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Religion and journalism

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by JayFarrar, Jan 2, 2012.

  1. JayFarrar

    JayFarrar Well-Known Member

    So I've been thinking some about the quality of religion coverage in mainstream media outlets.

    Mostly because me and the GF were talking about it. Turns out her master's thesis was on "mainstream media outlets and how they cover religion." So, I guess, she's something of an expert.

    Her contention in the faraway times of the mid-1990s was that religion coverage, about 99 percent of it, sucked monkey balls. (Not an exact quote). At the time, the two big religion stories were a Catholic Church scandal and David Koresh, who was, without fail, incorrectly described.

    Despite religion being an important part of people's lives, most media outlets did not have a dedicated religion editor or writers who worked the religion beat at least for the mainline Protestant faiths. That excludes those based at the Vatican or Utah-based papers, which, not surprisingly, cover the Mormon Church with great care.

    Her study also found that many reporters who did cover religion fell into the "lapsed" or no longer regularly attending services category. Her conclusion was that it generated an inherent bias into their coverage or the reporters didn't know the subject material at all because they had no religious background. The assigning editors rarely knew the material well enough to accurately edit the copy, often allowing grievous errors into the coverage.

    These errors often being compounded because religion tends to be a subject people know extremely well if it is their faith being written about.

    The thesis gave lots of examples. How hard news was "featurized." How basic errors repeated often enough became conventional wisdom and would become boilerplate paragraphs on the subject every time it was written about. How religion scandals were often considered "local news" and not covered by national outlets. How a person's religion was rarely mentioned in profiles or lengthy features because it was considered "private" but, of course, everything else was fair game.

    Much of this remains true and religion coverage, I'd say, has gotten worse. Partly because of the cuts that are slowly wiping out the deadtree empire and the different broadcast components but for the most part, coverage of faith is comical.

    Let's look at Tim Tebow. He's often described as a Christian or an evangelical Christian. The missionary trips to the Philippines are often included as background. But evangelical Christian is not a church so Tebow is of what faith? The Philippines are 97 percent Catholic so why do missionary work there? Because Tebow's Baptist and of the strain that finds Catholicism to be flawed.

    Tebow is, of course, but one example. President Obama is what religion again? And you could rattle off dozens of public figures, the types of people where you know seemingly every pop culture detail but not religion. And if you did -- I'm looking at you Mitt Romney -- you couldn't adequately explain the faith.

    I'd differ from the GF on the why. Her thesis said no sports editor would send a reporter to cover a game where they didn't know anything about the sport. I told her she had clearly not read much soccer coverage. It isn't a built-in bias, more the futility of news coverage where you have to feed the beast and the attitude of it isn't right today, but we at least have tomorrow (the ever-present next edition) to get it right.

    It isn’t wrong; it is just an unfortunate consequence of daily journalism.
  2. I Should Coco

    I Should Coco Well-Known Member

    Jay, I'd love to see your GF's thesis sometime (in large part because I spent 2.5 years at a Catholic diocesan newspaper, right as the sex abuse scandal blew up in my diocese. It was the early 2000s, BTW. But that's another story).

    Regarding why mainstream media coverage sucks, your points about newspaper/broadcast staffs getting gutted is a big part of the reason why.

    But the other big reason -- especially regarding broadcasting -- is it's tough to cover issues like the changing demographics of the Catholic church or the schism developing over gay ministers in the Lutheran church in a 2 or 3 minute segment.

    And it's even tougher to come up with "art" for those stories.

    Much easier to do a feature on the new pastor and his family when he moves to town -- easy to get photos, only takes a couple phone calls, everyone at the pastor's church is happy.

    Quick, easy and cheap -- that's the mainstream media mantra these days.

    Regarding the lack of religious faith among journalists, I don't think that makes much of a difference. The sex abuse scandal and coverup is a huge story regardless of your faith, and as you noted in your post, reporters of all stripes have to cover things where they're not an "expert."

    My father-in-law is a (now semi-retired) chemist, and he always picks apart the science aspects of reporting on issues like the Gulf Oil spill as being too dumbed down. Well, it works for most readers -- just like coverage of religious ceremonies.

    I'd be curious to see what your GF thinks about national Catholic and/or other church-based publications.
  3. Stitch

    Stitch Active Member

    It's tough to keep religion as hard news. Yesterday's NY Times article on the Catholic church starting an order for Episcopalian congregations that convert was tough to do and it just scratched the surface. No mention of how different rites are in the order compared to the mainstream church.

