Journalists rightly complain when receiving heavily redacted government documents where thick black lines obscure critical information.
The average newspaper reader would fairly have the same reaction with how American newspapers cover religion and issues based on faith. It’s as if we borrowed that government censor’s black pen for drawing thick lines right through any reporting that dares to invoke God or traditional religious faith.
Terry Mattingly believe it is one of several reasons we are losing readership—we choose to ignore an issue our readers find important. Mattingly has been a splendid writer on matters of faith for more than 30 years. Find him at Tmatt.net.
The divide between journalists and average Americans on faith matters has been documented for decades. Numbers vary but Americans consider themselves faithful and attend services at a rate of four to five times the rate of journalists.
“I often think about what Bill Moyers said about religion and journalism: there music of religious faith is all around us but we are tone deaf to it,” said Mattingly. Sometimes this is a matter of bias, yes, but ignorance and arrogance as well.
One might fairly wonder why 125,000 people attending services in your community on a weekend warrants no coverage, but 125 people at a city council meeting on a single topic merits coverage as if it were the Second Coming.
This goes to the highest levels of media. When former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza entered the Hall of Fame in July, his 25-minute acceptance speech contained 15 references to his faith and a direct quote from Jesus Christ. Scanning several versions of his speech, I found only the New York Times mentioning this and it came in the bottom half of the story. Most coverage made no reference.
Michael Phelps’ turnaround? He credits it, in large part, to reading the mega-bestseller “The Purpose Driven Life” by the Rev. Rick Warren. Yet the book is missing from a Los Angeles Times profile, and Warren is in the Times’ circulation backyard.
Major political and economic stories have a religious context that is rarely reported. One could trace the major conflicts in the Middle East—including the Syrian refugee crisis, the biggest international story this year—to religion. Syrian President Assad is a member of the relatively tiny Alawite Muslim sect ruling a country that is 85 percent Sunni Muslim or Christian. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa come down to the same splits in the Muslim world. But rarely do you find such context in the reporting.
Former Attorney General Edwin Meese’s slugfest with the American Bar Association over what he called a threat to religious liberty received little attention. Of all the First Amendment rights guaranteed, threats to religious liberty are given the least attention.
Religion is in the heartline in the poor racial relations between police and the Black community in America. Police departments and city officials have started to heal the divide by starting in the Black churches. (And shout out to the Washington Post’s Hammil Harris for terrific reporting on faith issues.)
This does not have to be this way. Even in an age where newsrooms are running on the bottom tenth of the tank, the resources have to be directed at where the readers live. Here are things newsrooms could do:
Ask. There might be someone in the newsroom who finds faith matters cerebral and thinks there is some good reporting to be done.
Reject. Too many journalists dismiss religious people as fanatics. Some are. But most aren’t. Faith is a thoughtful part of readers’ lives and rather than reporting the echo chamber of politics, wouldn’t they rather read something thoughtful?
Get over yourself. A lot of editors and journalists are not religious and they reject religion as something shallow or unscientific. But lots of editors don’t care about sports and they have a staff assigned to that. Challenge your notions about what interests readers.
Opine. Facts are more expensive than opinions and we are all short of money. You can find thoughtful writers on matters of faith in your community who will take a broader approach.
Prepare. Yes, these matters often attract zealots who will flood your letters page and call you. But zoning questions make people crazy too. Prepare for myopic religious people who think they have found the one truth as you prepare for any interest group.
Background. International articles need background that explain religious differences.
These are challenging times for newspaper searching for a path to, (okay, I’ll use it) “salvation.” We have to figure out new ways to be more vital to our readers. The answer might be right above us.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.