When political reporters discover religion

I attended the Values Voters Summit to do some reporting for Christianity Today, and I feel like I attended a different event than some of the reporters there. Why's that? Most publications sent their political reporters instead of their religion reporters, which shaped the coverage in particularly interesting ways. For instance, one of the major storylines out of the summit was Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress' endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Jeffress then called Mormonism "a cult" and reporters found their story for the day.

If you have been paying attention to religion and politics for at least the last four years, you know that Jeffress' belief that Mormonism is a cult isn't terribly newsworthy to religion reporters. I tweeted about the endorsement because I thought it was something to note but not something to write a story about. Jeffress has been saying these things for quite a while now and political reporters are just now taking notice.

In fact, Jeffress debated publicist Jay Sekulow on this point in front of religion reporters at the 2008 Religion Newswriters Association conference, and even by then, it was starting to feel like older news with Romney out of the race. For instance, you'll see the Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke notes Jeffress' endorsement but doesn't lead with it.

One ironic part about the whole coverage is, if you asked an evangelical voter in South Carolina or Iowa before the coverage of this conference whether they knew who Robert Jeffress or Bryan Fischer (who suggests similar ideas) is, they probably couldn't tell you who they are. When the media covers them, they give them a platform.

Someone asked me why Jeffress was being described by some outlets as the Southern Baptist Convention leader. Perhaps they went with that line because the press release headline was "Southern Baptist Convention Leader to Endorse Perry at Values Voter Summit." As someone in the SBC told me, "he is a local church pastor, no denominational office (like Rick Warren, or Joe Blow from Arkansas). Influential, but not an 'official.'"

I overheard a reporter from a prominent newspaper say, "Thank God for Rev. Jeffress. Otherwise we wouldn't have anything to write about." I can understand the pressures reporters have to produce interesting stories quickly, but sometimes it takes a little more creativity than the staged events to find compelling stories. The idea that Jeffress considers Mormonism a "theological cult" isn't a new fact.

What makes all of this even more interesting is how Internet readers think this is a new idea and it starts to trend on various sites. Then the media pack follows with just about every angle they can think of, so everyone is often following the same story. There's a chicken and egg question: which comes first, the media's coverage or the Internet's interest in the story? In other words, it seems like media-generated news more than anything.

Web analytics suggest to us that people love to talk about religion on the Internet. You would think that would tell editors something new, like how you might need more religion reporters to cover all the spicy theological debates. Unfortunately, analytics also sometimes suggest particular stories often do pretty well. Westboro, anyone? The media's job is to help us sort through what's news and what's expected.

With a brave new web world, reporters are facing pressures to produce a lot of content and many are encouraged to meet certain quotas or metrics, which create implications for how we cover news. When you need to meet specific numbers, of course you will pursue the easier story.

Sure, Romney's Mormonism may still be an issue for many GOP primary voters, and we still need to explore those implications. If Romney is the GOP candidate, it will be pretty interesting to see what that means for religion reporters. Will editors begin to perk up and realize they need people on staff who understand the intricacies of religion? Or will we watch political reporters stumble along with their copy of Mormonism for Dummies?

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