Religion "News": Looking beyond Scandal -- Martin E. Marty

As the seasons have gone by, sighting evidences of American religiousactivity has become easier

By Martin E. Marty|May 25, 1999

As the seasons have gone by, sighting evidences of American religiousactivity has become easier. There seems to be more and better coverage in print media, as citizens make news, report on news, and read articles on news in the worlds of religion. When it comes time to review stories of a past year, it is sometimes hard to think of events in religion that were not given attention by at least the major metropolitan newspapers, often perceptively and thoroughly.

The problem, however, is that "news" ordinarily seems to mean conflict. And that means that what gets noticed is often unrepresentative. Denominations and congregations may go about their business doing thousands of things a year, but often the only time their doings see print is during a one-week national convention when they fight over homosexuality, abortion, and intradenominational matters that rarely concern them otherwise.

What religion coverage lacks is attention to "features" of the sort that "Style," "Science," and "Home Furnishings" coverage receives. Evidence that editors and publishers have a long way to go came from a report at this year's American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) meeting. The ASNE's Readership Committee had commissioned a survey of 800 editors and shared the results at the ASNE annual meeting. We read of it in the March/April/May issue of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) newsletter (RNA's web site:

Findings? Nearly two-thirds of the surveyed editors regard "values, ethics, or religion news beyond the basics" as important, but only 44 percent said their papers covered it well. Sixty-three percent of the editors rated it as important or very important--but it was still rated as 17th out of the 21 topic areas when it came to the level of importance. Interestingly, the larger their paper's circulation, the higher the editors ranked the importance of this coverage.

When ranking 21 types of local news, 72 percent said "church news" was important or extremely important, placing it behind 12 other local news topics, such as school and crime. By and large, the editors thought that they covered "church news" better than "values, ethics, or religion news beyond the basics." In both areas, only 8 percent noted innovations in the approach to that coverage in their own papers.

The editors heard a panel on "Religion Reporting Makes a Comeback," a panel that the RNA noted had no religion reporters on it. Most panelists agreed that local religion news did better than did national religion coverage. The Reverend Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Conference of the Churches of Christ, observed that papers that deserve an A for religion coverage are usually those whose good reporters get good editorial and publisher support. Those papers "see stories are in the struggle, not the scandal."

Not part of the survey as reported were two items: (1) do religious forces MAKE enough news? and (2) are members of religious groups curious enough to be READERS to warrant innovation on newspapers' part? Maybe they also have a long way to go.

(Report title: "Local News: The Pursuit of Excellence." Report written by Clark, Martire, & Bartolomeo, Inc. Phone: (201) 568-0011.)