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Revisiting ‘Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media’

By Jimmy R. Allen
Special to the First Amendment Center

  • Analysis by Prof. Pam Parry
  • Methodology, acknowledgments

    There is good news and bad news in the experience of revisiting the issue of religion and the news media a decade after Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media, the widely distributed study produced by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. That study was born in a concern by thoughtful and responsible leaders in journalism who were aware of the vast divide that persisted between the religious community and the journalism community in our emerging global communication era.

    The good news is the discovery of the impact of that study: It was taken seriously both by the journalism and the religious world. From the time of its introduction at a session at Columbia University the study was widely welcomed. The information from polls was supplemented through consultations with leaders in journalism and theological education, councils of churches, and interviews with national news media personalities. Through pilot projects in four major newspapers located in various parts of the nation, its findings were put to work in pragmatic ways. It became a topic at journalism meetings, theological schools, and other venues. Its distribution far exceeded expectations.

    The report also resulted in practical actions. The emergence of “faith and values” sections in newspapers accelerated. More television reporters were assigned to religious news. Online resources increased for religion stories through the work of the Religion Newswriters Association. Training opportunities for working journalists, in the form of theological and religion courses, have increased. Some theological schools are offering communication training for religious leaders. The number of journalists doing religion reporting remains higher than in 1993 (up 34%). Many news decisionmakers have decided that religion news is here to stay, so they have worked to meet the challenge of reporting it adequately. In 2000, when the First Amendment Center updated the original 1995 study and released the results, the conclusion was that “a climate for change has developed around religious issues in American society and journalism.”

    The bad news is that we seem to have missed some of the basic lessons dealing with the interaction between religion and the news media. Here’s an example: Waco.

    The nation reeled from the impact of the attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. The compound occupied by religious leader David Koresh and his followers went up in flames and explosions during an attack by federal law-enforcement officers. More than 100 people died in the tragic end of a 51-day siege. Reporters from all over the world gathered there. However, not a single editor thought of assigning a single religion reporter to cover what was essentially a religious conflict. In all the subsequent stories only one or two television interviewers bothered to ask questions of religion scholars at neighboring universities. The echoes of Waco would be heard in the massive bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 23, 1995.

    That bad news is reflected in the revelation in this current study by its “9/11” question for American editors. They were asked about the impact on religion news created by the terrorist attack that shook our nation. An overwhelming majority of respondents (155) said the impact on religion news was “negligible.” A few (nine) called it “substantial.” Some (52) said it was “moderate.” Others ignored the question. Some acknowledged that more coverage of Islam emerged in the aftermath of the attack. However, the attitude revealed in comments from survey respondents was that 9/11 was not a religious-news issue. One called it “a bit of a stretch” to correlate Sept. 11 with the coverage of religion. Ten years after the Waco story and after the Bridging the Gap study suggested so many positive steps toward improved coverage of religion, the blind spots still exist.

    The taproot that is the religion factor in a world of terrorism and tangled political struggles should be obvious. Yet so many newsrooms see it as peripheral to the reporting of body counts, torture debates, invasions of privacy, and military strategies. Our perspective forms our perception. A cardinal sin for journalists is to misrepresent the story. That usually occurs either by their misunderstanding it or by their having to piece it together from fragments of fact. New facts emerge and correct the misrepresentations. A worse sin is to miss the story altogether. There is an uneasy sense that the gap between religion and news media is resulting in journalists’ missing the real story about what was happening in America and in our world before Sept. 11, 2001.

    Since 2000 ushered in the turn of the century, there has been a sea-change in our world. It has affected every nook and cranny of our nation’s life. The churn has roiled both the journalistic and the religious world. The First Amendment Center decided to investigate that impact on religion reporting as well as to update information on current practices. A partnership was created in the project with the media-studies department at Belmont University to conduct a survey of religion coverage in American newspapers in 2005. Surveys were sent to the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ mailing list as of September 2005. Belmont Prof. Pam Parry and 40 of her students compiled the data. The 25-question survey was based on the 2000 instrument with the addition of four other areas of inquiry: the influence of the Internet, the 9/11 terrorist attack, the presence or absence of religious or theological training for religion reporters, and whether the coverage of religious issues in their publications is predominantly local, national or international.

    Responses came from 224 newspapers. Not all respondents answered all questions and the survey has a plus-or-minus 7% margin of error. In making comparisons between the first update and today, it is important to note that the sample size in 2005 was smaller. In 2000 the responses came from 309 newspapers.

