Wanted: Religion reporter (no experience required)

bridgingthegap cover revBack in the early 1990s, the leaders of the Freedom Forum think tank put together a team to study a nagging question: Why do mainstream newsrooms have so much trouble covering religion news? The result was a study titled "Bridging the Gap" (full text here) that, essentially, argued that the situation was pretty complex, but that the biggest problem was that most journalists simply didn't know enough about religion. In other words, the bias that was warping religion coverage was not outright prejudice against religious believers, especially those in traditional forms of faith, but simply a matter of ignorance. The bottom line was that the Freedom Forum was trying to shoot down the famous Lichter-Rothman study of journalistic elites that drew so many headlines in the early 1980s.

The Freedom Forum argued that journalists are almost as "spiritual" as ordinary Americans. However, for some reason, these spiritual journalists lacked the basic information they needed to cover the religion beat. Thus, the problem was intellectual, and not a matter of negative bias against believers (especially those of a traditionalist bent).

That may be true, but "Bridging the Gap" failed to ask many of the hard-nosed, specific, practical questions that dominated the "media elites" study, such as "How often do you attend worship services?" or "Do you believe adultery is morally wrong?"

I tried to sum that all up back in 1983, in my first cover story on this issue in The Quill:

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Catholic. ... Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

The debates raged for years. Truth is, they continue to this day (note all the articles linked to this one).

In the Mattingly matrix for discussing media bias and religion, the Freedom Forum argued that the key is the "bias of knowledge," which I like to say means that it is hard to cover a story "if you don't know that it exists." Many conservatives quoted the "media elites" studies as saying that the strongest bias affecting religious coverage was outright prejudice against traditional religious believers. I disagree and argue that the strongest bias is one of "worldview." What does that mean? It's hard to cover a story if you don't care that it exists.

But, for now, let's assume that the "bias of knowledge" is the strongest or, at the very least, the bias that would be the easiest for newsroom leaders to address. Concernede editors could start off by seeking journalists who (a) have solid experience covering religion (perhaps even those who have won awards), (b) have gone to the trouble of studying religion or (c) have done both of these things while preparing to cover religion news as a complex, senior-reporter-level beat. Ah, but even this approach is controversial.

SPtimes1All of this brings me to an interesting pair of help-wanted notices posted (scroll down) at the website of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. The first states:

NEWS -- RELIGION/GENERAL ASSIGNMENT REPORTER, ST. PETE/TAMPA

This reporter will cover religion as a metropolitan topic. It's a huge topic, one that reaches into practically every aspect of society. We are looking for an enterprising reporter who will approach this beat primarily as a news one. While the bulk of this reporter's time will be devoted to religion, he or she also will be part of the pool of general assignment reporters in the St. Pete and Tampa newsrooms.

REQUIREMENTS: Demonstrated reporting and writing accomplishment, both daily and non-daily. Ability to conceive and execute enterprising religion and GA stories. Ability to write quickly and accurately on ...

Yes, the notice actually cuts off at that point, with the sentence incomplete.

Then there is this ad a bit lower down:

NEWS -- BUSINESS REPORTER, TAMPA

We're looking for a high-energy, get-out-of-the-office reporter with a strong interest in business news, getting scoops and producing enterprise stories. The Tampa Bay area economy is changing fast. Can you help explain what's happening to our readers in clear and innovative ways? The reporting job is GA for starters while business beats are being reassessed.

REQUIREMENTS: Some experience with business and economic coverage preferred but top priority is interest, energy and crisp writing style. Familiarity with area economy, computer-assisted reporting experience.

Now I admit that there isn't a huge difference between these ads. Nevertheless, I could not help but notice that the business-beat notice at least seeks a reporter with "a strong interest" in the beat and, ideally, a candidate with some "experience with business and economic coverage." Sounds like they want a business reporter who plans to be a business reporter.

Meanwhile, the religion-beat notice stresses that it will be a part-time affair and there is no mention of previous experience or study, only that this reporter should be able to "conceive and execute" general assignment and religion stories.

Perhaps this makes me rather sad because I have been working on the religion beat for a long time and I remember the days when the St. Petersburg Times was, quite simply, one of the best newspapers in American on this beat. You can see that in the charts of the Religion Newswriters Association awards -- keep scrolling down to the 1980s and just thereafter.

Perhaps there is a reference to religion-beat experience and training in the part of the Times ad that got cut off. Maybe. Perhaps.

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