slow to reach Peoria. The Associated
Press and United Press International provide most of the news on the
nation’s religion pages. And each wire service still assigns only one
reporter to the religion beat for the entire United States. When
thousands of sports fans-spending millions of Americans — spending
billions of dollars — go to places of worship or sit in front of their
television sets, AP’s George Cornell and UPI’s David Anderson go it
alone.

“You know, usually, where people put their time and money, that’s where
their interests are,” Cornell said. “Newspapers give a great deal of
space to professional sports … [Americans] put into the local and
national churches much greater amounts of money than they do into
professional sports. And that money is their work. That’s them. That’s a
projection of their own lives. “They are putting much more time and
money into religion than they are into sports-and sports are getting the
vast displays on television and in the newspapers. Whole sections of the
newspaper. … Newspapers’ attention and space are supposed to be geared
to people’s interest. Right?”

Stereotypes and prejudices die hard. Even though religion coverage has
improved at many newspapers it is still a low-priority item, and
religion writers at many newspapers are still viewed as second-class
reporters. At major newspapers they still remember how difficult it was
getting started.

Others can tell newsroom stories that would make fine plots for sequels
to the Lou Grant episode mentioned earlier. Bruce Buursma, now religion
writer for the Chicago Tribune, admits he didn’t always want to be a
religion writer. However, one editor at The Grand Rapids Press thought
Buursma had all the qualifications that were needed to cover the
religion beat. Buursma was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“The managing editor called me in and said, ‘Uh-you dad’s a preacher.
Right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘You’re the new religion
editor.’ And I was like 20 years old. I didn’t know what to say, except,
‘Okay.’”

Secular

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.

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington
University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and
reporters of the nation’s “prestige” media do not share the public’s
interest in religion.

“They’re very secular,” Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of
American media are “much less religious than people in general,” he
added.

In each “elite” news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected
individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters,
columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In
broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen,
producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those
contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the
survey labeled “religion,” 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word
“none.” In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims
membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of
Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion,
Lichter and Rothman said:

“A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook.
Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent
are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish
household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one
in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue
weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services.”

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey,
Lichter said the “non-religious aspect” of the media simply showed up in
the data. “We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us,”
he said. ” It seemed to be a cultural milieu which they reflect to a
greater degree than the average citizen.” He called the media’s outlook
a “cosmopolitan, Northeastern, liberal, highly educated point of view.”
However, other surveys find that just as high a percentage of
college-educated Americans as of those with less education are
religiously committed.

In fact, another survey shows the sector of the public that is the most
religiously involved is also highly involved in the local news events
that dominate daily newspapers. The survey, entitled “The Impact of
Belief: On American Values in the ’80s,” was conducted by Research and
Forecasts, Inc., and was commissioned by the Connecticut Mutual Life
Insurance Company. About 20 percent of all Americans, a group the survey
calls the “most religious,” are the people most likely to be involved
in, and interested in local news. The survey shows:

* The most religious are far more likely to believe the vote is the main
thing that determines how the country is run.

* The most religious are highly inclined to believe that solutions to
major national problems can be found through politics.

* The most religious are far more likely to do volunteer work for a
local organization or political figure.

* The most religious are much more likely to attend neighborhood or
community meetings.

* Finally, those who are most committed to religion are more likely to
feel they “belong to a community.”

The Connecticut Life survey found that 85 percent of the public
considers adultery morally wrong. The Lichter-Rothman study found only
15 percent of the media elite consider adultery morally wrong. Similar
splits occur on other “morality” questions. The leaders of American
media are not typical of the culture they are in charge of reporting.
(What people believe and what they do are not always the same, of
course; as far back as 1948 Kinsey found that half of all husbands and a
quarter of all wives had had extramarital affairs.)

Resistance

The results of the two surveys accord with the experiences of some of
America’s top religion writers. The resistance to religion can take many
forms.

