Religion News Moves into the Mainstream

Sep 4, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

The church page has become the front page. Since the 1880s, newspapers have relegated coverage of church news to the back pages. Then came 9/11.

“In the 1990s I was covering foreign policy around the world for CNN, and almost every foreign policy issue was explained in political and socioeconomic terms,” said Jody Hassett Sanchez, who left “ABC World News Tonight” in 2005 to make long-form documentaries about religion and culture. “But nobody was looking at religion as a motivating factor. Of course, that all changed with 9/11.”

Yonat Shimron, president of the Religion Newswriters Association and religion newswriter at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., said 9/11 was the wake-up call that “religion is still a big factor.” “It was a reminder, as has been the rise of the evangelical movement in the U.S. and all the various strands of fundamentalism in Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” she said.

Broadcast outlets, which never had a “church page,” are playing catch-up with newspapers to incorporate more informative coverage of religion with today’s top stories. The RNA, which was founded in 1949, has about 290 members, Ms. Shimron said, but only a handful of them are broadcast journalists.

The same pressure newspapers are under to do more with fewer people is at play in television news. “Religion frequently gets lumped in with features, for example, or some other beat,” said Kim Lawton, managing editor and correspondent for the PBS TV program “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” The 30-minute newsmagazine, hosted by executive editor and creator Bob Abernethy, is entering its 10th season.

“Very few broadcast outlets have dedicated religion reporters,” Ms. Lawton said. “That’s not to say there isn’t religion coverage, because I do believe there has been more of it. But it isn’t always done well.”

RNA executive director Debra Mason reports that up to 500 journalists in North America regularly spend part of their day reporting on religion, most of them on a part-time or ad hoc basis. The need to cover religion has grown more urgent as it has become an important component in major political stories, from the role of evangelicals in U.S. elections to debates about same-sex marriage, abortion and stem cell research.

But religion is a tough beat for the general assignment reporter with no background. “Increased religious diversity in the country means journalists must find background on more faiths and need to work harder to understand them,” Ms. Mason said. “The sheer diversity of faiths in this country is astounding. We have more than 60 Baptist groups alone in the U.S.” And in the wake of 9/11, the beat calls for a new focus on Islam, as well as coverage of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Scientology, Buddhism and other faiths.

The part-time religion reporter quickly finds that the job requires ingenuity and know-how. “Religion is not subject to laws requiring open records,” Ms. Mason said. “So reporting stories about religion takes more time and resources, and time and resources are in short supply these days in most newsrooms.”

“During a time of cost-cutting, how do you convince managers, editors and producers that it’s important-and in fact cost-effective-to have a religion specialist?” Ms. Lawton asked.

Just as religion fuels passion and violence in the world, stories covering religious topics spark more than casual interest. “People feel very passionately about it,” said Ms. Shimron, who notes that most religion writers get far more e-mail than those on other beats. “Religion is not an easy subject to learn. It’s complex and requires time to understand how to cover it in a fair and balanced way.”

All of these aspects combine to make religion a tough match for TV news. The nuances of religion take more than 60 seconds to accurately and fairly describe. “Broadcast often simplifies things,” Ms. Lawton said. “Sometimes that ends up distorting the story in some way. It’s a tricky business, because you’re dealing with people’s most deeply held beliefs. So when you get it wrong, they take great offense-and there is a lot to get wrong.”

“I think the pressure to do stories that fit into the `culture wars’ rubric continues to increase, and I think that is an unfortunate way to have to tell a story,” Ms. Hassett Sanchez added. “It emphasizes the extremes and, at the end of the day, what do you learn?”

Hard to Categorize

Religion in politics will continue to be big, notes Jason DeRose, a religion reporter at Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) and public affairs contributor to local public TV station WTTW-TV. But managing editors and TV producers may not realize they need a religion news writer to provide clarity to a complex story. “Unfortunately, people sometimes think this is a softball beat,” he said.

“Many of the stories today don’t fit into a box,” said USA Today religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman. “Everyone can participate in that story, and I can bring my source bank as someone who specializes in religion. But that means that coverage can fall through the cracks, because whose story is it?”

PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” is still the only regular journalistic TV program on the air that focuses on religion, Ms. Lawton said. “We began 10 years ago out of the feeling that religion plays a really important role in so many people’s lives, but the mainstream media does a pretty lousy job of coverage,” she said. “There wasn’t anything like this 10 years ago-and there still isn’t.”

RNA is reaching out to part-time religion news writers, especially at TV stations, whose coverage might benefit from the organization’s collective expertise. RNA gives a leg up with a twice-monthly tip sheet of story ideas and resources, an annual training conference (this year in Salt Lake City), scholarships for religion courses at a college or seminary, and a code of ethics that addresses head-on the intersection of personal belief and objective journalism. The organization is also relaunching awards for broadcast coverage of religion at its 2007 conference to encourage more broadcast journalists to become members. (An earlier attempt failed when the group didn’t get a sufficient number of applicants.)

Religion is here to stay as an important component in today’s top stories, and religion news writers persist, despite the challenges, to bring the subtleties of faith and religion into complex political stories. “It’s a difficult time to be a religion reporter,” summed up Ms. Shimron. “But it’s also a great time to be a religion reporter.”