Several GetReligion readers (and former students) have written to let me know that there is a strange picture of me in their local newspapers. Actually, that's an Associated Press photo with a story by reporter Rose French that was taken about six months ago, when she was researching journalism programs in Christian colleges. It appears that the latest round of media-bias wars in the White House campaign has provided a news hook to get this story into print.
Here's the top of her report, which AP has given this pushy headline: "Evangelicals are in the news, but not in newsrooms."
Here is a foolproof way for politicians to score points with evangelical voters: Attack the media, an institution widely seen as lacking conservative Christian voices.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain and his evangelical running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, have done just that at times during the campaign, with repeated jabs at the "liberal media."
One way to change this perception, some church leaders, social commentators and journalists say, is for mainstream news organizations to employ -- and keep -- more evangelicals in their newsrooms.
"Journalism has become more of a white-collar field that draws from elite colleges," said Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and a religion columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. "While there's been heavy gender and racial diversity ... there's a lack of cultural diversity in journalism," including religion.
Well now, that is kind of what I said. I was quoting a 2004 report from the Pew Research Center that focused on the lack of diversity in American newsrooms. I cited religion as one example of the cultural problems affecting many newsrooms, problems also linked to -- cough, cough -- social class. The people at the Project for Excellence in Journalism were worried that American journalism was becoming more and more detached from the lives of readers.
You can see that in the quote, right? The problem is that it sounds like I think the solution is hiring more evangelicals. That might help, but only if those evangelicals are real journalists. This is where I wish that French had included what I thought was The Big Idea of our interview, which is that journalism will be improved by people who love it, not people who hate it. More Christian colleges and universities need to create real journalism programs that are rooted in a respect for the crucial role that the press is supposed to play in American life and public discourse.
Oh, and what about the flip side of that? Does the press also need to respect the role that religious groups play? Does the press need to "get religion"? You need to ask that?
What French's report does nail down is a sad reality -- many young Christians are simply afraid of working in the mainstream press. I should stress that I know young liberals who, when push comes to shove, are just as afraid of secular newsrooms as their more conservative counterparts.
All of this brings us back to familiar territory:
It's unclear exactly how many evangelicals work in newsrooms, and federal laws against religious discrimination prevent news managers from asking about a job candidate's beliefs. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in 2007 that 8 percent of journalists surveyed at national media outlets said they attended church or synagogue weekly. The survey also found 29 percent never attend such services, with 39 percent reporting they go a few times a year.
Pew polling of the general public found 39 percent of Americans say they attend religious services weekly.
In seeking a greater voice in the media, most evangelical leaders say their goal isn't to evangelize inside newsrooms, which demand that journalists set aside their beliefs for the sake of objectivity.
"They have to be journalists first," Mattingly said. "You don't need more Christian journalists. You need more journalists who happen to be Christians if they're going to contribute to any real diversity in newsrooms."
Read the rest of the article and see what you think. But let me end with one other comment about the use of the O-word in this AP article -- that would be "objectivity."
Frankly, I don't think journalists are supposed to unplug their brains and their hearts. I'm not sure that we can, as individuals, achieve some strange state of perfect objectivity. I do think that newsroom managers who care about issues of balance and fairness can hire people -- seeking cultural and intellectual diversity -- who are committed to striving toward a kind of objectivity, methods that the classic The Elements of Journalism refers to as a "Journalism of Verification."
Of course, it helps if open-minded editors and publishers seek this kind of diversity. It also helps when a wide variety of schools produce journalists who ready and willing to do this work, journalists who truly love journalism. We are dealing with a blind spot that has two sides.
PHOTO: Associated Press photographer J. Scott Applewhite visits the Washington Journalism Center. Photo by student Harrison Keely of Lee University.