“In some places it turns out to be hostility to religion,” said Ken
Briggs of The New York Times. In other places it turns out to be
ignorance without hostility. So it’s a little bit difficult at times to
know what variety you are dealing with…”

Ironically, Briggs said, some editors who have grown up without exposure
to religion are easier to deal with than editors who grew up with
religion and then rejected it.

The person from a totally secular background is “not the same as the
person who is still working off a lot of anger and resentment about a
bad Sunday School experience or parents who forced things down their
throats,” Briggs said.

However, Louis Moore of The Houston Chronicle said he has had trouble
with secular editors as well as “anti-religion” editors. Moore said the
nature of the religion beat is different. Often the vocabulary and style
of religion make writers and editors uncomfortable.

“The problem is that a lot of journalists have not come to grips with
their feelings about religion,” Moore explained. “And I’m not saying
that they have to be born again, that they have to be evangelical. Many
journalists are just not at ease with religious movements, with
religious people, with their own religious feelings….

“Often, people carry with them elements of religion that are associated
with the family. When they think of religion they think of mama poking
it down their throats. They don’t see religion in the wider context. I
just see a lot of hangups in a lot of journalists.”

In fact, Moore said he believes many of the stereotypes of religion
reporting have developed because of hangups about religion. It is easier
to say religion is “boring” than to admit you are confused by religion
or afraid of religion.

“Many journalists are afraid of religion. I think what they are really
saying is, ‘I’m not at peace with this subject, and I can’t see how you
can be. I don’t see how you deal with these people,’ ” Moore said.

Bruce Buursma said many journalists know religion is a powerful force in
society, but they’ve “put religion behind them” and now feel guilty
about it. Journalists also feel uncomfortable with beliefs and groups
that talk about faith instead of facts. Newspapers are more comfortable
with subjects that are obvious and easy to pin down.

“Also, I think [journalists] are skittish because religion is powerful.
I think they don’t want to admit it, but deep down they understand that
religion influences people much more than a newspaper can,” Buursma
said. “Now, it doesn’t do it in as spectacular a way as a newspaper
occasionally does, or television might. But they are going up against a
really strong institution… and they are trying to interpret it. That
makes them pause.”

Other reporters and editors have sometimes questioned Buursma’s
motivations. Journalists have pulled him aside in the newsroom and tried
to talk him out of staying on the religion beat.

“You know, it is patently offensive to me … for a co-worker to say to
me, ‘You’re a pretty good reporter; when are you going to start doing
something that will really make a difference in the paper instead of
writing about religion?”

“Of course, there is no easy way to answer that except to maintain — as
I do — that if religion is covered fairly and sensitively it’s going to
be very well read,” Buursma said. “I mean, I’ve done a lot of different
things at four different newspapers, and I never get as much mail when
I’ve written about other areas of life as I do when I write about
religion.”

Key

Often, newspapers that give religion coverage time and space are led by
editors who know the role religion plays in America. Louis Moore said
the Houston Chronicle’s tradition of covering religion is a direct
result of people in key editorial positions. He often thinks about what
would happen if they left.

“Everybody has their blind spots,” Moore said. “It just happens that
more journalists have blind spot on religion that just about any other
subject. You put one of those people in the right spot in a paper’s
power structure and you don’t have any religion coverage.

“Even if you come back at somebody with hard, cold facts dollars and
cents about how strong religion is in a town and how much that needs to
be covered, they still don’t have to listen to you. It’s hard to get
through that kind of bias.”

This was made clear to Moore by an encounter with one editor at the
Chronicle more than 10 years ago.

“The first week I was here an assistant city editor came up to me and
said, “I just want to tell you, I don’t think religion belongs in the
paper. And I’ve hated that, as long as I’ve been here, the religion
editor has been able to travel and has had page-one stories and I just
want you to know that when I get to be city editor that’s going to stop
pretty damn quick.’

“I said, ‘We’ll just see about that, boy.’ ”

The editor is no longer at the Chronicle.

