Peter Jennings — news seeker

Peter Jennings — news seeker August 10, 2005

The journalists who met at Columbia University on Oct. 5, 1993, knew we were in for a challenging and confusing day.

We had, after all, come to New York to discuss “Religion and the News.” A veteran CBS producer said this was a tough topic, since most broadcasters don’t consider religion newsworthy unless it veers into “party politics, pageantry or pedophilia.”

Freedom Forum researchers offered sobering statistics showing that 58 percent of liberal Protestant leaders affirmed the statement “most religion coverage is biased against ministers and organized religion.” About 70 percent of Catholic priests agreed, along with — no surprise — 91 percent of evangelical clergy. The report concluded that many journalists are “tone deaf” to the music of faith.

Peter Jennings sat in the audience, scribbling in one of his private notebooks. He was gathering intellectual ammunition for his struggles to increase religion coverage at “ABC World News Tonight.” He remained concerned about this issue throughout the final decade of his life and work.

The anchorman tried to blend in, but a circle formed around him during a break. It was easy to explain why he was there, he said. There is a chasm of faith between most journalists and the people they cover day after day. Six months later, I called him and asked to continue to conversation.

Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. “Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’ “

For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry — with good cause — about the future of the news.

Jennings grew up as an altar boy in Canada. He knew the rites and the rules, learning that most Anglicans — clergy and laity — agreed to disagree about doctrine. It was OK, Jennings told, to say, “I’m not sure. I believe, but I’m not quite so sure about the resurrection.”

Over time, his globetrotting career turned him into what church researchers would call “a seeker” — even though Jennings disliked that trendy word. He declined to answer when asked: “Have you ever experienced anything that you believed was miraculous?”

To hear him tell it, a funny thing happened to Jennings the journalist. The more he wrestled with his faith, the more he discovered he was interested in how faith shaped the lives of others. He began seeing religious ghosts in news events, first in the Middle East and then in middle America.

Journalists strive to report the facts, he said. But it’s a fact that millions of people say that faith plays a pivotal role in their actions and decisions. This affects the news. Can journalists ignore this? During a 1995 speech at Harvard Divinity School, Jennings quoted historian Garry Wills making this point.

“It is careless,” Jennings read aloud, “to keep misplacing such a large body of people. ? Religion does not shift or waver. The attention of its observers does. Public notice, like a restless spotlight, returns at intervals to believers’ goings on, finds them still going on, and with expressions of astonishment or dread, declares that religion is undergoing some boom or revival.”

The key, Jennings said in interview after interview, is that journalists need to understand the facts about faith in order to do a better job covering the news.

“Don’t be confused at all that somehow my interest in religion, faith and spirituality is somehow driven by any sense of faith or spirituality of my own. It is a fabulous story. It intersects with people’s lives in ways that other people in newsrooms are not as lucky as I am to understand,” he told Beliefnet.

“This is a good and irresistible story. … My God, what else are we looking for in life? It is relevant.”

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