A Plea For More Coverage Of Religion p. 22

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By: Debra Gersh Hernandez

Rev. Billy Graham complains to editors’ group that religion
news is ‘relegated’ to a few columns Saturdays ‘on the
same page as either the classified ads or the obituaries’ sp.

RELIGION IS IMPORTANT in the lives of many people, yet there is little coverage of it in most newspapers.
“As I travel from city to city, I find religious news is often relegated to a few ads and columns on Saturday and, in many instances, is on the same page as either the classified ads or the obituaries,” noted the Rev. Billy Graham in a speech at the annual American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington.
Graham, who thanked the media for the “generous and fair” reporting that helped build his ministry, pointed out the similarities between religion and the press ? beyond their shared protection under the First Amendment ? and gave some suggestions for improving coverage of religion.
“We both are in the business of communication,” he said. “We also are both in the people business. In addition, truth is essential in your work just as it is in mine. But also, we both want to make a difference in our world.
“In its finest tradition, there has always been a reformist streak in the American press ? revealing corruption, questioning misguided trends and policies, rooting out such social evils as racism and injustice,” he said.
Explaining why it is that the two do not work closer together, Graham said he understood that “much of what happens in religion is not news by your definition.
“You are concerned with change; we are concerned with that which we believe to be changeless. You are interested in that which breaks the pattern of normal life: disasters, political upheavals, wars, the cruelties and foibles of human nature, conflicts between people and nations. We are interested in what goes on, often unseen, in the hearts of individuals: hopes reborn, purpose restored, guilt removed, love rekindled.
“In addition,” Graham continued, “religion is such a vast subject that it must seem almost incomprehensible to those on the outside. Some of you may be afraid of offending some readers in our pluralistic society by dealing with religious topics, and you find it easier to avoid them altogether.
“Or the moral failures or extreme positions of a few religious leaders may have made you cynical of religion generally,” he said. “And many of your reporters have little religious background and feel inadequate or uninterested when they come to religious news.”

Four suggestions

Graham presented the editors’ group with four suggestions for improving religious news coverage in their newspapers.
“First, make it a matter of policy to report more religious news for your readers, both from your local community and from the broader world,” he said, adding that he believes that not only are the stories there to be found but also that “the public is tired of a steady diet of unrelenting bad news.”
Graham’s second suggestion was to “probe the religious, moral and ethical dimensions of some of the stories which fill our headlines. Some of the major stories that cross your desks every day may have profound moral and ethical dimensions ? dimensions that often are overlooked in the rush to report bare facts.”
Third, Graham suggested that the press “reach out to the religious leaders, both clergy and lay people, in your own communities . . . . Many clergy and lay people won’t take the initiative because they are afraid it might be misinterpreted and you will think they are trying to use you.”
And fourth, he suggested assigning journalists with some interest or knowledge of religion to the beat.
“They should have the highest standards of objectivity, but they also should be expected to understand their field just as much as you expect a sports reporter to understand sports,” he said.
In later remarks, Graham said he has been interviewed by reporters who did not know the differences between various denominations or what an evangelist was. “And therefore, some of their writing ? they did their best and they were honest, but I think they needed more training, they needed more understanding of what they’re writing about,” he said, suggesting religion journalism training in schools, especially seminaries and Bible schools.
“I’ve had several people tell me they don’t know where to turn to get a religious editor for their paper. I’ve had them ask me for recommendations. It’s hard for me to find them,” he added.
Graham also was asked about coverage of the president, particularly regarding the character issue.
Graham said he’s known President Clinton for 18 years and Clinton knows “that he probably made mistakes. He probably did things that he regrets, as I do, as we all do.”
Nevertheless, he added, Clinton is “our president. We’re dealing with the presidency now, not just a person. And I think he’s been performing the job as well as he can. I don’t agree with a lot of the things that are being done in his administration, but that’s not the issue. The issue is, What do I think of him personally?
“I think of him personally as the president, who was elected by the people, and we ought to support him as far as we can,” he continued.
Graham said he believes that it is important to support the president ? to “build a wall of prayer” around him ? but “that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to ask him questions and go into it. I think the press has gone too far into it. And we seem to be looking for it because it’s like the tabloid press. It sort of titillates many readers, who may not believe it.”
Noting that because of the world situation, “we’re seeing some very dangerous things for the future of America,” Graham said, “we need to emphasize that rather, it seems to me, than some mistake that the president may make or some failure in character because none of us are perfect.”
?( Some of you may be afraid of offending some readers in our pluralistic society by dealing with religious topics, and you find it easier to avoid them altogether.”) [Caption]
?( -Rev. Billy Graham) [Photo]

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