By: Tony Case With a growing number of religious ties to breaking news events, editors may be forced to alter current policies that relegate most religion news to the back pages sp.
THE MEDIA HISTORICALLY have paid far less attention to the topic of religion than they have sports, politics and supermarket grand openings. But as the front page increasingly is dominated by news stories involving religion and religious leaders ? conflicts in the Middle East, the federal raid on David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound, the bombing of the World Trade Center by militant Muslims, Pope John Paul II's recent U.S. visit ? editors no longer can relegate the subject to wee, back-section columns, one news manager contends. "I think this kind of harmonic convergence of events may convince a lot of editors that they are missing the boat ? or the ark ? in religion coverage," Newhouse News Service Washington bureau chief Deborah Howell said during a panel discussion at the Religion Newswriters Association convention this month. "This is the best time for religion reporters. We're at a place where we can push editors for more time, more space and more resources. We can push these stories onto page one and the metro front because they belong there and not just in the church pages on Saturday," she told conventioneers at the New York Times Building in midtown Manhattan. RNA members could not have met in a city with more religious diversity. New York City, with a population of 7.3 million and more than 3,500 places of worship, is "one of the most complicated religious urban areas outside the city of Jerusalem," said New York Newsday managing editor James Toedtman, who participated in the discussion. Religion news is gaining prominence because of religion's undeniable impact on culture, politics, education and other institutions, not so much because religion writers are lobbying their editors, Toedtman believes. He offered that the public figure with perhaps the greatest influence over New Yorkers' day-to-day lives is not the mayor or any other elected official, but Cardinal John O'Connor, whose political pressure has kept diversity curricula out of public schools and prevented organized gays from marching in the city's annual St. Patrick's Day parade. In examining the activities of local religious leaders, "We have found a terrific supply of stories that we've been able to give a great deal of prominence to ? and of course, all of these were generated by the reporters given the assignment of covering religion," Toedtman said. "The stories are out there, the stories are compelling, and certainly compelling enough that selling them to editors is getting easier than it has been over the last decade." Howell said she considers religion the best beat at American newspapers, explaining, "It's got everything: sex, greed, violence, sin, redemption, the meaning of life. What a concept!" While reporting on the religious scandals and social movements of our times, those who cover religion must not forget to write about matters that trouble people in the middle of the night, she maintained, adding that newspeople should, above all else, strive to be servants of readers. "We ought to serve their minds, we ought to serve their hearts, and in this group especially, we ought to serve their consciousness and their souls," she said. Many editors are nervous about dealing with spirituality on the news pages, but Howell says newspapers should give space to these issues because they are of concern and interest to the public. "We devote trees and trees and trees of newsprint to box scores and comics and movie times and school lunch menus because our readers want them and they are important. But they also want food for thought and they want to keep up with the great moral issues of the day, the great moral issues in their homes," she said. "We can use our journalistic principles and our skills of discovery and persistence and perspective to cover this beat as well as any sportswriter covers games, any political reporter covers an election." News organizations have acknowledged the growing importance of and interest in religion news. In January, Howell's employer, Newhouse News Service, acquired the New York-based Religious News Service, which was founded in 1934 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews with the goal of providing unbiased and accurate religion reporting. Some papers, including the Dallas Morning News, the News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., and the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, have developed religion section prototypes. Morning News managing editor Bob Mong, who joined Howell and Toedtman on the panel, said his paper has made significant editorial changes in recent years but has been slow to expand religion reporting. Every year since 1984, the paper's news management has tried and failed to get financial support for a religion section. But recent market studies and direct feedback from readers have convinced the editor and others at the Morning News that the time is right for beefing up coverage. Mong said one poll found that Bible reading and daily devotional were high priorities of the average Dallas resident, whereas these activities were not practiced by most respondents in other large U.S. cities ? Washington, for one. "I have to say that our readers have, I think, generally and politely been tolerant of our gaffes. But I think below the surface, there's a lot of anger," the editor said. "It really comes out when we do something well. There are people who write and say, 'Lets have more of this.' " On the broadcast side, ABC News has hired the first full-time religious issues correspondent at a major television network, and CBS News anchor Dan Rather told TV Guide in January that religion is "consistently underreported" by the news media. "That's especially unfortunate when you remember how many of the worst conflicts today are born of religious misunderstanding ? in Bosnia or the West Bank, in Ireland or India, or right down on the street," Rather observed. "There isn't a news organization that wouldn't benefit from greater attention to the coverage of religion." In considering the need for more religion reporting, Howell addressed some of the problems in existing coverage. She said newspeople often ? and wrongly ? assume the hierarchies of all religious sects are authoritarian and power-hungry. "Journalists are by their nature anti-authoritarian, and we need to watch that tendency," she warned. Howell told the group that most journalists, because of their liberal bent, see conservative, churchgoing types as strange. "There is a bias and a hostility toward conservative religious people, and I have read newspaper stories where the hostility was dripping off the edge of the page," she said. "I think we have to watch making these stereotypes." Howell also suggested that religion writers need to be more inclusive in their reporting, noting that beliefs outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream ? Buddhism, Mormonism, the New Age movement ? routinely are overlooked and that many people who consider themselves spiritual are not affiliated with organized religions. "I think these people are very important," she said. "We need to do a better job of covering them than we do." ?( Prototypes of religion sections developed as part of research with the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The prototype on the right is for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor; the one on the left is for the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune.) [Photo]
DATE: Sat 11-Jun-1994 PUBLICATION: Editor & Publisher CATEGORY: News SUBJECT: Corrections AUTHOR:Tony Case LOCATION: Page 7
corrections media editors american newspapers religion newhouse news service deborah
Corrections p. 7
RELIGION SECTION PROTOTYPES pictured with a story about the recent Religion Newswriters Association convention (E&P, May 21, p. 14) were wrongly identified in a caption. The page at left was designed by the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, the one on the right by the News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.