Russell Chandler, religion writer at the Los Angeles Times, said he is
convinced many of the media elite are still interested in religion even
if they don’t think they are.

“Almost everyone is religious. Or, at least, they are concerned about
ultimate issues and answers,” Chandler said. “So even if someone writes
‘none’ when asked about religion, my guess is that they will read and be
interested in good percentage of the stories that a religion writer will
write if the stories are focused on things that touch all of us….

“Also, I think writing ‘none’ in the blank means the person … still
identifies with a specific religious group of philosophy. And even if a
person says ‘no’ to that connection in the past, they still have some
ideas about eternity, about death, about the meaning of like…”

However, Chandler admitted he has been lucky. He has never had to work
with an “anti-religion” editor.

Evolving

Buursma always opens his mail at the Chicago Tribune with a sense of
anticipation. When you write about religion in a city as diverse and
colorful as Chicago you receive some very interesting letters from
readers.

“Now, it’s true that some of it is very strange mail. There are some
seriously disturbed people out there,” Buursma said, and then laughed.
“However, there are people out other who are disturbed who read about
subjects other than religion. … But the point is, all kinds of people
are interested in religion. Almost everybody is interested in religion,
whether they are personally religious or not.

“Some people want to read about religion to confirm their decision to
leave it behind as a superstition or as a childhood fling. Others
sincerely want to learn more about other faiths, denominations, and
traditions.”

It is interesting, Buursma said, that through the years religion writing
has been stereotyped as stuffy, intellectual and boring. How the
emotional, volatile world of religion became labeled boring, he said, is
beyond him.

“Religion is always evolving, “Buursma said. “I think newspapers are
missing a bet if they don’t try to find out what it’s evolving toward.”

Religion is often the first part of a culture to be affected by major
social trends, he added. The growth of the “religious right” of the mid
1970s into the political “new right” of the 1980 elections is one
example. If newspapers and televisions stations had watched religion
during the 1970s, the strengths and weaknesses of the Moral Majority and
other fundamentalist Christian groups would not have been a surprise.
Many journalists view the religious right with a contempt that has
sometimes turned into fear. If a reporter has never been exposed to
fundamentalism before, James Robison and Jerry Falwell and their
followers can look and sound like the unwashed Vandals rushing in to
sack Rome.

It is interesting that many journalists who call religion “boring” also
say religion is too controversial to cover. Thus, many of the nation’s
boring, controversial religion stories are left uncovered.

The real problem, according to Ken Briggs, is that religious issues are
usually a mixture of fact and faith, emotion and intellect. Covering
stories that complex takes time, effort, inches of type in the
newspaper, and minutes on the air. Observing that few newspapers of
outstanding work covering complex fields like science, business and
religion, Briggs said may newspapers never make it past the surface of
religion, which often is boring.

“There’s one kind of religion writing that deals with religion in a kind
of bulletin-board fashion. This kind of reporting looks at what’s going
on in an uncritical manner,” Briggs said. “And then there’s another kind
of reporting that is more valid, that raises questions and picks up
trends that are more difficult to trace. We’re in a period where I think
it takes a lot of hard work to find out what’s actually going on in
religion…”

George Cornell also sees similarities between science and religion. Both
fields involve abstract concepts that eventually affect day-to-day life.
The problem, Cornell said, is finking a way to make abstract trends
understandable.

Handle

Sometimes it is hard, The Washington Post’s Marjorie Hyer told
Sojourners, to write about beliefs and emotions that lie behind the
events in the news.

“We have to cover a fantastically wide spectrum of religious groups and
issues in this country,” Hyer said. “To get at the deeper concern, like
the growth of spirituality, is like peeling the layers of an onion. You
can keep peeling and peeling through layers that involve the whole
culture. It’s very hard to get a news handle on the larger stories…”

It is hard, in other words, to write about a vague, complex subject like
the rise of authoritarian ministers in many emotional religious sects
before an event like Jonestown. The return of fundamentalism as a major
trend in Islam was just another boring, intellectual religion story
until the Iranian Revolution.

