Are mainstream journalists too ignorant to cover religion? Or are they too biased?
Or does the press struggle to cover issues of faith and morality because of apathy? If there is a problem with religion coverage in mainstream media, is it a matter of worldview? Or, as Bill Moyers likes to say, are most journalists merely "tone deaf" to the music of faith?
I've been wrestling with these questions for decades, ever since I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most conservatives I know think the media is biased against religious people, especially, well, conservatives. Many journalists I know think religious coverage isn't all that bad and that it's getting better all the time.
My personal conviction is that the two sides of the First Amendment just don't get along. They don't respect each other. The religious people don't respect the role that journalists play in a free society. The journalists get sweaty palms when they have to deal with religious people. This is a blind spot with two sides.
This topic flares up every year or two. At the moment, a piece that scholar Christian Smith wrote for Books & Culture is making waves now that it has been reprinted by The Revealer, another blog that dissects religion coverage in the mainstream press.
Smith is upset about a lot of things, including the fact that many journalists literally do not know what they are talking about when they discuss religious issues. They may not even know what words to use. They do not know that Episcopalian is a noun and that Episcopal is an adjective. For example, it is wrong to say that "where three or four Episcopals are gathered together, you will always find a fifth."
Or take the word evangelical. Please.
Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as "evangelists" -- as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau -- or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy [Swaggart]. Hey, aren't all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them -- scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce "evangelicals" at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at "evangelics" and "evangelicalists" they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as "them." These are the knowledge-class professionals who are supposedly informing millions of readers about religion in America.
Would editors, under any circumstance, settle for this kind of work on other newsroom beats? Business? Sports? Opera? Politics? Smith continues:
I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the "Democrizer" or "Republication" parties, or about the most recent "Supremicist Court" ruling. Surely reporters covering business and markets do not call economists asking 45 minutes of elementary questions about how the business cycle works or what effect it has when the Fed drops interest rates. So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?
Them's fighting words for many religion-beat professionals.
Over at the home page of the Religion Newswriters Association, veteran scribe John Dart admits there are problems. But he is convinced that the trained professionals who cover the beat full time are doing solid work. The problem is when reporters with no training on the beat wade into waters that are over their head. Dr. Diane Winston sings harmony on several of these themes, in a follow-up essay at The Revealer.
Ah! But why do so few newspapers (not to mention television newsrooms) include a desk for a reporter who is trained to cover the religion beat?
This remains an important question.