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In Theory: Do journalists cover religion well?

Do journalists cover religion well? That’s the question asked by a survey which found that while the public thinks they don’t, journalists think they do.

Based on a survey of 2,000 readers and 800 journalists, the poll — conducted by the University of Southern California and the University of Akron — discovered that among other things, most Americans believe the media’s coverage of religion is “too sensationalized;” that only one-fifth of reporters consider themselves “very knowledgeable” about religion; and that there’s a divide between what consumers want — an emphasis on spirituality, experiences and beliefs — and what the media actually reports on, which tends to be religious institutions, events and activities.

A two-part report on religious reporting in the Deseret News stated that when religion is reported, it’s often for the “wrong” reasons, such as the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy or protests by Fred Phelps’ church. And newspapers are discovering that there is a market out there for religious stories. When CNN launched its Belief Blog in 2010, the company thought it might get two million hits by its first anniversary. It actually got 82 million.

The articles also quote Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founder of the Faith Angle Forum conference for journalists, who says, “The simple reason the press is this way is that they’ve all gone to universities where the secularist mindset is the norm.... They’ve been incubated in a world where religion is seen as a phenomenon of the past.” But Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, claims that poor coverage may be the result of inexperience and lack of training: “When it’s done badly, it tends to be because the reporters aren’t well-versed or well-trained … but they still have the obligation to do it right.”

Q: Does the media do a good job of covering religion and religious issues?

The press could do a better job. But let me be quick to add that reporting on religion is tricky. And what does the public want or expect? Do we want a “Christian” reporter — and how do you define “Christian?” — or do we want a totally unbiased person of no religion giving us the religious news?

I have worked in TV news and radio news, and the aim, of course, is to report fairly and without bias. Can a person have a personal faith and still be a good reporter? I happen to think the answer is yes, but it is an interesting question.

In a way, reporting on religion is like reporting on the field of economics. One does not start from an unbiased position, no matter how hard one tries. If I’m a “supply-sider,” chances are I’ll take a dim view of the government stepping in to help out. (“That’s socialism,” you may have heard said.) And if I think we should be happy about paying our fair share of taxes, it’ll be hard for me to be sympathetic with the ideas of a “no new taxes” political platform.

The same is true in trying to report on religion. If I’m a total atheist and think that religion is the opiate of the people, I may have a hard time reporting on news from the Vatican with a straight face. And if I’m a Protestant believer, I may have a tough time convincing any Catholics of my impartiality.

So, yes, the press could do a better job in reporting on religion. But the question is, how do we make that happen? Send journalism students to seminary for a while? That’s like eating chicken soup when you’re sick: It couldn’t hurt.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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Given the nature of the beast, I believe the media generally does a good job of covering religious issues. We just have to understand the beast’s nature. The media needs viewers and website hits and newspaper subscribers. It’s a business, and it must turn a profit. So to a certain extent, the media has to publish what sells. And in the pursuit of impartiality, it’s inevitable to step on a few toes now and then.

Granted, I believe there’s generally a secular bias in the way stories are covered, but then I’m a Baptist minister. I have my own biases, but I happen to believe they’re right. Or rather, that Jesus Christ is the only right way.

One day Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They gave various answers. Then Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?” And that’s the real issue in life, no matter what the media, or anyone else, says. Peter responded: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” If that’s your response, Jesus Christ says that you are “blessed … because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my father who is in heaven.”

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Burbank

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The Sunday after Gene Robinson was elected — the first gay bishop to be open about it in the Episcopal Church — after a week-long media frenzy about that controversial election, I began my sermon by saying, “Well, you probably heard the news....” and went on to list some important happenings: the small church in the Midwest that had collected hundreds of dollars’ worth of school supplies for kids who needed them; the standing-room-only funeral of a 92-year-old woman who hadn’t missed a Sunday singing in the choir for 50 years; the agnostic husband and father who overnight decided it was important for his kids to learn about religion and brought them to church; the retired school teacher who, by the light of an early morning candle, came to a deep insight about the meaning of resurrection in her troubled and dying marriage.

You get my point — the truly important events of religion never make the news. What’s inspiring for a local community or transforming for an individual is too small a thing to make it onto the radar of public media. And so the media err on the side of what sells papers and boosts ratings: juicy controversies and institutional intrigue, rather than the sweet, feel-good stories that no one wants to hear.

And to be fair, when you’re dealing with institutions that are thousands of years old, the most interesting ‘news’ tends to be sweeping patterns and sea changes, the cumulative effect of years, rather than a reportable event of the moment. This year is the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, for instance (the council that revolutionized the liturgy and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church); I look forward to seeing an intelligent news piece on its lasting effects, fallout and reversals. Often, the news of religion doesn’t get interesting until after the event.

