Revisiting ‘Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media’

Monday, April 2, 2007

  • Analysis by Prof. Pam Parry
  • Methodology, acknowledgments

    There is good news and bad news in the experience of revisiting the issue of
    religion and the news media a decade after Bridging the Gap:
    Religion and the News Media,
    the widely distributed study produced by
    the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. That study was born in a concern by
    thoughtful and responsible leaders in journalism who were aware of the vast
    divide that persisted between the religious community and the journalism
    community in our emerging global communication era.

    The good news is the discovery of the impact of that study: It was taken
    seriously both by the journalism and the religious world. From the time of its
    introduction at a session at Columbia University the study was widely welcomed.
    The information from polls was supplemented through consultations with leaders
    in journalism and theological education, councils of churches, and interviews
    with national news media personalities. Through pilot projects in four major
    newspapers located in various parts of the nation, its findings were put to work
    in pragmatic ways. It became a topic at journalism meetings, theological
    schools, and other venues. Its distribution far exceeded expectations.

    The report also resulted in practical actions. The emergence of “faith and
    values” sections in newspapers accelerated. More television reporters were
    assigned to religious news. Online resources increased for religion stories
    through the work of the Religion Newswriters Association. Training opportunities
    for working journalists, in the form of theological and religion courses, have
    increased. Some theological schools are offering communication training for
    religious leaders. The number of journalists doing religion reporting remains
    higher than in 1993 (up 34%). Many news decisionmakers have decided that
    religion news is here to stay, so they have worked to meet the challenge of
    reporting it adequately. In 2000, when the First Amendment Center updated the
    original 1995 study and released the results, the conclusion was that “a climate
    for change has developed around religious issues in American society and

    The bad news is that we seem to have missed some of the basic lessons dealing
    with the interaction between religion and the news media. Here’s an example:

    The nation reeled from the impact of the attack on the Branch Davidian
    compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. The compound occupied by religious
    leader David Koresh and his followers went up in flames and explosions during an
    attack by federal law-enforcement officers. More than 100 people died in the
    tragic end of a 51-day siege. Reporters from all over the world gathered there.
    However, not a single editor thought of assigning a single religion reporter to
    cover what was essentially a religious conflict. In all the subsequent stories
    only one or two television interviewers bothered to ask questions of religion
    scholars at neighboring universities. The echoes of Waco would be heard in the
    massive bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 23, 1995.

    That bad news is reflected in the revelation in this current study by its
    “9/11” question for American editors. They were asked about the impact on
    religion news created by the terrorist attack that shook our nation. An
    overwhelming majority of respondents (155) said the impact on religion news was
    “negligible.” A few (nine) called it “substantial.” Some (52) said it was
    “moderate.” Others ignored the question. Some acknowledged that more coverage of
    Islam emerged in the aftermath of the attack. However, the attitude revealed in
    comments from survey respondents was that 9/11 was not a religious-news issue.
    One called it “a bit of a stretch” to correlate Sept. 11 with the coverage of
    religion. Ten years after the Waco story and after the Bridging the Gap
    study suggested so many positive steps toward improved coverage of religion, the
    blind spots still exist.

    The taproot that is the religion factor in a world of terrorism and tangled
    political struggles should be obvious. Yet so many newsrooms see it as
    peripheral to the reporting of body counts, torture debates, invasions of
    privacy, and military strategies. Our perspective forms our perception. A
    cardinal sin for journalists is to misrepresent the story. That usually occurs
    either by their misunderstanding it or by their having to piece it together from
    fragments of fact. New facts emerge and correct the misrepresentations. A worse
    sin is to miss the story altogether. There is an uneasy sense that the gap
    between religion and news media is resulting in journalists’ missing the real
    story about what was happening in America and in our world before Sept. 11,

    Since 2000 ushered in the turn of the century, there has been a sea-change in
    our world. It has affected every nook and cranny of our nation’s life. The churn
    has roiled both the journalistic and the religious world. The First Amendment
    Center decided to investigate that impact on religion reporting as well as to
    update information on current practices. A partnership was created in the
    project with the media-studies department at Belmont University to conduct a
    survey of religion coverage in American newspapers in 2005. Surveys were sent to
    the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ mailing list as of September 2005.
    Belmont Prof. Pam Parry and 40 of her students compiled the data. The
    25-question survey was based on the 2000 instrument with the addition of four
    other areas of inquiry: the influence of the Internet, the 9/11 terrorist
    attack, the presence or absence of religious or theological training for
    religion reporters, and whether the coverage of religious issues in their
    publications is predominantly local, national or international.

