NOVEMBER 9, 2003
Where's the Story?
Martin E. Marty
Sightings sometimes sights the sighters, people who write on religion in newspapers, magazines, and the like as members of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA). To cite them may seem like shop-talk, something that should concern the professionals in religion coverage and no one else. That is not the case. The RNA pro's have important roles in helping frame and shape public understandings of religion among those who still read.
That sentence helps me segue into a topic in RNA's newsletter, EXTRA (Aug/Sept/Oct). Its major story is on page four: "Staffing for Religion Writers at Top Newsweeklies Falls to New Lows." Debra Mason, the RNA Executive Director, reports and reflects on the phasing out of Jeff Sheler at U.S. News and World Report. That magazine was the third of the newsweeklies to cut coverage. Time still employs David VanBiema, but does not guarantee a slot, like the old "Religion" sections used to assure. He writes on any number of subjects but, hooray, Mason adds: "his primary focus is faith."
For over thirty years, Kenneth Woodward covered the subject for Newsweek, and came to be regarded as the dean of that numerically small but influentially huge publishing sector. Retired, now a contributing editor, he often treats religion, but there is no sustained coverage there anymore.
Mason finds it strange that these have cut back. Sheler produced eight cover stories on religion, and one is the second-best selling issue of all time. Dick Ostling at Time and Ken Woodward at Newsweek also could assure their publishers the best-seller each year when they dealt with the public place of Jesus or the Bible or religion in world affairs.
What happened? What does this cutting back do to our thesis that religion is more upfront and front-paged than ever before? Not everything, and maybe not even very much. EXTRA is full of announcements of prizes by religion editors at publications large and small. They write for papers in Chicago, Atlanta, [from] Moscow, Colorado Springs, Denver, Attleboro, MA, and Dallas. Readers in such cities -- Dallas probably most of all, with the Dallas Morning News's fine weekly supplement -- can keep up on not only local stories, but international counterparts focused into the lives of local communities. Meanwhile, indeed, religion is on page one, whether written by RNA experts or, alas! quite often not.
So what has happened? The cutting back tells more about the magazine business and editorial choice than anything else. The three newsweeklies run ever more very short stories and reach more often for the sensational, the immediately-grabbing topics. Religion shows up among such, but coverage is inconsistent. Those of us who want broad and deep coverage among weeklies have turned to the Economist, which, perhaps because of its provenance in secular Britain, has never done much weekly coverage of faith. Religion seems to be coming to be a "daily," not a "weekly" matter.
Religion, when it is reduced to sound-bites, gets distorted. When editors wait for "hard news," they also distort, since conflict -- killing more than healing, in the name God -- makes news. Come to think of it, pass up the newsweeklies and go for the dailies.