Broadcaster: Media coverage of religion needs to be enhanced

Wednesday, August 26, 1998

Covering the spiritual side of America is difficult, often demanding and needs to be done more often by the media, a veteran broadcast journalist told Cleveland religious leaders and media yesterday.


Bob Abernethy...
Bob Abernethy

Bob Abernethy, a former NBC News correspondent and creator of the PBS program, “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” urged reporters to think about the importance of their communities' religious life. Abernethy gave the luncheon speech at a public forum in Cleveland, “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” sponsored by The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center.


A panel discussion yesterday morning explored news coverage of religion in Cleveland.


“I think covering the various worshipping practices of Americans is highly interesting and is something people would like to know more about,” Abernethy said. “We know lots about economic aspects of America, but little about the religious side.”


Abernethy has experience in reporting on various religious practices in America. After four decades as an NBC News correspondent, he moved to PBS and, with a grant from a private endowment, began broadcasting the religion-news program in fall 1997. The program covers trends in all religions, denominations, and all expressions of faith. And Abernethy said his reporters focus on more than just religious controversies.


“You cannot cover the religious scene in this country without noting its diversity,” Abernethy told the audience, which also included local educators and alternative media. Abernethy said his reporters strive to “respect an array of religious impulses” and “let religious people talk from the heart.”


According to Abernethy and several Cleveland religious leaders — and a survey of area residents — too often the media fail to present adequate information about religious life.


Alex Machaskee, publisher of Ohio's largest newspaper, The Plain Dealer, chafed at suggestions that the media were solely to blame for perceived weak coverage of spiritual issues.


Machaskee said that too few “people in the religious community are proactive enough in getting the message out.”


According to a survey of 1,004 Cleveland area residents, however, the media have room for improvement of their coverage of religion.


Commissioned by The Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York and conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, the survey found that, like people nationwide, Clevelanders rank religion as one of the most important aspects of daily life. In fact, more than 80% said religion played a very important or somewhat important role in their lives.


The survey also discovered that most Clevelanders, also like others nationwide, said they were dissatisfied with local media coverage of religious news. Close to half of those surveyed ranked media coverage fair to poor.


Although The Plain Dealer garnered more confidence than other news organizations, only 45% of the newspaper's readers said its coverage could be described as excellent or good. Close to 40% of the paper's readers described the coverage as fair to poor.


Larry McGill, director of research for The Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center, said the Cleveland survey — similar to one done in Dallas in 1994 — showed that “people are clamoring for religion coverage.”


McGill said that those seeking spiritual news “in an information-driven age” are not using the vast array of media outlets. Instead, according to the survey, more people received religious news from churches or other religious institutions than they did from TV, newspapers, radio, magazines or the Internet.


John Lansing an...
John Lansing and Rev. Jimmy Allen

The Rev. Jimmy Allen, co-author of Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media, a 1993 First Amendment Center publication, said after yesterday's forum that he believed the interaction between religious leaders and the media at the event would result in better coverage of religious issues.


During yesterday's panel discussion The Plain Dealer's publisher said the newspaper would expand its coverage of religion.


“I was particularly pleased with the move by the Cleveland paper to expand and create greater coverage of religion, which I believe will make a good paper much better because it will more truthfully report religious news,” Allen said. “I also think the religious leaders were able to learn more about the media, in discovering their limits and possibilities.”