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Many observers see a natural hostility between religious Americans and a secular news media, but this may be an oversimplification. Some scholars and journalists cite an eagerness on the part of major media to provide more detailed religious coverage. Still, serious problems remain and sniping continues.
It would take an act of God to get fair and accurate media treatment of organized religion, say some media critics. They grumble that media coverage of churches, religious orthodoxy and the spiritual life of the faithful veers from the hostile and condescending to the vapid.
“We have a nation that is mostly religious and Christian, and a press that is not religious and Christian,” Michael Barone, an editor at Reader’s Digest and coauthor of the Almanac of American Politics, told an Ethics and Public Policy Center panel in early March. This view is shared by many political conservatives who have benefited from the political effectiveness of social conservatives.
A familiar litany could be read. The Washington Post in the early 1990s referred to evangelicals as uneducated and easily led. Celibacy in the Catholic clergy continues to be viewed in the press as an outdated artifact. Homosexuals demanding to be ordained, married and celebrated seem to hold a natural attraction for media cameras, while naked gay-rights demonstrators on the steps of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral are overlooked.
And yet not all is as it would seem. While most observers agree there is ample room for improvement in religious coverage, the image of a hostile secular media might be more apocrypha than gospel. Many publications and broadcast outlets are trying with varying degrees of success to come to terms with religion and its influence on American life. “Just from my own experience, I’ve found there’s a great interest in religion as a news story,” Gustave Niebuhr, the religion writer for the New York Times, tells Insight. “I found that at the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and now here at the Times.”
And what’s more, when the media misfire in their religious coverage, it isn’t all that different from shortcomings in coverage of secular issues. If the media sometimes opt for the easy stereotype or prefer to chronicle controversy rather than success, that also is the way secular society is portrayed.
Mark Silk, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer who heads the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Connecticut, points out that much of the media coverage of religion amounts to the same stories being written again and again. “The big problem is that we have standard categories,” says Silk. In fact, in 1993, Peter Steinfels, religion columnist for the New York Times, actually sketched a list of “Basic Religion Stories.” These included religious leader reveals feet of clay or turns out to be a scoundrel, ancient faith struggles to adjust to modern times, scholars challenge long-standing beliefs, interfaith harmony overcomes inherited enmity, new translation of sacred scripture sounds funny and devoted members of a zealous religious group turn out to be warm, ordinary folk.
Examples abound. In his recent book, The Real Jesus, biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University pointed out how participants in the “Jesus Seminar” have created an ongoing media event in which some academics very publicly vote on which snippets of the Gospels they believe represent the historic Jesus. While many scholars vehemently disagree with the pronouncements from the seminar, their objections are voiced in the relatively quiet confines of academe rather than the media spotlight. Likewise, papal visits during the last 18 years have focused both on the charismatic presence of Pope John Paul II–the sort of celebrity coverage familiar to any media consumer–as well as obligatory attention focused on tiny bodies of dissident Catholics who loudly disagree with papal teachings.
Still, this kind of “generic coverage” reflects “ways the culture tends to view religious phenomena,” says Silk, the author of Unsecular Medial Silk argues that contrary to the common perception of an irreligious media, “religious coverage is derived for the most part from religious sources.” By and large, religion is regarded pro forma as a good thing–witness the lengthy listings of church events once a week in most newspapers and periodic feature coverage of religious charities and events. As ignorant as it sometimes may appear to believers, the mainstream media very seldom attack religion or beliefs per se. This underlying perception even is reflected in the avid media coverage of religious figures enmeshed in noisy falls from grace, as in the cases of evangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.
“People are free under the First Amendment to be as hypocritical as they want, but it is somehow seen by the news media as scandalous to have people abuse religion in that way,” says Silk. “Jim Bakker was found guilty of a crime but the vast amount of interest taken in him by the news media as well as by the general public did not have to do with the fact that he was running a time-share scam.”
But while the media seem to hold a residual belief that religious faith itself is a good thing, the actual complicated consequences of that faith can seem puzzling to pundits and reporters. “Journalists in general don’t seem to know much, if anything, about religion,” says Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic monthly. “They neither understand the meaning of what they’re covering nor the deep significance and power and influence of what they’re covering.”
Part of the trouble is that ever since the eighties, when the political power of conservative Christians took Washington by surprise, political reporters rather than religion writers have been covering the religious right and operating in unfamiliar territory. At the Washington panel, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said reporters only call to ask about “abortion and us allegedly taking over the Republican Party.” Political reporters “have very little–and usually no -theological understanding.” At the same time, he added, religion reporters who know such distinctions often don’t cover stories linking religion and politics. However, Reed believes, “things are getting better, not worse.”
Silk says that the religious value of “tolerance” is what is emphasized by political reporters when they report on religion. appear to course. tolerance is only one of many possibly conflicting religious values, but sometimes this is lost on secular reporters. Journalists have been on an upward curve for both education and income for four decades, but many believe that in an era when all facets of American life appear to be “dumbing down,” this does not guarantee understanding.
“They don’t know history. They don’t know ideas,” says Hudson. “They don’t understand the central position of the church in Western culture, in which almost every single major institution and major idea of the culture, even those that have been abused, are the product of a religious tradition. They’re like a totally tone-deaf person going to a museum of classical music. They have no idea what they’re listening to.”
But, at the same time, there is a growing awareness of this gap. Even Hudson says that while it often is difficult to get the ear of the elite media, once reporters do, “they are very receptive and very interested and very supportive of what you’re doing.” Journals such as Crisis attempt to bridge the information gap between the religious community and the secular media, and Hudson says he is surprised by the many influential media figures he meets “who do read Crisis and are aware of what we’re trying to do.”
And Niebuhr, the grandnephew of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has labored at the very heart of the establishment media–the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times–sacred writ for elites in business, politics and culture. “I hope this doesn’t sound like Pollyanna,” he says, “but in my experience, it hasn’t been hard to sell a good nonpolitical religion story. I’ve managed to get them on the front page of all three newspapers that I’ve worked at, which I think shows that there’s a real interest.”
Silk, the former reporter, says he is “a great believer in the virtue of people being critical of the media,” but his criticism of religious coverage is tempered by the realization that it’s the same criticism that could be made of any field where reporters cave in to the temptation to embrace conventional coverage. The decline of beat reporting–where reporters spent time with, and grew to know, the people active in their field of coverage–created a problem. So did limited resources and, sometimes, the elite media’s lack of empathy with the spiritual and sacred. All tend to raise the hackles of the devout. But Silk cautions that it is important to look at the full picture–that for every poorly researched or negative story, others show a reflection and fair-mindedness.
And as the media attempt to track American culture and the religious community looks to transmit its message to an often-indifferent or hostile world, the need for a kind of symbiosis has become obvious. Neither secular press nor religious readers and viewers should pronounce anathema on the other. Religion, points out Niebuhr, is not “anything that is separate from culture or society. Religion does not simply happen in an enclosed space on a Saturday or a Sunday–or, for that matter, a Friday, if we’re talking about Muslims. Religion is part of people’s lives. It influences the choices they make, the outlook they have and it should be shown as that. And also, secular society influences religion. There’s a constant interplay and if you show them it’s intrinsically linked, then that’s the news.”