    Responses came from 224 newspapers. Not all respondents answered all
    questions and the survey has a plus-or-minus 7% margin of error. In making
    comparisons between the first update and today, it is important to note that the
    sample size in 2005 was smaller. In 2000 the responses came from 309

    Some of the challenges in a changed climate for religion news reporting
    include: the shrinking world created by globalization, giving more immediate
    media access to new neighbors around the world; technological transformation of
    information-sharing by the Internet; mounting economic pressures in the news
    industry; religious passion in political activities; and increased interactions
    between religious faiths. Echoes of these challenges emerge in the survey of
    today’s religion reporting.

    Internet impact
    The survey results reflect the general sense that
    the Internet is now the place of intellectual discourse. Message boards and
    online chat rooms, blogs and religious Web sites are available at the flip of a
    switch. Emerging is a plethora of new associations across the world, a gathering
    place for discussion, a sounding board for questions and confessions, an
    incubator of ideas. Religious ideas have become one of the basic subjects of
    search and discovery. The Internet has also become the first news source for
    many households. It has no deadlines preventing up-to-the-minute reporting.
    Newspapers are feeling intensely the pressure of the new online media
    experiences. Ignored for awhile, use of the Internet is now being inculcated in
    most newsrooms as the search intensifies for ways to make it produce income. The
    issue is whether the newspaper as we know it is here to stay.

    One way to bypass the limitations of space for human-interest stories and
    other longer treatment of religion stories is to utilize the Web.

    In this followup survey for Bridging the Gap, only 12 of 224
    respondents said they didn’t have a Web site. The number of those who include
    religion news on their sites is slightly more than those who ignore it (118 do
    and 86 do not). Seven other respondents did not answer that question.

    Apparently, then, a large number of editors don’t think religion news
    important enough to include it online.

    The survey didn’t probe whether the religion news going online was a
    repackaging of stories that ran in the paper or new material expanded beyond the
    confines of the printed product. But as columnist Terry Mattingly commented in a
    survey response, “You cannot print a story if you have little space in which to
    print it, little time to write it, or the money to hire a professional to do

    It is true that a religion article needs to give background details about the
    religious beliefs it explores, to give the reader context. Religion is hard
    enough to cover when it is given a significant amount of column inches in a
    newspaper. The expansive space offered by the Web gives readers more opportunity
    to reach new levels of comprehension of the important stories of religion.

    Training of religion reporters
    A major finding of previous studies
    was that so few religion news writers had much theological or religious
    education. Of course, the philosophy of American journalism has always been to
    train the reporter in basic skills of investigation, interview, observation,
    identifying the basic questions of a story and writing it in a readable manner.
    The idea has been that a good reporter can report anything because the resources
    for getting the information are open to her or him.

    However, some specialized fields demand specialized training. Sports,
    business and medicine come to mind. Would you send a reporter who had never seen
    a football or baseball game to cover one? Would you let a reporter who knew
    nothing about the stock market or business write for your business page?
    Reporters can find out how to spell “pandemic” without help, but to explain how
    pandemics come about and what to do about them is another matter. Medical
    vocabulary has to be translated for the average reader. The editor who decides
    to launch a new business section turns to the resources available from business
    schools and economists to give new reporters the equipment needed to make the
    section authoritative. Religion is just as complicated as medicine and business
    and its news development are more likely to reach more readers.

    When “religion reporting” meant simply finding out the who, when and where of
    religious group meetings, the church page was adequately served. However,
    religious ideas have penetrated our world to its core. People are dying over
    them. Today’s religious passions and conflicts cannot simply be defined with
    ethnic, geographical, economic or political language. Journalists reporting on
    religion must be sensitized to the viewpoints of the people about whom they are

    The survey asked whether religion reporters at the newspaper received
    theological education or religion training in addition to their journalism

    The survey revealed that only 33 of the 224 newspapers responding had
    religion reporters with such training. There were 97 newspapers that had
    religion reporters who have had no such training. There were 77 newspapers that
    had no religion reporters/editors on their staff. They are covering religion
    news with general reporters. This, of course, means that they fail to take their
    religion coverage seriously enough to have it as a free-standing beat even on a
    part-time basis. The training described indicates that 11 attended Bible college
    or seminary and 21 participated in religion seminars or other types of
    educational courses. Four respondents noted they had ecumenical training. Five
    respondents marked “other” types of training.

    There was a time when training for reporting religion was almost nonexistent.
    Journalism schools, however, have changed that scene. A number of the best
    schools have deliberately and ably directed training for values into their
    curricula. Several foundations have responded to this need by providing
    on-the-job or short-course training grants. The Religion Newswriters Association
    has regularly advertised these opportunities to journalists. People serious
    about such training can find it. However, newspaper executives should make
    training one of the goals for improvement of coverage of religion.

    Focus of religion news
    The survey sought to discern the focus of
    religion news in newspapers. The local, national or international focus question
    confirmed the impression that most religion news centers in local activities
    and/or issues.

