Two Views of One Wall (1996)

The Church vs. Media; Media vs. the Church

If you want to find unity in a room full of religious leaders, just ask them what they think of the news media.

A much-debated 1993 study of attitudes among clergy and journalists stated the obvious: “A chasm of misunderstanding and ignorance separates those who pursue careers in the secular news- media field and those whose careers are in the field of religion.” This report from the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center found “two alien cultures, the media and religion — one rooted largely in a search for facts and the other grounded in a discovery of faith beyond fact.”

You can call it a chasm. I prefer to call it a wall. Whatever you call it, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

For nearly two decades, I’ve been beating my head on this wall that separates two worlds — religion and the secular media. Most of this “research” came while working as a religion writer in secular newspapers and I continue to write a nationally syndicated column on religion news.

It’s easy for religious people to pound away at folks in the secular media. Lord knows we deserve it, more often than not.

However, this walls has two sides. During the past five years or so, my experiences working with seminaries, parachurch groups and other religious institutions have forced me to take a second look at this wall. More on that later.

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Truth is, most editors have more or less been converted and will confess that religion plays a crucial role in local, national and international news. Most will admit that religion news deserves more, and better, coverage. After all, journalists have been bombarded with years of evidence, ranging from surveys into readers’ interests to the many signs of religion in the annual wire-service polls that rank major news events. Today, there are signs of improvement, such as the ambitious religion news pages at the Dallas Morning News, the hiring of a religion specialist at ABC News and improved religion coverage at, of all places, National Public Radio.

Still, religion is a troubled beat in many newsrooms — if the beat exists at all.

Through the years, I’ve had more than a few opportunities to ask editors why this is so. If you ask the archetypal editor why his or her newspaper doesn’t employ a full-time, qualified religion specialist — holding down a beat with the stature of politics, football, fashions or entertainment — this is what you’ll hear, or variations on these themes.

“Look, I’m not stupid,” the editor will say. “I can read the data. I know religion is incredibly important and that it affects millions of people and billions of dollars. I know religious issues are at the heart of some of today’s most important trends and conflicts in this country and around the world. I’m not blind. But, you know, our budget is really limited and we just don’t have enough reporters to do very much with religion. Besides, I don’t think there are many journalists who would want to write about that, or who have the training to handle it. And there just isn’t enough room in our newspaper for more than an occasional religion story.

“Truth is, we just don’t feel comfortable handling religion. It just doesn’t fit into what we do.”

So the wall remains. The effect on news coverage is obvious.

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Now, let’s switch subjects. A few years ago, I left my full- time work at a secular newspaper and spent a few years teaching and doing research at Denver Seminary, in an attempt to create courses that would help the church wrestle with the power of the news and entertainment media. Since then, I’ve spoken in a number of seminaries, at many conferences and have carried on a running dialogue with a number of Christian leaders. I’ve been active in efforts to create a new network called the Association for Communications in Theological Education.

Once again, I see signs that some religious institutions are beginning to take seriously the issues raised by mass media and popular culture. I very rarely hear administrators at seminaries, or other Christian leaders, deny that media have a tremendous impact on the lives of the churched and unchurched.

Yet, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was beating my head on a wall. In fact, if you ask the archetypal Christian leader why his or her school or institution doesn’t employ a full-time, qualified specialist in mass media and popular culture — filling a post with the stature of biblical studies, music, education or missions — this is what you’ll hear, or variations on these themes.

“Look, I’m not stupid,” the Christian leader will say. “I can read the data. I know the media are incredibly important and that they affect millions of people and billions of dollars. I know that media issues are at the heart of some of today’s most important trends and conflicts in churches and mission fields in this country and around the world. I’m not blind. But, you know, our budget is really limited and we just don’t have enough people to do much very with media and popular culture. Besides, I don’t think there are many teachers who would want to work with that, or who have the training to handle it. And there just isn’t enough room in our curriculum and programs for more than an occasional class touching on mass media.

“Truth is, we just don’t feel comfortable studying the media. It just doesn’t fit into what we do.”

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Well, I’m not stupid, either, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I had heard all this before. I was dealing with the same wall, only viewed from two different directions — first from the secular newsroom and then from the Christian subculture.

At this point, it would be nice if I could offer some easy, cost-effective solutions to these problems. I cannot.

All I can say is that newsrooms must make room for skilled, informed journalists who are committed to improving coverage of religion news. At the same time, Christian leaders must make room in their faculties and staffs for skilled educators and professionals who are committed to helping the church respond the signals carried by mass media.

This will not be easy. Editors and Christian leaders do face shortages of time and resources. Seminary leaders, to cite one example, have even less breathing room in their core-course lists than editors do in the pages of their daily newspapers. Budgets are always tight.

Meanwhile, the wall remains in place.

The whole subject of religious faith, especially in its more pushy and transcendent form, continues to give most media professionals sweaty palms. Meanwhile, church leaders love to complain about some of the images and messages carried by mass media. Yet, if they are honest, they know that it’s impossible to talk about discipleship and evangelism in America or worldwide without facing the role that mass media play in daily life.

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It would be easy to say, “A plague on both their houses” and assume that the wall will eventually be eroded by time. It am convinced that this would be naive.

Journalists may lose customers when their religion coverage falls short of the mark. But, one way or the other, various forms of secular news and entertainment media will almost certainly continue to soak up somewhere between 30 and 60 hours a week of the typical American citizen’s time.

This is not a fair fight. Few churches can command the attention of their members for much more than two or three hours a week. It is not in the church’s interest to keep a wall of ignorance between these two worlds.

It would help if the news media paid more attention to what happens in religious sanctuaries. However, I believe it is an absolute necessity that church leaders begin paying more attention to the content of popular culture and the role that mass media play in this mission field that we call modern America. Souls are at stake.

Ask yourself: What would people in the pews, not to mention the lost, find easiest to give up — going to church or spending time communing with mass media?

 

 


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