Media devoting more effort to religious issues News coverage reflects public's growing interest in spiritual questions

September 20, 1998|By PAM PARRY

A litany of social ills has been unfairly heaped on the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning state-sponsored prayer from public schools. Some people blame this decision for everything from dismal SAT scores to gun violence. They say the public square, including the news media, has a bias against anything religious. After all, it's common knowledge that the liberal media have no use for religion. Right?

As a reporter and a born-again Christian, I find those sentiments disturbing. I will defend my profession against those who say the media are biased against religion. We've not been hostile, but unfortunately we've been neglectful.

For years, the religion beat might not have been the ugly stepsister of many newsrooms, but it certainly was the unwanted one.

But, like Cinderella, the religion beat is beginning to come into its own, and the nation's newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations are pouring more resources into religion coverage. While the transition hasn't been as swift as a magic wand, journalists who cover the beat, as well as some of their sources, note an improvement in recent years.

Describing the shift as a gradual trend, Gustav Niebuhr of the New York Times says that religious people are asking larger questions of meaning, and that the news media reflect that.

Another part of the story, Niebuhr says, is the influx of evangelical Christians into politics - first with the Moral Majority, then with the Christian Coalition. These organizations introduced "overt element of religious language" into the political process, he notes. He also points to Jimmy Carter's statement in the 1970s - that he was a born-again Christian - for bringing matters of personal faith into the public discourse.

Religion is a vital part of American culture, with polls indicating that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Religion's movement to the front pages of major newspapers reflects the place it has in the lives of many citizens, Niebuhr says.

John Rivera, religion reporter for The Sun, holds a master's degree in theology. He says improved religion coverage is driven by the same engine driving other sections of the newspaper - the reader.

Editors across the country are finding that their readers are churchgoers who have a great interest in religion, Rivera says, noting that every newspaper wants to provide the kind of news its readers want.

Rivera says he tries to serve his readers by taking a theological approach to reporting. For example, coverage of the religious right's opposition to homosexuality is often treated as only a political story, with reporters analyzing what it means to the GOP. There's not much reporting on the religious dimension of the positions on homosexuality, Rivera says. So he enhances his coverage with a theological explanation of why people believe what they do.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Catholic bishops, says newspapers frequently assign people to cover religion who don't have a background in it, adding, "I don't think they would do that with a science story."

Additionally, the news media commit two other reporting sins. In the Washington area, "Everything is seen through political glasses," she says. An ordinary action of the church can be given an unintended political meaning. Also, in an attempt to be fair, reporters often seek out the "most bizarre" quotes from the extreme left and the extreme right of an issue.

Walsh says there's a remarkable difference between print and broadcast coverage, with print media doing the superior job. On TV news, one-minute segments don't leave room to cover nuance, and television is more sensational, she says.

Across the board, reporters agreed broadcast coverage of religion is lagging. But there are some encouraging signs. ABC has a full-time religion reporter. Also, reports from a June conference in Rome indicate that CNN has discussed hiring a religion specialist. National Public Radio has a religion reporter, and PBS has a half-hour religion show, "Religion&Ethics NewsWeekly," that airs on about 190 TV stations nationwide.

Bob Abernethy, executive editor and host of the show, says the commercial networks are missing good stories, because they are not putting in the effort to find them. But this lack does not indicate hostility, Abernethy says. He points to a study published in 1993 by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The study, "Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media," indicated that the average newsroom contained more ignorance about religion than bias.

Jeffrey L. Sheler, a U.S. News & World Report senior writer who covers religion, agrees animosity isn't the problem. Sheler says people who cover religion need to have some understanding of RTC the subject. Like baseball writers, religion reporters have to become familiar with the jargon and know how the game is played.

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