Cleveland media, religious leaders to discuss news coverage of religion

Monday, August 24, 1998

Survey after survey suggests Americans are a religious bunch but that their spirituality is inadequately reported by the news media.


In its ongoing efforts to encourage wider and more in-depth coverage of religion by the media, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and several Cleveland news organizations will conduct an open discussion tomorrow on ways to increase and improve coverage of Americans' spiritual side.


Tomorrow's forum, called “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” will focus in part on a recent survey conducted for the Freedom Forum by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The survey suggests that religion is a large part of Clevelanders' lives that is inadequately reported on by the news media.


The survey organization says the findings in Cleveland are similar to those across the nation. Specifically, the survey of Cleveland-area residents, conducted between late April and early May, revealed an overall dissatisfaction with all media coverage of religion. Cleveland's local television news outlets received the lowest ratings: 46% of those surveyed rated local TV news coverage of religion as fair to poor.


Although the survey's respondents gave the area's premier newspaper, The Plain Dealer, better marks for religion news, more than 70% of respondents said the paper did a much better job of covering sports, health and medicine, and business news than it did religion.


David Hall, editor of The Plain Dealer, and John Lansing, general manager of WEWS-TV, Cleveland, will have the chance to respond to the survey during the discussion at the University Club in Cleveland. Among other participants are area religious leaders and the Rev. Jimmy Allen, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and co-author of a 1993 Freedom Forum First Amendment Center publication, “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media.”


In that report, co-authored by John Dart, a Los Angeles Times religion writer, Allen noted that while millions of Americans were “attuned to spiritual matters,” many of the nation's journalists were “tone deaf” to religion. Accordingly, part of the problem of religion coverage stemmed from a contentious relationship between “secular journalism and sacred religion,” Allen and Dart wrote. While religious persons rely on “revelation,” journalists strive to uncover “verifiable facts,” Allen noted.


The program is part of a Freedom Forum effort to promote coverage of religion and help journalists better understand America's spiritual life.


Ken Paulson, a Freedom Forum senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, said Cleveland is a microcosm of the rest of the country and thus provides an ideal place to study media coverage of religion.


After the morning discussion, Bob Abernethy, host and president of the PBS program, “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” will address the gathering of news and religious leaders.