Journalists’ skepticism hinders religion coverage

People of faith have long complained that the mainstream news media pay too little attention to religion -- except, of course, when there’s a controversy or a scandal, like the ongoing story on priests as sexual predators. Absent such a scandal -- or the death of a pope and the election of his successor -- the news media often seem indifferent to, ignorant of and, at times, downright hostile toward religion.

Television news programs virtually ignore religion, and even good newspapers with weekly religion pages and full-time religion writers don’t consistently give religion the kind of serious attention throughout the paper that would seem warranted by the “powerful role” it plays in the lives of most Americans, says Doug Underwood, in his recent book “From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press.”

“Members of the faith community are on target,” Underwood writes, “when they complain about the incapacity or the unwillingness of journalists to take seriously the importance of the spiritual dimension in the lives of so many people.”

Indeed, media coverage of not just religion but also of politics, science, psychology and technology, among other subjects, would be “much better if journalists better understood the role religion plays as a motivating force in so many areas of society,” says Underwood, a former reporter, who’s an associate professor of communications at the University of Washington.


This is especially true now, of course, when the threat of terrorism and the seemingly intractable hostilities in the Mideast have their roots, at least partially, in religion.

Although Underwood says journalists’ moral and social justice values often spring from the same motivation as those 64% of Americans who say they attend weekend worship services at least once a month, most journalists tend to be less traditionally religious.

Surveys show that Americans are among the most devout people in the world, and spirituality is routinely cited as one of the most important forces in their lives. But Robert Bellah, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, once told me that most journalists are “simply blind to religion. They think it’s ... something only ignorant and backward people really believe in.

“This is not necessarily a conscious judgment,” Bellah said, just part of most journalists’ “general worldview.”

Last summer, when a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because the phrase “one nation under God” violates the separation of church and state, the Boston Globe didn’t even put the story on its front page.

A New York Times editorial said the paper wished those words had not been added to the pledge in 1954, but it likened removing them now to “removing a well-lodged foreign body from an organism.” Doing so “may sometimes be more damaging than letting it stay put,” the editorial said.

I’m not a very religious person myself -- apart from weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and other formal occasions, I doubt that I’ve been inside a temple or church in 20 years -- but that “foreign body” formulation seemed, at the very least, an insensitive view of the power and importance of the “under God” phrase to people of faith.

The United States is a secular, pluralistic society, though, with a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state; the skepticism, iconoclasm and suspicion of authority that are intrinsic to the practice of journalism are inimical to the faith and obedience to authority that are intrinsic to the practice of religion.


As Underwood says, “A profession committed to balance and the reiteration of both sides of a story is never going to treat religion in ways that will fully satisfy true believers.”

Religion, as an institution, is committed to maintaining continuity with its own past and to promoting unity and comity. The news media thrive on change and challenge, conflict and discord.

Correcting the imbalance

Some in journalism recognize the need to find some balance between these two disparate missions.


“In the wake of Sept. 11,” Robert Rivard, executive editor of the San Antonio Express-News, wrote in his paper last year, “we have learned once again that religion and faith can be powerful forces of conflict as well as communion.”

In an attempt to better understand and explain those forces, he said, the paper would be expanding its religion coverage. In addition to its weekly “Religion and Spirituality” pages, Rivard said the paper would offer readers “a greater wealth of information about religions around the world, particularly the Islamic world.” He said the Express-News would also seek to include spiritual leaders in stories about issues that were not specifically religious and it would begin a regular Monday profile of a different house of worship in the San Antonio area each week.

Since then, the paper has written often about Islam, as well as about individual Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Jewish and Catholic houses of worship. But it’s also covered the local Bahai center; Jehovah’s Witnesses; churches that serve African Americans, Filipinos, Hindus, Korean Americans and gays and lesbians; a Lost Ministries church whose congregation of homeless people meet under a downtown bridge; and a Saturday night honky-tonk that turns into an interdenominational church every Sunday morning.

Several charitable and academic institutions share Rivard’s determination to improve the coverage and understanding of religion in the nation’s news media.


The Annenberg School for Communication at USC, for example, recently established an endowed chair in media and religion with a $1.5-million grant from the James L. Knight Foundation.

“Religion is a subject of deep and abiding interest to a vast majority of Americans,” says Hodding Carter III, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation. Carter said he hoped the foundation’s gift would “help focus the media’s attention to, and deepen their understanding of, an issue that is central to American life.”

New York University is starting an even more ambitious program -- a Center for Religion and the Media, which will officially begin functioning in May, with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Religion is not something that most journalists know much about,” says Jay Rosen, the head of the NYU journalism program and one of three co-chairs of the new program. “That gap interests me.” The NYU program will attempt to bridge that gap, in part through the creation of a Web site for the discussion and exchange of ideas on religion, the media and public life.


Diane Winston, a former religion writer who is the program officer for religion at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says the NYU program is one of several that Pew funds in an effort to “enhance the role of religion in public life.

“Whether we consciously recognize it or not, religion has a lot to do with how we think about a whole range of political and social issues, ranging from abortion to welfare,” Winston says. “We need to figure out how to have someone in the newsroom think beyond today’s headlines and recognize religion as a social force in both our individual lives and the life of our society.

“Explaining just how beliefs shape and impact individuals’ lives might illuminate why people lobby, litigate, fight and even die for their faith.”



David Shaw can be reached at