  4. JRoyal

    JRoyal Well-Known Member

    I'm a little confused why you're down on calling Tebow an evangelical Christian. It's not wrong. He's Baptist, IIRC, but evangelical is a wider net that includes several Christian churches. It would be no different than calling him a football player instead of a quarterback, but in most cases, his exact church affiliation isn't that big of a deal. In some cases, even, it could be confusing, esp. since there are several "Baptist" churches out there with differing beliefs. I don't see anything wrong with calling him an evangelical Christian.
  5. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    Actually, it's more akin to calling him a "professional athlete" rather than a football player or specifically a quarterback -- it's a very, very vague job description that doesn't really offer any details.

    There are multiple Baptist branches and they don't all get along. There are even more significant differences under the umbrella of "evangelical Christianity". If a goal for the writer is clarity, using that phrase to describe someone with Tebow's beliefs doesn't serve that purpose.
  6. Frank_Ridgeway

    Frank_Ridgeway Well-Known Member

    I would disagree with a lot of the points made by Jay's girlfriend, although I do not have time to write a master's thesis in rebuttal. Neither do I have to accept someone's academic paper as "proof" of anything. I can say that on a few staffs, our religion writer was former clergy. Is that "lapsed" or did the person make a career choice and the paper was smart enough to make a hire who had both academic and career experience, same way we'd want the food writer to have restaurant work experience? The ex-chef did not one day decide he not only hated lobsters, but the people who boil them and then the folks who dip them in butter and chew and swallow them; he simply decided that he'd rather write about seafood restaurants, rib joints and vegans all in the same week, with equal respect. In each case, the reporter covered the beat like a journalist rather than as an advocate or prosecutor.

    I've given this subject a lot of thought in the past. When I interviewed for the job as editor on a small daily, I talked at length with a former boss whose paper does a good job on this, in my opinion. But it is a real tightrope.

    I was lucky enough in high school to take some optional religion courses taught by an ordained minister who approached the subject with no more agenda than the algebra teacher taught his class. While I find this the most healthy way to demystify religions, a lot of people are going to be offended by having their beliefs dissected like a frog. The question becomes, is it even worth it?

    I especially disagree about the appropriateness of always mentioning someone's religion in a profile. We don't mention the person's politics, sexual orientation, marital status, investment strategy or preferred ice cream flavor, either, unless the point is specifically germane to the story we are telling. This is the sane approach, I think. There are people who want to bully us into insinuating religion into every facet of -- sorry, but this is a key truth here -- a secular business. Just because some people see their faith as being inseparable from everything in life doesn't mean we have to agree. In this country, we are not required to see it their way or, in fact, anyone's way.
  7. BillyT

    BillyT Active Member

    Frank posted:

    " We don't mention the person's politics, sexual orientation, marital status, investment strategy or preferred ice cream flavor, either, unless the point is specifically germane to the story we are telling."

    That is something every reporter should know and believe.
  8. Mike Nadel

    Mike Nadel Member

    Just because a person doesn't practice a specific religion doesn't mean he/she can't be knowledgeable enough about religion to write very intelligently and objectively about the subject.

    I was not a fan of any professional sports team. I never "worshipped" any sports deity. Nevertheless, I was able to do a halfway decent job as a sports reporter and columnist because I worked hard to get to know my subject.
  9. Mr._Graybeard

    Mr._Graybeard New Member

    I totally agree. In fact, I think a person of faith is at risk of being a "homer" as a religion journalist. How can one cover a religion impartially if it's showing you the stairway to heaven?

    Religious displays on the football field are an interesting phenomenon. Tim Tebow's prayers on the field are borderline controversial, but Reggie White's prayer sessions were kinda warm and fuzzy. Perhaps the difference is the context of the times, with religious constituents seemingly driving the GOP these days.

    BTW, Mike N, we met about 28 years ago in lovely Baraboo, Wis., when you were in town to cover a prep basketball game between Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells. I was sports editor of the local paper at the time.
  10. Johnny Dangerously

    Johnny Dangerously Active Member

    If you don't want to sound like a religion homer, how do you refer to God at a presser? God? Coach? Howard?
  11. Mr._Graybeard

    Mr._Graybeard New Member

    You wait for Him to call on you. It's OK to raise your hand.
  12. Johnny Dangerously

    Johnny Dangerously Active Member

    I've covered that beat.
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