However, there is one type of religion story editors, even
“anti-religion” editors, always love: religious scandal. As a result,
religion writers are often pushed to cover the bizarre instead of the
believers.

While working at The Dallas Times-Herald, Buursma learned this the hard
way. One editor at the newspaper was interested only in stories that
“made religion look stupid,” Buursma said. The editor wasn’t interested
in anything that made religion look intellectually or even emotionally
appealing, and Buursma spent almost three months of his short stay on
the religion beat in Dallas writing stories about a strange Pentecostal
church in Sherman, Texas.

“It was a good story, but the editor ran the story into the ground. I
had no choice,” Buursma said. The same editor later canceled Buursma’s
scheduled trip to cover the CELAM III conference in Puebla, Mexico.
Instead of letting the religion writer help with the coverage of a
crucial series of papal addresses, the editor sent Buursma back out to
Sherman to write yet another update on the Pentecostals. Buursma soon
switched to the writing staff of the Times-Herald Sunday magazine before
returning to religion writing in Chicago.

“Money and religion and sex and religion have always been interesting to
editors,” Briggs said. “Everyone loves to gossip about that. Some of
that needs to be covered, but that is hard to keep in balance. The
religious groups set themselves up for such problems because they make
claims of moral aspiration….”

“They are setting themselves up as models in some way and everyone likes
to catch the preacher in the soprano’s bedroom.” The problem, Russell
Chandler said, is that stories about religious fanatics and church
scandals can turn into another way for some editors to express their
anti-religious feelings. The key, Chandler said, is to find a balance
between “circus-tent stories” and solid reporting about religious trends
and events.

“Sure, everyone loves a scandal. I do a number of these every year,”
Chandler said. “I’m working on one right now. Sex and money and
hypocrisy. Sure — that’s part of the scene. I don’t personally relish
doing such stories … but it’s part of the job of the secular press to
work on some of these things, because it’s the avenue by which some of
it will come to light. It’s the only way some people will be made to be
accountable.

“So the sideshow — the circus — is there. But you can’t let that keep
you from covering the real issues and trends.”

Louis Moore said he thinks creativity can make any religion story
interesting or even exciting. If editors assign reporters to the
religion beat who think religion is boring, then it will produce boring
stories.

“It’s like a lot of reporting. In large part you are going to find what
you want to find. You want to find scandal stories, then you’ll find
scandal stories. You want to write fluff pieces, you’ll write fluff
pieces,” Moore said. “But there are all kinds of stories in between.
There are interpretive stories. There are personality stories that
really show the depth and quality of individuals. There are stories
about issues.”

Private

“I think that a lost of newspaper people, a lot of journalists, grew up
in a tradition where religion at least the substance of religion was out
of the ballpark as far as newspapering is concerned, “said AP’s Cornell.
“Religion is supposed to be private, a part of people’s private lives.

“I think that ideas has varied over with many people. They hesitate to
cover religion because they see it as a private matter they don’t want
it in the newspaper. Of course, this attitude could also be due to their
ignorance of religion.”

Religion is much more than private convictions, and Cornell said he
thinks the past two presidential elections have finally made many
journalists realize that. “When religion is authentic, it’s working
influence on the world around it,” he said.

James A. Wall, editor of The Christian Century, said other parts of our
culture have locked religion into a separate compartment as well.
“Religion” the noun often changes to “religious,” an adjective.
Religious television. Religious music. Religious films. Religious
studies. And, of course, religious news.

“Religion is supposed to be confined to personal feelings. Confined to
the dynamics of faith. Therefore, it isn’t supposed to be fit for grimy
daily newspaper coverage. Religion is too sacred, “Wall said. “Of
course, these are all images that have no basis in reality, except that
just happens to be the way our culture views religion.”