So, the media rarely cover religion well. But then, what’s really important in religion happens on either too small and personal a scale, or too large and cumulative a scale, to be easily reportable in 350 words or less.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada

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I don’t think the media generally reports very effectively on religion. I’m sure they construct their contributions well, but religion doesn’t generally come off seeming very good as a result. When religion stories get reported, they often concern people claiming to be doing crime in God’s name, or those leading bizarre cults, and they just get equated with “religion” in general, as if it’s all merely variation on a questionable theme. It seems like irreligious reporters get sent in most, and they have no model with which to order their columns. So they’ll default to antagonism, seeking only the seedy underbelly of whatever religious news-breaker pops up. “There go those crazy religious folks again....” It sells.

I perceive that most news agencies also lean a tad left, and they’ll often report stories about a religion that isn’t mainstream, or that conflicts with a given faith’s defining beliefs. If a denomination produces one screwy offshoot, it’ll be that church reported speaking for the whole. If some maverick minister embraces a cultural sin, then guess who receives a media blessing, to the chagrin of the rest of us? If prevailing opinion about a social matter is contrary to traditional teachings, then the story paints the traditionalists as ignorant and retrogressive. As well, I find that when media does try to throw a bone to people that cherish the Bible, they do so by granting the stories in its pages, but reinventing and explaining away their spiritual elements in favor of natural phenomena.

Look, when the weather report airs, isn’t it usually an educated climatologist that delivers the forecast, or a reporter so informed by a staff of such experts that the information gets delivered accurately? Then why, when religion is covered, are there not clergy-journalists, or at least religious practitioners that can recognize faith-conventions and discern significant differences because they are personally familiar? At least they’d have a vested interest in their reports, and wouldn’t that be more honest? We can only pray.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Montrose

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We all have complaints about media’s coverage of our issues. Members of the public with varied political, spiritual and social views believe they are not receiving coverage that reflects accuracy, sensitivity and fairness.

I think religion is being covered as well, and as poorly, as all other issues involving current events. It seems, from the referred-to survey, that reporters have a nuanced perspective on the effect of religion on society. This is valuable and helpful because they are not expressing bias in either direction.

Journalist have a more generalized education instead of specific religious training. This is also positive, because we do not live with only one religious tradition, and reporters can use their more generalized knowledge to report on religion and spiritual experiences for diverse audiences.

While I agree that there is too much focus on sensationalized stories and scandals in religious coverage, people interested in other topics have the same complaint. It seems to be the nature of journalism to be attracted to sensationalism and scandals.

In order to reduce poor religion coverage, everyone should offer help to journalists. Consumers need to help shape coverage by giving ideas and information to journalists that will help them do a better job.

The result will be an improvement in media’s coverage of religion and spirituality.

Steven Gibson
South Pasadena Atheist Meetup
Altadena

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I can see how religious people whose traditions have been received negative media coverage might think that representatives of such outlets are biased against them because of the reporters’ lack of religious belief. But I am aware of at least one case where just the opposite was true.

That incident was in relation to the reporting on an interview with the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association several years ago after a sermon he had given in Fort Worth. The reporter wrote an article in which he interpreted the words of the UUA President based on his own religious beliefs about orthodoxy, and misunderstanding the structure of our church governance. It was not a negative article, but this reporter gave a totally inaccurate picture of what Unitarian Universalists believe and the lack of hierarchy in our movement. In this case, at least, the reporter’s own belief system biased his reporting.

I believe that the most important thing a reporter can do is to write accurately what he or she sees and hears, and to do background research when there are things that are unclear. I recognize that there are deadlines to meet, but to publish incorrect or biased information about religion, or any other topic, is irresponsible and unprofessional.

I feel very fortunate that those reporters who have interviewed me have tried their best to be clear and truthful in their reporting. Just because we may not agree with what journalists write does not mean that they are atheists.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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A good question — and a consistent source of consternation. Our community press does a great job covering the events and issues of our local religious community, but I would have to agree with Eckstrom and others who note the poor coverage in state and national mainstream media. The power to frame public conversations around faith and life, or faith and politics, is generally squandered on excessive coverage of scandals, the religious claims of political candidates, and the wedge issues of abortion and homosexuality.

The myriad voices of faith communities deeply engaged in works of compassion are, by comparison, rarely mentioned. Courageous, persistent organizing efforts for worker justice, peace, and the preservation of a hunger-fighting safety net for our nation’s poorest slip by the public consciousness, unknown and uninterpreted to those beyond our networks.

All that having been said, I have a lot of respect for journalists, especially those who put themselves at risk to report dangerous truths, and those who are working overtime to produce quality journalism with decreasing budgets.

A courageous and thrifty mainstream media outlet would do well to access the work of reporters in the religious press who consistently turn out deeply thoughtful engagements of faith and life in such publications as The Christian Century or our own United Methodist Reporter.

Odyssey Networks has recently invested heavily in telling and promoting the stories of faith in action around the world, using multiple media platforms. The information and viewpoints are out there, easily accessed.

Our United Methodist Church General Conference starts next week in Tampa. International delegates of our 12.1-million-member denomination meet once every four years to determine polity, structure and budget for all of us. I pray that we work through the issues of the day in ways that reflect faithful Christianity to a public who might wish to be inspired rather than scandalized — at least from time to time. I’ll be on the lookout for intrepid reporters ready to wander into unfamiliar and dangerous terrain in search of truth.