    Some of the challenges in a changed climate for religion news reporting include: the shrinking world created by globalization, giving more immediate media access to new neighbors around the world; technological transformation of information-sharing by the Internet; mounting economic pressures in the news industry; religious passion in political activities; and increased interactions between religious faiths. Echoes of these challenges emerge in the survey of today’s religion reporting.

    Internet impact
    The survey results reflect the general sense that the Internet is now the place of intellectual discourse. Message boards and online chat rooms, blogs and religious Web sites are available at the flip of a switch. Emerging is a plethora of new associations across the world, a gathering place for discussion, a sounding board for questions and confessions, an incubator of ideas. Religious ideas have become one of the basic subjects of search and discovery. The Internet has also become the first news source for many households. It has no deadlines preventing up-to-the-minute reporting. Newspapers are feeling intensely the pressure of the new online media experiences. Ignored for awhile, use of the Internet is now being inculcated in most newsrooms as the search intensifies for ways to make it produce income. The issue is whether the newspaper as we know it is here to stay.

    One way to bypass the limitations of space for human-interest stories and other longer treatment of religion stories is to utilize the Web.

    In this followup survey for Bridging the Gap, only 12 of 224 respondents said they didn’t have a Web site. The number of those who include religion news on their sites is slightly more than those who ignore it (118 do and 86 do not). Seven other respondents did not answer that question.

    Apparently, then, a large number of editors don’t think religion news important enough to include it online.

    The survey didn’t probe whether the religion news going online was a repackaging of stories that ran in the paper or new material expanded beyond the confines of the printed product. But as columnist Terry Mattingly commented in a survey response, “You cannot print a story if you have little space in which to print it, little time to write it, or the money to hire a professional to do so.”

    It is true that a religion article needs to give background details about the religious beliefs it explores, to give the reader context. Religion is hard enough to cover when it is given a significant amount of column inches in a newspaper. The expansive space offered by the Web gives readers more opportunity to reach new levels of comprehension of the important stories of religion.

    Training of religion reporters
    A major finding of previous studies was that so few religion news writers had much theological or religious education. Of course, the philosophy of American journalism has always been to train the reporter in basic skills of investigation, interview, observation, identifying the basic questions of a story and writing it in a readable manner. The idea has been that a good reporter can report anything because the resources for getting the information are open to her or him.

    However, some specialized fields demand specialized training. Sports, business and medicine come to mind. Would you send a reporter who had never seen a football or baseball game to cover one? Would you let a reporter who knew nothing about the stock market or business write for your business page? Reporters can find out how to spell “pandemic” without help, but to explain how pandemics come about and what to do about them is another matter. Medical vocabulary has to be translated for the average reader. The editor who decides to launch a new business section turns to the resources available from business schools and economists to give new reporters the equipment needed to make the section authoritative. Religion is just as complicated as medicine and business and its news development are more likely to reach more readers.

    When “religion reporting” meant simply finding out the who, when and where of religious group meetings, the church page was adequately served. However, religious ideas have penetrated our world to its core. People are dying over them. Today’s religious passions and conflicts cannot simply be defined with ethnic, geographical, economic or political language. Journalists reporting on religion must be sensitized to the viewpoints of the people about whom they are reporting.

    The survey asked whether religion reporters at the newspaper received theological education or religion training in addition to their journalism training.

    The survey revealed that only 33 of the 224 newspapers responding had religion reporters with such training. There were 97 newspapers that had religion reporters who have had no such training. There were 77 newspapers that had no religion reporters/editors on their staff. They are covering religion news with general reporters. This, of course, means that they fail to take their religion coverage seriously enough to have it as a free-standing beat even on a part-time basis. The training described indicates that 11 attended Bible college or seminary and 21 participated in religion seminars or other types of educational courses. Four respondents noted they had ecumenical training. Five respondents marked “other” types of training.

    There was a time when training for reporting religion was almost nonexistent. Journalism schools, however, have changed that scene. A number of the best schools have deliberately and ably directed training for values into their curricula. Several foundations have responded to this need by providing on-the-job or short-course training grants. The Religion Newswriters Association has regularly advertised these opportunities to journalists. People serious about such training can find it. However, newspaper executives should make training one of the goals for improvement of coverage of religion.

    Focus of religion news
    The survey sought to discern the focus of religion news in newspapers. The local, national or international focus question confirmed the impression that most religion news centers in local activities and/or issues.

    The vast majority of responses (158) termed their coverage predominantly local. Twenty-two respondents classified their focus as predominantly national. Thirty-nine thought themselves evenly divided among local, national, and international. No newspaper reported a predominantly international focus.