    The vast majority of responses (158) termed their coverage predominantly
    local. Twenty-two respondents classified their focus as predominantly national.
    Thirty-nine thought themselves evenly divided among local, national, and
    international. No newspaper reported a predominantly international focus.

    Because religion is so pervasive in personal lives and participation is
    centered in local activities, it would be expected that newspapers would cover
    those local issues and experiences as a high priority. It is always good
    journalism to look for the local angle in every national or world story. Readers
    are attracted to that approach.

    The need to interpret vast, worldwide forces of faith and ideas has until
    recently not been perceived by many Americans. But violently passionate beliefs
    have now come to our doorsteps in the form of extremist religion. To ignore the
    major trends by just reporting local activities is to miss the mission of

    Trend in number of religion reporters
    According to this survey, the
    number of total staff in the average newsroom has declined by 28% since 2000. It
    seems that the number of total religion staff has followed suit. Compared with
    the 2000 survey, the data indicate that religion-reporting staff — both full-
    and part-time — also showed a 28% decline. The number of full- and part-time
    religion editors declined by 26%; thus the average of the decrease of reporters
    and editors was 27%.

    Despite the drop in religion staff in recent years, the numbers remain
    slightly higher than those of 1993. Total religion news personnel are up 34%
    from 1993. The greatest area of increase falls in the part-time religion
    reporter category. Roughly one of every 25 newsroom staff members is responsible
    for religion coverage. This is precisely the same ratio as in 2000. One percent
    are full-time reporters and editors devoted strictly to religion coverage, while
    37% are part-time reporters and editors responsible for religion coverage. The
    2005 survey shows these numbers holding fairly constant, with 1% of full-time
    employees still dedicated to religion and 36% as part-time staff covering the

    Another way to track employment numbers is to monitor new job openings, or
    “first hires.” The categories in the survey included first-time hires of
    full-time reporters, part-time reporters, full-time editors and part-time
    editors. Decline in hiring was evidenced. A distribution beginning in 1950 and
    continuing to the present shows that 27% of first full-time religion reporter
    hires occurred between 1994 and 1999. By comparison, 22% were hired from 2000 to
    2005. About 31% of first part-time religion reporters were hired from 1994 to
    1999 and only 20% between 2000 and 2005. Finally, 22% were hired between 2000
    and 2005. Part-time editors hired represent the only group with an increase in
    first-time hires. Every other category has declined since the last survey.

    Fewer newspapers seem to be adding religion to their coverage. It seems
    likely that the other papers (numbering more than those with religion staffs)
    either do not recognize the importance of a religion beat or lack the resources
    to add staff. Of the newspapers with current religion reporting staff, the
    majority (81%) plan to keep the same level of coverage as they now have. Only
    16% plan to expand their religion coverage. This compares with the last survey’s
    25% with such plans.

    Some observations

    1. While the number of bodies at work and inches of space devoted to religion
      in America’s newspapers do not adequately measure impact, they do provide some
      insight as to the direction in which the religion-news world is moving. The
      increased quality of religion news is apparent to those who have observed it
      over the last decade. Church pages have turned into “faith and values” pages.
      Religious insights and experiences on those pages have also moved onto
      mainstream news pages. This broadening or extension of coverage is one of the
      main goals of the original study. Religion news should not be in a religious
      ghetto. It emerges in stories in every area of life, making more room for the
      positive elements in religion to be revealed. The old complaint was that the
      only time people hear about religion in the news is when there is scandal. All
      news is news and should be reported accurately and fairly.

    2. The rise of extremism in religion has forced the world to become informed
      about religion. The politicizing of religion by the Religious Right and its
      effort to seize control of the political process has endangered religious
      liberty and freedom of expression so that all the freedoms are in jeopardy.
      Separation of mosque and state has become as important worldwide as separation
      of church and state is in our own nation. The positive responsibility of a free
      press in a free state calls for news about faith to be factual and constant in
      our communication media. Truth and truthfulness become our source of hope.

    3. The surge of spiritual interest in our society is a legitimate area of
      journalistic inquiry. The need to record it, interpret it, report it is a
      crucial part of this postmodern day. As old patterns of organizational loyalties
      fade and new spiritual realities develop, the importance of religion stories
      rises. We cannot afford stagnation in religion-news reporting. As one of the
      editors in the survey commented, we cannot simply be event-driven in the
      treatment of religion. The roots of the stories are essential to good religious
      news reporting.

    4. The idea that persons of faith in the newsroom are incapable of objectivity
      in their reporting on religious matters is a journalism myth. The gap between
      the realities of religion and how religion is reported is never larger than when
      it places reporting in the hands of well-meaning journalists with limited
      religious vocabulary and understanding.

    Jimmy R. Allen is former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, as
    well as a pastor and writer. As a visiting scholar at the First Amendment Center
    he wrote the original
    Bridging the Gap study with John Dart in 1995. They
    updated it in 2000.

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