Religion deserves better news coverage, Cleveland leaders say

Tuesday, August 25, 1998

CLEVELAND — Local religious leaders called on local news media today to expand and enhance coverage of religion.


At a public discussion sponsored by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, the publisher of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer said his newspaper was poised to increase the prominence of religious news in its pages in the next two weeks.


Plain Dealer Publisher Alex Machaskee made the announcement from the audience at the forum, “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media.” The Nashville, Tenn.-based First Amendment Center sponsored the gathering to present and explore new survey findings on Clevelanders' views of religion coverage.


The survey suggests that religion coverage does not reflect the importance of faith in Cleveland residents' lives, said Larry McGill, director of research for the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York. The Media Studies Center commissioned the poll by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.


The Cleveland findings reflected attitudes expressed by people nationwide concerning how much attention the news media pay to religious faith and activities, McGill told an audience of about 100 religious leaders and journalists. The survey of Cleveland-area residents in April and May showed general dissatisfaction with all media coverage of religion. Local TV news in Cleveland was rated lowest, with 46% of respondents calling TV news coverage of religion fair to poor.


The Plain Dealer, also a sponsor of today's discussion, received better grades than did TV news for its religion coverage. Still, more than 70% of those surveyed said the region's main newspaper was much better at reporting on sports, health and medicine, and business than on religion.


“I also have a problem with the coverage of religion,” Machaskee said. “As an example, no one in the media has commented on … whether Clinton and (Monica) Lewinsky's relationship was a sin. Why are we fearful to get into this?”


During an hour and a half of discussion, local religious leaders called for news coverage that goes beyond church meetings, internal conflicts in religious institutions and sound-bite opinions of religious figures on controversies such as abortion and homosexuality.


“The media has a tendency to sensationalize religious controversies,” said Father Michael Dimengo, communication director for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. Repetition and a lack of balance, Dimengo said, characterize the press's handling of such topics as Catholic priests accused of child-molesting.


In partial defense of the journalistic side of the issue, John Lansing, WEWS-TV general manager, said “part of the problem could be poor communication up front” between churches and the press. A silent and uncooperative church “could cause a more high-temperature story” to emerge in a controversy, Lansing said.


Not all religious leaders blamed the media for disappointing religion coverage.


The Rev. Marvin McMickle of the Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland said, “I don't think we are far from good print coverage in Cleveland. I think more attention must be given to the diversity of religious beliefs. News coverage must not state that there is a monolithic [position on any issue] for all religions.”


“There are not enough people in religion who are doing enough worth covering,” McMickle said. “I would hope that while religious people expect the media to be more attentive, religion would also be doing more than worrying about internal and local issues.”


The Rev. Jimmy Allen, co-author of Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media, a 1993 First Amendment Center report, said reporters “don't ask some of the moral questions. … we need to sensitize reporters to diverse religious thoughts and get them past reporting meetings.”


“We must learn to be partners in searching for the truth. Religion and the media are truth-seekers,” said Allen, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.


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


“This forum is designed to generate discussions of how local news media can best serve a diverse religious community,” said Ken Paulson, a Freedom Forum senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. “We believe that improved news coverage of faith — clearly an area of great interest to readers and viewers — can help build respect for freedom of religion.


“Cleveland is a particularly good city for this study,” Paulson said. “It's a progressive, Midwestern community with a diverse population and a full complement of local news media.”


After the forum, Christine Jindra, assistant managing editor at The Plain Dealer, said the newspaper had been preparing a soon-to-debut weekly four-page, stand-alone section called “Religion.” Currently the newspaper devotes a page and a half a week to religion news in its lifestyle section.


“We are much aware of the diverse religions in our community and are aware of the interest to our readers,” Jindra said.