    Because religion is so pervasive in personal lives and participation is centered in local activities, it would be expected that newspapers would cover those local issues and experiences as a high priority. It is always good journalism to look for the local angle in every national or world story. Readers are attracted to that approach.

    The need to interpret vast, worldwide forces of faith and ideas has until recently not been perceived by many Americans. But violently passionate beliefs have now come to our doorsteps in the form of extremist religion. To ignore the major trends by just reporting local activities is to miss the mission of newsgathering.

    Trend in number of religion reporters
    According to this survey, the number of total staff in the average newsroom has declined by 28% since 2000. It seems that the number of total religion staff has followed suit. Compared with the 2000 survey, the data indicate that religion-reporting staff — both full- and part-time — also showed a 28% decline. The number of full- and part-time religion editors declined by 26%; thus the average of the decrease of reporters and editors was 27%.

    Despite the drop in religion staff in recent years, the numbers remain slightly higher than those of 1993. Total religion news personnel are up 34% from 1993. The greatest area of increase falls in the part-time religion reporter category. Roughly one of every 25 newsroom staff members is responsible for religion coverage. This is precisely the same ratio as in 2000. One percent are full-time reporters and editors devoted strictly to religion coverage, while 37% are part-time reporters and editors responsible for religion coverage. The 2005 survey shows these numbers holding fairly constant, with 1% of full-time employees still dedicated to religion and 36% as part-time staff covering the beat.

    Another way to track employment numbers is to monitor new job openings, or “first hires.” The categories in the survey included first-time hires of full-time reporters, part-time reporters, full-time editors and part-time editors. Decline in hiring was evidenced. A distribution beginning in 1950 and continuing to the present shows that 27% of first full-time religion reporter hires occurred between 1994 and 1999. By comparison, 22% were hired from 2000 to 2005. About 31% of first part-time religion reporters were hired from 1994 to 1999 and only 20% between 2000 and 2005. Finally, 22% were hired between 2000 and 2005. Part-time editors hired represent the only group with an increase in first-time hires. Every other category has declined since the last survey.

    Fewer newspapers seem to be adding religion to their coverage. It seems likely that the other papers (numbering more than those with religion staffs) either do not recognize the importance of a religion beat or lack the resources to add staff. Of the newspapers with current religion reporting staff, the majority (81%) plan to keep the same level of coverage as they now have. Only 16% plan to expand their religion coverage. This compares with the last survey’s 25% with such plans.

    Some observations

    1. While the number of bodies at work and inches of space devoted to religion in America’s newspapers do not adequately measure impact, they do provide some insight as to the direction in which the religion-news world is moving. The increased quality of religion news is apparent to those who have observed it over the last decade. Church pages have turned into “faith and values” pages. Religious insights and experiences on those pages have also moved onto mainstream news pages. This broadening or extension of coverage is one of the main goals of the original study. Religion news should not be in a religious ghetto. It emerges in stories in every area of life, making more room for the positive elements in religion to be revealed. The old complaint was that the only time people hear about religion in the news is when there is scandal. All news is news and should be reported accurately and fairly.

    2. The rise of extremism in religion has forced the world to become informed about religion. The politicizing of religion by the Religious Right and its effort to seize control of the political process has endangered religious liberty and freedom of expression so that all the freedoms are in jeopardy. Separation of mosque and state has become as important worldwide as separation of church and state is in our own nation. The positive responsibility of a free press in a free state calls for news about faith to be factual and constant in our communication media. Truth and truthfulness become our source of hope.

    3. The surge of spiritual interest in our society is a legitimate area of journalistic inquiry. The need to record it, interpret it, report it is a crucial part of this postmodern day. As old patterns of organizational loyalties fade and new spiritual realities develop, the importance of religion stories rises. We cannot afford stagnation in religion-news reporting. As one of the editors in the survey commented, we cannot simply be event-driven in the treatment of religion. The roots of the stories are essential to good religious news reporting.

    4. The idea that persons of faith in the newsroom are incapable of objectivity in their reporting on religious matters is a journalism myth. The gap between the realities of religion and how religion is reported is never larger than when it places reporting in the hands of well-meaning journalists with limited religious vocabulary and understanding.

    Jimmy R. Allen is former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as a pastor and writer. As a visiting scholar at the First Amendment Center he wrote the original Bridging the Gap study with John Dart in 1995. They updated it in 2000.

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    Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media

    'Bridging the Gap' update: methodology, acknowledgments

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