The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church
Montrose

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Newspaper publishers and editors are in the business of selling their publications, and they will inevitably give coverage to the stories they feel will attract the most attention. The reality is that sensationalist or controversial stories, like the Ground Zero Mosque, are more appealing to the general public than an article about an innovative religious study course. I therefore cannot fault reporters for their choice of stories; they are simply doing their jobs.

Even when reporting on a sensational story — and especially if there is a scandal involved — I believe it is morally binding on a correspondent to uncover all sides of the story and accurately portray what transpired without exaggeration. Although I am naturally sensitive to this, I sometimes get the feeling that there is an effort by some papers to cast a negative light on religious leaders and institutions.

I also get annoyed when I read an article that contains blatant mistakes or errors about a religious practice or ritual. I expect reporters to do their homework and properly portray the religion or denomination they are covering. As educated individuals, it should not be too difficult for them to research the accurate spelling, description and reason for a particular religious practice or ceremony. It’s equally incumbent upon religious leaders, despite their busy schedules, to make themselves available to reporters to clarify issues of religion. And when an error is spotted, it would be prudent to call the paper’s office and make them aware of it. It is these small gestures that will ultimately improve the accuracy of stories regarding religion.

Finally, as stewards of information to the public, I truly hope that journalists realize the importance of their professions, the impact they have on people’s opinions, and how critical their reporting is to our vibrant democracy. So long as journalists understand the responsibilities that come with their role, I am optimistic that accuracy in reporting will prevail and truth will triumph.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
Glendale

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This broad question calls for a level of knowledge about religious media and religion in media that I do not possess. Therefore I will stick to what I know and say that the media coverage of religion here in Robertaland suits me fine.

Daily delivery of The New York Times is our indulgence, costly even with an educator’s discount. With its superb coverage of all the news that’s fit to print, it seems to be shrinking more slowly than other print newspapers. For example, last Sunday’s opinion section devoted 3/4 of a page to a dialogue on faith in public affairs.

If newspapers disappear completely, I may show up in churches now and then just for the bulletins.

Out of the enormous supply of information, to use a generous term, that comprises “the media,” I decide what to pay attention to.

Choices are so vast that there is no need to accept anything other than exactly what you want in viewpoint, subject, level, focus, source and style.

If this doesn’t describe your media consumer experience, we are lucky in our communities to have good public libraries where excellent professional assistance in selecting and utilizing news sources is offered free with a library card.

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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This question is especially topical for members of LDS community. The presidential campaign of Mitt Romney and the popularity of the musical, “The Book of Mormon,” have generated an avalanche of stories dealing with the church’s beliefs and culture. One positive result is that over time, journalists have been compelled to look seriously at the church and its people. In the process, many of the clichés and stereotypes that have marked coverage in the past have been replaced by more thoughtful assessments.

Generally, though, religion and religious organizations don’t get this kind of sustained attention over so long a period, so reporters and editors never develop the expertise or cultivate the sources they need to cover religious issues well.

A second problem, as noted in the introduction, is the skepticism that prevails among many journalists. Faith and spiritual experience are often dismissed as a psychological crutch or a delusion. For those who operate from that perspective, it is easy to doubt credibility of religious people and their leaders.

There is no easy answer for clergy who want to encourage balanced coverage. There are, however, things that they can do. One is to be proactive in developing and maintaining relationships with members of the press before the story breaks. Another is to make themselves available as resources to explain doctrines and procedures to journalists who may be struggling with a fast-moving story. Neither of those steps will ensure favorable coverage, but they almost certainly will lead to a more accurate story.

It’s not surprising that interest in CNN’s Belief Blog far exceeded the network’s expectations. We can see the same phenomena in the entertainment industry. The movie “Courageous,” released last year, was made for about $2 million and returned $34.5 million in ticket sales — by film-industry standards, that’s a remarkable return on investment. “Fireproof” had a production budget of $500,000 and made $33.5 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

The effort at outreach might also include facts such as these to dispel any doubt that there is a large population of consumers who genuinely hungry for news about, and discussion of faith.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta

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The statistics do not seem to be in their favor. While I am grateful for journalists, I have periodically been put off at the information delivered regarding religion — just as I would expect someone else with a different expertise would be if I stated something publicly that was inaccurate. To me, it is like someone covering psychology. If you do not actually understand or are not educated in psychology, someone may state someone is “insane.” But a mental health provider might understand that the patient had a treatable mental illness, or perhaps had just gone through a trauma resulting in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

We need to be somewhat educated in a topic to report it effectively. Denominations have fundamental beliefs that have to be grasped for the religion to be understood. Looking from the outside in, you may use terms, yet not really comprehend what they mean, thus reporting inaccurately or ineffectively.

I have witnessed this with both religion and psychology.

Education makes for good coverage.

The Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian
Kimberlie Zakarian Therapy
Montrose


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