I am often disappointed by what passes for religion reporting in my home town newspaper. but the coverage by the the national media isn't much better. There are wonderful exceptions, among them Terry Mattingly and Kenneth Woodward, both fine journalists who clearly understand the "God beat."
Most "religion" reporters use the same lens for religion stories that they use for every other news event: conflict. Conflict makes for an interesting (and easy to write) story: the mayor opposes the road project proposed by the city council; Democrats want to raise taxes on the rich, Republicans want to reduce them; the conservative right thinks the liberal left is destroying our culture.
Religion stories get the same slant, even when the conflict angle isn't the most interesting part of the story. So, for instance, Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ was reported as a conflict between a zealous religiously conservative Hollywood star and the agnostic Hollywood establishment, or a conflict between Jews who felt the movie was anti-Semitic and Fundamentalists who disagreed.
What was missed was the heart of the passion about The Passion. Why did this movie so affect people that it became one of the highest-grossing films in Hollywood history? Why did such an overtly Catholic film resonate so well with Protestants?
Part of the blame for poor religion reporting is that journalists are themselves famously cynical about religion. But there is much more to it than that.
The Columbia Journalism Review has made available online an excellent article on the difficulties of religion coverage and why it is so often mishandled. Why Don't Journalists Get Religion? A Tenuous Bridge to Believers by Gal Beckerman is well worth reading.
Thanks to Kathy Shaidle at Relapsed Catholic for drawing attention to this link.