August 9, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Last month, before a lecture at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, I littered the stage with clippings from four newspapers times seven days. Explicit references to religion appeared in headlines by the dozens. We long-time reporters on religion are mystified when we hear complaint that coverage is down in our "secular" time. It is up. We should know.
The best of us also know that the quantity of religion stories does not assure high quality reporting. The Religion Newswriters Association, with a couple hundred full-time reporters, constantly works to assure high-level coverage. Most religion reporters agree that it is difficult to get editors to grasp the extent and depth of religious commitment that they find. Most will also admit the difficulty in capturing it in their writing.
See an article by an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, Gal Beckerman, who has much of worth to say in the May/June issue of CJR. Beckerman does not waste much time bemoaning the fact that the personnel in newsrooms are super-secular, as one old survey showed them to be. Probe deeper and visit them anew, Beckerman says, and you will find the situation has changed some.
A few of the critiques that Beckerman quotes are, by now, a bit old-fashioned, such as the accusation that evangelicals do not get fair treatment. Once upon a time, they did not. True, some journalists cannot resist writing about the bizarre and egregious, but over all there are today more positive stories on evangelicals than on mainline Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and a half dozen other denominations, who get faulted for not being able to overcome factions or faddishness. What I took from Beckerman's long and subtle piece is this: readers expect, and the press delivers on, conflict because it is obviously newsworthy. Much of the press does less well reporting on the bone-deep, heart-searing, soul-lifting elements that attract the religious.
What Beckerman and some others miss is something that hits me daily: why, I ask, do the critics not find more fault with us, the readers? It is true that we will, should, and want to read feature stories on goodness, charity, and religious exemplarity. Something I wish more papers would understand. Ask yourself, however, do you and will you read news stories about the pacific and humdrum life of most people most days in most synagogues and churches, including your own? If you receive a suburban newspaper which runs scores of articles about the daily and weekly doings of nearby churches and synagogues, ask yourself again: do I read these articles? Do I want to? If I do not and if no one else does -- except members of a group who are checking up on coverage of their own -- how can we expect daily newspapers and weekly magazines to find more ways to make all that interesting.
Maybe the press is accurately carrying stories on life as it is lived and as most citizens want it lived religiously. How to proportion the coverage? By far, by very far, the most secular part of the newspaper today is the business, finance, and commerce section -- even if many of the elites (and shareholders) in these realms are personally above the norm in religious participation. Why blame the editors for not being able to "work religion in" to places it does not fit, or where readers will not follow.
We need to study readerships as much as communicators, do more probing religious features, and recognize that it is conflict, not piety, that makes news.