Man bites dog in Dallas?

From time to time here at GetReligion, we pause to wax nostalgic about what used to be in Dallas. I refer, of course, to the not-so-long-ago days when The Dallas Morning News took religion news seriously and assigned skilled, trained professional journalists to the Godbeat.

Just a few years ago, the paper boasted a best-in-the-nation Saturday religion section with four or five full-time staff members devoted to faith and values news. Those same outstanding journalists regularly produced meaty investigative pieces, in-depth profiles and intriguing features for the front page.

Not anymore.

Now, if you check the Morning News' religion news section online, you're fortunate to find a new story every few weeks. And often, those stories are about as deep as a Texas river during a drought.

All of which leads me to this: I enjoyed a nice chuckle this week when seeing this headline on a Morning News Texas Faith blog post:

How can the media better cover religion?

I swear I am not making up that title.

Um, since you asked, let me answer the question: By actually covering religion.

Sarcasm aside, the post concerned a study on religion news that Sarah highlighted back in April. From the post by Morning News editorial columnist William McKenzie:

Is the media's coverage of religion too sensationalized?

Most of the public thinks so, according to a survey released this spring by the Knight Program in Media and Religion at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and the University of Akron's Roy C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. The poll found that two-thirds of respondents think that religion coverage is too sensationalized. By contrast, only a third of reporters see it that way.

This week's question may seem like I'm a bit of a masochist. But actually it is an important one for journalists to think through as we deal with matters of faith.

I was struck by the finding in the survey that a quarter of respondents are "very interested" in coverage about religion. But they want more textured and nuanced reporting. For example, they are interested in understanding spiritual practices as well as how faith impacts lives.

I was also struck by this finding, as USC's Diane Winston put it: A majority of both the public and reporters agree the news media "does a poor job of explaining religion in society," with 57.1 percent and 51.8 percent agreeing, respectively.

Is religion coverage too sensationalized? The most recent story on the Morning News religion news section was published May 16 — more than three weeks ago. The headline:

Priest accused of trying to hire hit man to kill accuser on trial in Dallas

Before that, the previous religion story posted by the Dallas paper came May 2 — more than five weeks ago. The headline:

God forgives 'oops moments,' Perry tells National Day of Prayer

What was the question again?

Anyway ... McKenzie asked a panel of Dallas religious leaders to weigh in, and their responses are worth reading. Like me, a few of those queried couldn't resist pointing out the obvious:

RIC DEXTER, Men's Division Chapter Leader, Nichiren Buddhist (Soka Gakkai organization)

There was a time when our favorite local daily newspaper had a section on religion. In it you could often find stories of how a person's religious practice impacted their lives. Sometimes there were articles that gave background and explanation about the beliefs and practices of different religions.

Among the other respondents, Southern Methodist University's William Lawrence stood out with the below insight, especially given the political nature of so many of the Morning News' scarce religion news stories:

It is vital for news media to allow themselves the creative courage to resist the bipolar politics of assuming that all matters are divisible into two groups -- liberals and conservatives. It is vital for the news media to be bold enough to see nuances with sophistication, to recognize that religious people struggle mightily among the complex questions of life in search of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. The religious movements in our world today are sometimes new, sometimes conventional, and sometimes more nuanced than the news media seem willing to study.

It is worth the effort.

Amen.

You are preaching to the choir, Morning News panelists.

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