Loss of only network religion reporter a major setback

Sunday, June 10, 2001

And then there were none.

For seven years, media critics could point to the religion reporter at ABC News as evidence that the networks were starting to take religion seriously.

But no more. This week ABC announced that — due to budget cutbacks — Peggy Wehmeyer, the only full-time network religion correspondent, would leave in October.

I guess God didn't make the cut.

The loss of one religion reporter would be a small story if other influential news-media outlets were doing a good job of covering religion. But with few exceptions, that isn't the case.

True, religion reporting has improved somewhat in recent years. A study released last year by the Center for Media and Public Affairs documented the increase in religion coverage over the past three decades. Given the intensity of the culture wars of the last 15 years, it's no surprise that the sharpest increase was in the coverage of religion in politics.

But more doesn't necessarily mean better. The same study noted the lack of context in most religion stories. Religion is mentioned (often as a source of conflict), but the religious beliefs, practices or foundations for public-policy positions are rarely presented as newsworthy.

Of course, the marginalization of religion isn't confined to the media. For much of the last half of the 20th century, many other institutions that dominate American public life — especially higher education and public schools — largely ignored religion.

Why should this matter?

Let's begin by stating the obvious: Religion isn't something that influenced people only in the distant past. For the vast majority of the world's population, religious convictions are at the heart of contemporary culture, politics, economics and every other dimension of life.

Even in a “secular nation” like the United States, religion matters. America begins the 21st century as the most religiously diverse society on earth and, among developed nations, the most religious.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of religion; it does not guarantee that the press will cover religion. But surely the spirit of the First Amendment calls for a free press that is also a fair press. If religious voices are muted or distorted by poor media coverage, then the viewpoints of religious citizens won't be adequately represented in the larger society. Moreover, we aren't going to negotiate our religious differences very well if we aren't informed about one another.

More pragmatically, fairness toward religion is in the best interest of the media. After all, the perception by many religious people that many in the media are indifferent or even hostile toward religion undermines public confidence in the press and public support for freedom of the press.

The solution isn't to “mention” religion more often. How religion is covered is as critical as the number of references to religion in newspapers, magazines and television news.

Fairness means media coverage that pays attention to religious perspectives on public affairs. And this requires more journalists who understand religion well enough to report accurately how religions view public policy or world events.

Fairness also means a willingness to consider religious events themselves as newsworthy. In the past century, for example, such theological developments as the rise of biblical criticism, debates within post-Vatican II Catholicism and the fundamentalist response to modernity are a few of the many religious upheavals that have shaped the lives of millions of Americans.

Many journalists appear reluctant (or unprepared) to take religion seriously on its own terms. Columnist E.J. Dionne describes a frustrated colleague who complained after reading through a packet of papal addresses, “There's nothing but religion here.”

What can be done?

A good place to start would be for ABC News to put Peggy Wehmeyer back in the budget (and then for the other networks to hire their first full-time religion correspondents).

Beyond religion specialists, all reporters should have some working knowledge of religion. This would mean providing more continuing-education opportunities or, even better, adding a religious-studies requirement for journalism majors.

Until this week, I thought that the prospects for these changes were getting better. There seemed to be a growing recognition among journalists that religious voices in public life are here to stay — and impossible to ignore.

But cutting funding for the only full-time network religion reporter sends the message that religion coverage is unimportant and expendable.

This is the wrong message. If Americans are to have some grasp of the impact of religion on society, and if we are to be adequately informed about a variety of ways — religious and nonreligious — of understanding public policy, then the news media must take religion seriously.

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