Shoptalk: Why Newspapers are Losing Faith

By: Dale Buss

American newspapers have been doing a bad job for a long time of relating to people of faith, especially evangelical Christians. Coverage before and after November’s elections ? when the emergence of “values voters” surprised the nation’s press ? comprised just the latest chapter in that poor performance.

Perhaps this episode ultimately will help editors, reporters, and their publications by spawning a new determination to understand and even appeal to this increasingly important constituency. Or maybe they’ll keep allowing a large group of highly aware and engaged citizens to keep slipping out of their circulation base.

It isn’t that newspapers generally fail to cover religion per se. They can even excel when dealing with institutions of faith, as some newspapers did in covering child abuse by Catholic priests. But U.S. newspapers aren’t so good at covering the worldview, lifestyles, and everyday existence of the 25% to 30% of Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals.

Sometimes this shortcoming manifests itself as bias or outright malice, other times in sins of omission or ignorance. In any event, 72% of all evangelicals now feel the mass media are hostile to their moral and spiritual values, according to Barna Research Group, the foremost authority on contemporary evangelical opinion.

Newspapers continuously discredit themselves in the eyes of evangelical readers ? and former readers ? in the following ways:

Settling for “balance”: Like most readers, most evangelicals aren’t stupid. While a story or newspaper series may indeed be internally balanced with their viewpoint, they understand that the key to a newspaper’s tilt lies in what topics it chooses to address and not address in the first place. And they’re well aware of the surveys of journalists that quantify the liberalism of most big-city newsrooms. Evangelicals don’t expect their daily newspaper to read like a long version of the church bulletin. But like any demographic or group, they’re disappointed when they are so left out of its agenda.

Dissing the faithful: In early 1993, a front-page news story in The Washington Post famously described evangelicals as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command,” and this mental picture of conservative Christians clearly persists in newsrooms today. Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham wrote just before the election, for example, “Crusades are for the insecure, literalism for the weak.” Other print pundits regularly vilify “the Christian Right”; some compare evangelicals to Islamic extremists. Imagine newsroom management allowing rabid editorialists to spew such constant outright derision of any other group.

Separating “religion” from life: Newsroom denizens are happy to portray the everyday existence of many types of individuals, from truck drivers to women entrepreneurs to crack addicts. But rarely are there holistic depictions of evangelicals and their faith, which informs their daily, not just Sunday-morning, existence.

Confusing the gospel: Theistic liberals are honestly frustrated that evangelicals don’t attribute them with “values.” Many reporters and editors personally share this confusion and project it professionally. What about the “social gospel” that dictates Christian concern for the poor, they protest, and the criticism of “faith without works” in the book of James in the New Testament? Those are demonstrably important to many evangelicals as well. But what also matters to them is that an individual’s genuine faith, not some abstract sense of the public good, motivates their works.

Missing big stories: Most newspapers have simply overlooked huge developing stories in evangelicalism that, in turn, had major effects on society. They include the explosive growth of so-called “seeker” churches; the importance of religious values in drawing more African Americans and Hispanics to the Republican Party; the rise of home schooling, which has been fueled by evangelicals; and the cultural phenomenon called The Purpose-Driven Life, a book aimed at evangelicals that already had sold a staggering 13 million copies last year before a single national newspaper bothered to review it.

Lacking religious literacy: Evangelicals are put off when newspapers clearly don’t know their leadership; one of the most prominent leaders of conservative Christians, child psychologist and radio host James Dobson, is still wrongly identified as a pastor, for example. They noticed that no journalists knew enough Scripture to tweak John Kerry for misquoting the First Commandment during a presidential debate in which he was trying to prove his religiosity. And many journalists quote the National Council of Churches as some sort of uber-authority for Christianity when the fact is that it represents only liberal denominations.

Misinterpreting the First Amendment: So much of secularists’ complaint against evangelicals is that the faithful are breaching the “separation of church and state” by influencing public policy. Much newspaper coverage at least implicity reflects this philosophy. But it used to be that every junior high-schooler in America understood that the First Amendment wasn’t trying to keep religion out of government but vice versa.

Keeping conservatives out: Evangelicals operating in the realm of mainstream newspapers are, and always have been, rare birds. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote in 2003 that he couldn’t “think of a single evangelical working for a major news organization.” This is inexcusable in an era when newspapers consciously try to boost the number of various demographic and lifestyle minorities on staff.

Overall, newspapers have made little or no efforts to address these shortcomings. But unlike some other aggrieved groups, many evangelicals have simply, quietly left ? or at least compartmentalized their use for ? their daily newspapers. No doubt this has contributed to the industry’s troubling circulation declines of late.

But there are a few new positive signs. The New York Times, for instance, recently created a beat covering “conservatism” for David Kirkpatrick. Maybe, in the wake of the elections, more newspapers will try harder to understand values voters instead of treating them like some alien nation.

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Published: December 1, 2004

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