Why don’t journalists get religion?

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.

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  1. OK, is this why you dont like journalism? Because it exposes the truth of Christian culture?


  2. I don’t usually let anonymous comments stand, because I think honest dialogue requires people to demonstrate the courage to come out of hiding and stand up for what they believe.

    The link this person cites is an article on one of the soldiers who have been accused in the Iraq Abu Ghraib prison abuses. His (or her) implication is that somehow Christianity is responsible for what happened there, or perhaps for shaping the character of the people who instigated the terrible treatment of the Iraqi prisoners.

    Journalism will tend to focus on the military chain of command and the political leadership, especially the President and his Secretary of Defense.

    What seems obvious to me, and others who are commenting on the atrocities, is that men and women who have a fundamental belief in God and the essential value of human life (as creations of God) would not have participated in these acts, and in fact would have likely blown the whistle on them. To me, Abu Ghraib shows where we end up when we become an amoral mob.

    It was the lack of Christian culture at Abu Ghraib that started those soldiers down the road of abusing their prisoners.

  3. Journalists do need to work on more rounded coverage of religion and its effects on everyday decision making. But I believe people of faith are as much to blame as journalists for the lack of solid reporting in this area.

    For the past 10 years I’ve developed a ministry to journalists based on the chaplaincy model of presence. I came to this call after years of hearing sotries of personal attacks made while a journalist attended worship.

    Media bashing is a past time of many of our citizens. Clergy are no exception. Instead of treating journalists individually many clergy a nd people of faith will treat journalists as a homogeneous group, “the media.”

    How many Christians, Jews, Muslims, would want to be considered together along the spectrum of beliefs in their particular faith system?

    Foundations like Lilly, and Pew are funding projects to encourgae more knowledgable coverage of religion. What is being done by faith communites to educate their members about journalists? How can clergy expect fair coverage from a reporter they haven’t taken the time to get to know? How many clergy have taken the time to meet the journalists at their local paper who covers the beat? If clergy members would take the time to develop relationships with journalists as wel as the many other people in their community, fair and informed coverage would be the result.

    Faith And The City, the nonprofit organization in Atlnat is researching this area now as part of my ministry to journalists. We hope to offer educational opportunites to faith community members on jouranlists and how the media industry works.

    see the One-On-One columns on the FATC web site:


  4. My sense is that media people are more and more driven by the need to find a story that someone will watch or read today regardless of its significance. There is little time for reading, reflection, or even thinking. Secondly with much of the media subscribing to post modernism one idea of the truth is about as good as the next. They key therefore is to be loud, opinionated and forceful. Jesus under such circumstance gets little press.