Also, there are editors who believe it is a conflict of interest for a
reporter with strong religious beliefs to work on on the religion beat.
Buursma said he has never me a editor who has asked a political reporter
to give up his or her interest in politics. “This is like saying
someone who has worked a day in his like shouldn’t be allowed to cover
the labor beat,” Buursma said. “This is a ludicrous argument.
Nevertheless, there are editors who think that the only possible person
who can cover religion objectively is an agnostic or atheist. Which is
bullshit.”

This does not mean Buursma believes religion writers should be able to
use the religion beat as a bully pulpit for personal causes or beliefs.
Buursam said he isn’t comfortable calling his job a “ministry” or a
“calling.”

“I don’t know precisely what a ‘calling’ means, in the first place, “he
said. “I think that’s a little pietistic… But I think it’s important
at least to have a passing intellectual interest in religion.”

Russell Chandler is willing to us the word “ministry” if you let him
define the term. Chandler, who was a pastor before switching to
journalism, calls his work a “ministry of interpretation and
clarification.” He does not see his work as evangelism.

“My own defense of my job is that John 8:32 talks about knowing the
truth and the truth making you free. …I just try to makes sure my
facts are accurate and that my timing is fair,” Chandler said. “I think
the best defense of the Gospel and this is speaking from my perspective
of faith the best defense of religious faith is the truth.

“And the truth is no good to anyone, let alone people in the church, if
it isn’t out in the open.”

Training

Louis Moore said he believes there are two kinds of effective religion
writers. The first is a quality journalist who is assigned to the
religion beat and becomes interested in the field. The second kind,
Moore said, is a person who is involved in the study of religion who
becomes interested in journalism.

Like many religion writers — including Chandler and Ken Briggs — Moore
has theological training. Moore became interested in journalism while
studying religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and eventually
majored in both subjects. After he received his master’s degree in
divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville,
Kentucky, Moore decided to seek newspaper work instead of a job with the
institutional, or religious press.

“You do have many people like me who are covering religion and have
connections to religion and to the institutional church,” Moore said.
“The important thing is that you also have to have a strong commitment
to journalism and balanced reporting . … If anything I am harder on
Baptists and evangelicals because I am a Baptist.”

The descriptions of religion reporters offered by Buursma, Chandler,
Moore and others are backed by a 1979 study by Don Ranly, associate
professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The
purpose of the study, published in Journalism Quarterly, was to explore
the backgrounds of the nation’s religion reporters and their perceptions
of religion and religion news. Of the 57 reporters who responded to the
survey, seven had graduate degrees in theology and 27 had taken courses
in theology or church history. Only seven of the respondents said they
never attended church, except as reporters. Thirty-seven said they
attend services once a week or more. (See “Unheralded Religion News,”
QUILL, Dec. 1979, p.14.) The key, Moore said is to remain idealistic
about your job.

“There is a certain sense of an ability to crusade in the media,” he
said. “Of course, that is a temptation for any reporter on almost any
beat at the paper. There’s safety in the media. You aren’t as personally
vulnerable in the media as you are in a pulpit… I think I can say
things, tactfully, in my column that the average minister cannot say in
his pulpit and get away with.”

Connection

From his office in the Carter White House, Bob Maddox, who was in charge
of liaison with religious groups, watched America change in the late
1970s. Often the events he watched in the White House and at Camp David
didn’t look the same when he saw them on television or read about them
in the newspapers.

He watched the private lives of Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell turned
into television humor while most of the staff lived calm and often
dedicated Christian lives. He saw Carter’s carefully-worded positions on
“religious-social” issues like abortion and world hunger attacked on the
news but never explained. He saw the Moral Majority and other “far
right” religious groups rise without the press explaining the ethical
and theological differences between leaders like Carter and the Reverend
Jerry Falwell. He often wondered why newspapers sent political
reporters to the White House to cover religious issues. Maddox says he
knew most of the nation’s religion writers would have done a better job
covering many of the events in the Carter White House.

