Will the religion beat ever receive respect it deserves?

Monday, April 2, 2007

  • Methodology, acknowledgments

    In 1993, I was congressional correspondent for Baptist News Service, a daily wire service that was credentialed by the U.S. House and Senate Press Galleries. My beat was the First Amendment religion clauses, and in that capacity, I covered the groundbreaking report Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media, published by the First Amendment Center. I remember vividly the splash this one-of-its-kind report made across the country. Authors Jimmy Allen and John Dart had discovered a chasm between journalists and religious leaders. The report documented that both the news media and the clergy distrusted one another and that the division detracted from the quantity and quality of religion coverage in America. The study suggested that the lack of religion coverage was not necessarily the result of an anti-religious bias so much as a lack of knowledge about how to handle religion stories.

    Whether a causal relationship can be proven, many interested parties, including myself, believe the original Bridging the Gap study prompted some in the news industry to re-evaluate their religion coverage, and over the next few years, the divide narrowed somewhat. Religion reporting rose, although modestly. As 2000 approached, the First Amendment Center updated the original study and released the results, indicating “a climate for change has developed around religious issues in American society and journalism.”

    The update to Bridging the Gap and anecdotal evidence indicated that religion reporting had an incremental increase in the late 1990s. But with the advent of the 21st century, the First Amendment Center wanted to measure the status of that progress: Was it continuing, stagnating, or perhaps even slipping since the last update seven years ago? So, the center tapped the media studies department at Belmont University as a partner to help conduct the research. The two Nashville institutions entered into a partnership to conduct a 2005 survey of religion coverage at American newspapers. The First Amendment Center provided financial support to mail 1,464 surveys to those on the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ mailing list during September 2005. The center also called on one of the original authors, Jimmy Allen, to analyze and write an update of the new data, which was compiled by 40 of my students. The 25-question survey was based on the 2000 instrument. As of December 2005, 224 newspapers had responded to the survey. 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. The 224 editors responding to the 2005 survey compared with 309 in the previous update, translating into 85 fewer respondents in the most recent survey.

    Although this small sample size does not provide irrefutable evidence about trends in religion reporting, it indicates that some of the gains in the previous seven years may have either stagnated or declined slightly. In order to have a baseline comparison, the 2005 survey kept the questions from the previous update, but added four new ones to reflect changes in society since 2000, such as the dominant influence of the Internet on newspapers and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In this section, I would like to address those four new questions.

    The first one asked respondents to characterize the impact of Sept. 11 on their newspaper’s current coverage of religion. That question yielded interesting responses. The overwhelming majority of respondents (155) said the impact was “negligible,” while only nine indicated it was “substantial.” Another 52 said the impact was “moderate,” and the eight remaining respondents chose not to answer that question. But the most revealing aspect to this question was the accompanying comments from editors. Some of the written comments indicated that the terrorist attacks did not influence religion coverage because these newspaper editors thought they were already doing a good job with religion news. Others said their religion coverage went up briefly, mirroring some temporary increases in church attendance immediately after the attacks. But the most disturbing responses revealed some editors believed Sept. 11 did not have religious implications as a news story.

    One editor said it was “a bit of a stretch” to correlate Sept. 11 and the coverage of religion, while several others indicated they could see no connection at all. I believe this disconnect reflects the reason religion does not get sufficient coverage as a legitimate news story. The terrorists were Muslim extremists and clearly religion was an aspect of the 9/11 story. To see no connection at all indicates that some editors have a blind spot to religion, and therefore, they will miss other religion connections in other stories. This is the most blatant example I’ve seen of some editors not getting the relevance of religion to everyday life. On the other hand, some editors indicated in their written responses that 9/11 increased the number of stories they did on Islam, which is encouraging.

    The 2005 survey also added a new question concerning the theological training of religion reporters. The question asked: “Have the religion reporters/editors at your newspaper received theological education or religion training in addition to their journalism training?” Only 33 of the newspapers said their religion staff had such training, while 97 indicated they did not have religion training, and an additional 77 respondents said they did not have religion reporters/editors on staff. Of those who had received training, 11 had attended Bible college or seminary, 21 participated in religion seminars or other types of educational courses. Four respondents noted they had ecumenical training, while five marked “other” types of training.

    The question is revealing for two reasons. First, 97 respondents did not deem it necessary for their religion reporters or editors to receive specialized training. It is hard to imagine this would be the case with other complicated beats, such as health or business. Second, 77 respondents simply did not have a religion reporter or editor on staff. That does not mean the respondents fail to cover religion, but it does mean they fail to take their religion coverage seriously enough to have it as a free-standing beat — even on a part-time basis.

    Another new question asked newspaper editors if their newspaper’s Web site included religion coverage. Of the 224 respondents, 118 said their Web sites did include religion news, 87 said their Web presence did not, and 12 said they did not have a Web site. The other seven did not answer the question. Without further exploration, it is impossible to ascertain whether the 118 sites contain fresh information or simply regurgitate religion coverage from the print versions, but either way, religion stories on the Web increase the visibility and reach of religion news. This is a positive development, while at the same time it is somewhat discouraging that all newspapers did not report their Web sites contain some religion news.

    The last new question involved ascertaining whether the newspapers’ religion coverage was predominantly local, national or international. Religion coverage has long been thought to be a local matter, and the survey bears this out, with 158 respondents saying their religion coverage was predominantly local. Twenty-two respondents said their religion coverage was predominantly national, and another 39 reported their coverage was evenly divided between local, national and international news. No publications reported their religion coverage was predominantly international.

    In short, the outcome of the original survey seems to hold true more than a decade later: Although some modest improvements may have been delineated in the late 1990s, the most recent survey indicates that the divide between the clergy and journalists remains both deep and wide. As a former religion reporter, I believe this chasm occurs because some religious leaders still do not understand the professional motivations of journalists, while some reporters cannot see a connection between religion news and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists. If reporters cannot see any connection between 9/11 and religion news, then they perhaps will never see religion as hard news, but rather something that should be relegated to the church page. This fundamental failure to see one another is why I fear religion news may never receive the respect it deserves in America’s newsrooms.

    Pam Parry is associate professor of journalism at Belmont University, where she has taught for five years. She holds journalism degrees from American University and the University of Missouri-School of Journalism and a master’s in religious education from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.