Religion and the Media (1993)

Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage?

Orthodox bishop on hot spot

By Terry Mattingly

(Copyright) The Quill:

The Society of Professional Journalists

July/August of 1993

Denver, 1988: Deadline was three hours away
and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion

I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why
is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp
“pro-choice,” its chosen label, while we call the other
“anti-abortion,” a term it abhors?

The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more
neutral terms. I wasn’t fond of “anti-abortion.” It seemed to fit
Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other
side, I suggested a phrase such as “pro-abortion rights.” This might
be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial 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.

That settled that.

This newsroom scene isn’t typical, but it isn’t unprecedented, either.
This is precisely the kind of story that causes religious people to
salivate while sharpening their rhetorical knives for another stab at
the media.

Evangelical thinker Chuck Colson put it this way, during a National
Press Club speech last March: “We have sometimes claimed that you will
not rest until you’ve strangled the last abortion protester with the
guts of the last televangelist.”

But there is more to this than cross fire in a culture war. I am
convinced that prejudice is a minor problem in news coverage of
religion, in comparison with apathy and ignorance.

Many different religious leaders — from Billy Graham to Shirley
Maclaine — have made similar observations: media leaders shun
professional coverage of religion, one of the most powerful and
complicated parts of American life.

A recent tally by religion writer Julia Duin in Editor & Publisher found
that fewer than 50 daily U.S. newspapers, out of nearly 1,600, have
full-time religion writers.

For years, Graham has asked why newspapers assign thousands of
professional staff to cover sports and only a handful to cover religion.
Any statistical comparison of these subjects — in terms of participants
and the dollars and hours they invest in these activities — will favor
expanded coverage of religion.

Lo and behold, Maclaine preached a similar sermon in an April address to
the American Society of Newspaper Editors, noting that there is more to
religion news than blood and bullets.

“We are bombarded daily with the anger, terror and seeming insanity of
`religion-related’ global mayhem. … We are seeing, hearing and
learning of these religious conflicts through exploitative headlines,
glib sound bites and tabloid-style journalism, which predictably
sensationalize the craziness but rarely undertake investigation of
themes which resonate with man’s deeper nature,” she said.

Most journalists seem uncomfortable with the proven fact that millions
of people in America and around the world order their lives with the
help of religious truths and experiences.

“What has happened to us? Why is the discussion of spirituality
considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New
Age?”, asked Maclaine. “Why does it make us squirm, when our own
founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most

Good questions. After nearly two decades of studying this issue, in
academic settings and while working in the media, I am convinced four
different forms of bias are to blame for this media blind spot. They

* The bias of space, time and resources. Simply stated: 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.

An example: In 1983 I received a series of anonymous calls from a PTL
Club insider. He offered proof of a scandal involving Jim Bakker, but he
said we must meet in an airport far from Charlotte. My editors said
there were few, if any, funds for religion travel. The source refused a
local meeting and signed off by saying: “Just remember this name —
Jessica Hahn.”

Many editors insist resources are too thin to support professional
religion coverage. But anyone who understands newsrooms knows budgets
are windows into the priorities of those who manage them. Budgets help
shape news.

* The bias of knowledge. Fact: You cannot write a story if you do not
know that it exists.

Recently, I saw a feature article on prayer based on quotes from three
small-church pastors in Denver. The newspaper’s region included at least
four internationally known groups that specialize in prayer ministries,
yet their leaders were not quoted. The big question: Did anyone in the
newsroom know these groups existed?

Many 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?

* This leads to the bias of worldview. Simply stated: It is hard to
write a good 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

A now infamous case came in February, when The Washington Post printed a
story 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.

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.”

What’s the problem? In the Lichter-Rothman media surveys in the early
1980s, 86 percent of the “media elite” said they rarely if ever attend
religious meetings and 50 percent claimed no religion, at all. Polls
indicate about 40 percent of the U.S. population regularly attends
worship services, while about 90 percent claim some religious

* Finally, there is the bias of prejudice. It’s hard to produce
balanced, fair coverage of people you dislike, distrust, or whom you
feel are irrelevant.

Yes, many on the right like to blame all poor, negative or shallow
religion coverage on this fourth bias. They note surveys indicating that
about nine out of 10 journalists back abortion rights and a large
majority supports gay rights. Journalists insist this does not affect
news, but evidence suggests that it does.

I am convinced that the first three biases play greater roles in shaping
religion coverage, with the “bias of worldview” being the most
important. The bottom line: A vast majority of Americans, and this is a
proven fact, know more about religion, and care more about religion,
than most journalists.

This affects how much space is given to religion and who is assigned to
cover this complicated subject. Sad, but true. From 1990 to 1992, 10
major newspapers have passed up chances to fill religion-beat jobs with
professional religion reporters, according to Duin’s E&P piece.
Television remains a void, when it comes to serious religion coverage.

How can religious groups take part in public life, in this media age, if
journalists ignore them? At the same time, can the “media elite”
afford to write off a large segment of the population in an age of
declining interest in newspapers and traditional network news?

“The two camps which you and I represent should make peace,” said
Colson, at the National Press Club. “My proposition is this: we need
each other for the greater good of our society.”

Note: Portions of this article were taken from 1992
lectures by the author at Wheaton College in Illinois.

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