“I think religion is exceedingly important in American life,” Maddox
said. “It is exceedingly important in the lives of many people in
Washington….” Sometimes, he said, the connection between faith and a
vote on Capitol Hill is not obvious. In other cases — he named Senator
Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Representative Paul Simon of Illinois — the
connection is obvious. “I’m saying that religion is important and it
should be covered by the press,” Maddox said. “But I’m also saying the
reason it isn’t covered is that the role religion plays in our national
life is not always obvious.

“The only reason the press picked up on the Moral Majority trend is that
Falwell and the others moved into the political arena in such a
heavy-handed way. The press still doesn’t understand the Moral Majority,
however.”

Russell Chandler said he realizes there are many good newspapers do not
cover religion. Religion is often controversial. Times are tough and it
costs money to have specialty reporters for areas like labor, science,
business and religion. The public is not used to seeing religion
writing, so there is little pressure on editors to assign reporters to
cover religion. Religion is complex.

“Papers that are well-managed and have good editing and where good news
concepts are practiced and encouraged usually do well covering the
difficult subjects,” Chandler said. “But there are cases where papers
that do well on other subjects just have a blind spot on religion.
Things are getting better — but the blind spots are still out there.”

Ken Briggs also says progress has been made. There are many good
religion writers working at smaller papers, and Briggs believes the
future looks good. “I’m not as downcast as some people are. I think all
specialties are in a period of recession… The present weaknesses in
the system I regret, but I don’t think they are independent of other
factors that make all newspapers a bit shaky these days.”

Like many other religion writers, Briggs said he thinks the Religion
Newswriters Association and its newsletter have helped morale and
improved religion reporting across the nation.

Bruce Buursma said he thinks the RNA has helped young religion writers
know they are not alone. Religion writers know they are not alone.
Religion writers today are less likely to sit back, give up, and say,
Well, that’s just how they treat religion here. “You have to struggle,”
Buursma said. “The easiest thng in the world to do is give up… I tell
people to work their ass off and get religion stories in the daily
paper.”

Reporters just have to be vocal, he said. Sometimes an editor will
listen if the story is explained in clear, vivid language. “You know,
sometimes you have to walk up and say, ‘Now listen. This is your best
story today. You may not think so right now, but this story needs to go
on page one,’” Buursma said. “Then, if they don’t put it on page one you
have to bounce back and fight again another day.”

Brew

Meanwhile, George Cornell, who has fought the good fight as long as any
religion writer in the nation, sits and works on his own mission
impossible at the Associated Press office in New York. How does it feel
to be the AP’s Lone Ranger of religion?

“Kind of lonely. And it also makes me feel kind of frustrated that I
sometimes have to pass up a lot of things I should have covered,”
Cornell said. “I mean, there are many important things that I just don’t
have the time to do. If I’m away from the office working on a project
then there is no one here to handle things. An important announcement
will arrive in the mail and it will just sit there on the desk until I
get back.”

All of the AP bureaus around the world and in the United States are
supposed to cover religion stories that break in their areas. However,
the number of AP reporters with skills and the desire to write sensitive
religion stories is small.

“AP tries to give religion a pretty fair shake,” Cornell said, and then
paused. “I’m defending my organization, you know,” he added, and
laughed.

It’s just a matter of time until editors realize how important religion
is, Cornell said. He sees young writers doing fine work all across the
nation. Eventually, they will be given the freedom they deserve to
cover religion in print and on television.

“I mean, look at every major flash point in the world. There’s almost
always a religious element involved — and it’s almost always a powerful
one,” Cornell said. “The same thing is going on in the human-rights
struggles around the world. That’s why the religious forces get into so
much trouble with authoritarian regimes…

“But to think religion is dull and boring — I can’t understand that.
People just don’t see where the hammer is falling — where the vital
brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it.”

Note: This first ran as a cover story in The Quill. It is
a much-shortened version of Terry Mattingly’s graduate project at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

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