One lamentable result of the hemorrhaging in America’s newsrooms is the institutional loss of competence about religion. Despite public opinion polling that consistently shows a strong majority of Americans retaining a specific religious affiliation, religion as a subject rarely merits mention in any given newspaper or magazine unless there’s some breaking story.
- Few newspapers run even a weekly religion section.
- Commentary seems to come predominantly from general-purpose columnists, not dedicated religion columnists.
- Journalism from explicitly religious sources tends to read like press releases, with little negative-critical content included.
- Mainstream newsrooms pay little attention to the sociology of religion nor do they have depth in comparative religious study; accordingly, nuances related to ecclesiology or history aren’t “in-scope,” leading to simplistic ledes or angles.
- Bloggers and commentators often inadvertently caricature religious belief in an attempt to explain it.
The relative absence of ordinary religion news has many causes — an aversion to sectarian reporting by editors, a lack of depth in religious topics among reporters, a belief that religion isn’t a value-added beat when resources are scarce, an interpretation of the news values that inadvertently downplays the significance of religious reporting, etc. — that probably means that the picture isn’t going to change any time soon.
That notwithstanding, there’s been a bit of a push back. The Religion Newswriters Association publishes materials to help journalists better understand religion reporting, for example, that offers some solid background information about religion as a beat.
From my perspective as a consumer of religion news, I think a few things still need to happen in the normal press space. Foremost, writers who cover religion should have some academic formation in comparative religion. They need a reasonable exposure to the sociological and historical factors contributing to religion as a phenomenon, as well as exposure to the ecclesiology and theology of the faith traditions they cover.
Beyond that, media organizations should include normal religion coverage as part of ordinary news budgets by having at least one stringer serve as at least a part-time religion beat.
Consumers, too, should send the message to publishers that they want to see more coverage of faith-based subjects.
Religion provides a rich source of meaning for many. It’s in the best interest of the industry to deliver compelling content for a large, engaged population of readers.