July 9, 2001
News of Religion News
-- Martin E. Marty
Regular readers of Sightings know that part of our mission, inherited from the three-year Public Religion Project and carried over to the (more academic) program of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago, is observing the way mass media do or do not cover items of religion, spirituality, and faith. At the Project we chose not to whine about how bad things were but to help creative people do something about how things were. We concentrated not only on how to get more coverage but how to get better coverage of religious issues.
This week, however, we will come close to breaking the no-whine rule as we mourn the demise of the only network-news effort to be consistent about religion coverage. Several years ago Peter Jennings and ABC's "World News Tonight" hired Peggy Wehmeyer to stay alert to the religion-news front and to prepare program segments. She is a Texan of evangelical sensibilities who gained a reputation for fair-minded coverage. No TV execs, to our knowledge, had problems with her work, but she was "let go" in a recent round of budget-cutting.
So now no network has a religion newsperson. Valid as cost-saving measures may be, one regrets that "religion" is among the first subjects to go. If ABC did not hear how appealing religion coverage was to audiences, maybe we should whine about public apathy.
But some measure of comfort born of shared pain comes when we read of other areas not covered by television news. Thus Steve Johnson in the Chicago Tribune (July 1) moaned that Arts news was "Outside the Box," that "The Arts Don't Fit into the Picture for TV News." Johnson wrote: "Looking at television news, you could reasonably arrive at the ridiculous conclusion that people almost never talk about books, movies, television or theatre." Johnson sees PBS's "Newshour" with Jim Lehrer to be an exception; Lehrer covers arts-related subjects because they are news, he says. Otherwise, TV news has "many habits that send occasional viewers to newspapers or National Public Radio" to get news of "this most vital aspect of existence, the glass through which we interpret what it means to be human."
Content analysis, says Johnson, turns up a near-zero measure. TV executives wonder why they've seen a twenty-five percent decline in network newscast audiences in the past decade. Maybe, Johnson suggests, they would do better if they paid more attention to the arts.
Welcome to the club. Religion is also a "most vital aspect of existence" apparently not newsworthy to networks. But let me urge upon readers of Sightings that they be sure to watch "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," hosted by Bob Abernethy. The show appears in most major markets, and you can find local air times at the show's web site. It started out good and gets ever better. If you watch it, and like it, let the local station know. Don't whine: do something. Watch.