TV religion coverage is up, but is that automatically a good thing?

Through the years I have attended my share of conferences and seminars about the status of religion coverage in the mainstream press. This is what I do. Anyone who does these gigs is going to hear lots of common themes. If the academic or media gathering is broad-minded enough to feature voices from the cultural right, one can guarantee hearing -- within the first five minutes -- a mantra that sounds something like this post-Passion news critique:

In short, the media have taken a burst of passionate Christian enthusiasm for an orthodox movie, and responded with an increase of religion programming that too often dismisses rather than debates that very orthodox vision. When surveys of the national media have shown that half of journalists are religiously unaffiliated and 86 percent never attend church or synagogue, it's not a surprise that they just don't get it.

Of course, there are agnostics who can read demographics and history and do a great job on the God-beat. And there are lots of believers who can't write or report their way out of a paper bag. The point is that there are plenty of journalists who don't "get religion" for a variety of reasons. That's a given.

This particular quote comes from the end of a new column by the conservative critic L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center. In its latest 12-month study of religion news on ABC, CBS and NBC, the center found that the number of stories has more than doubled from a similar study done in 1993 -- from 336 stories a decade ago to 699 last year. The center decided, however, that these numbers held a paradox -- more religion news, only with "less religious context."

As a practical concern, it's easy to see why the story count is up. All kinds of interesting things have been going on, from the viewpoint of elite journalists on the coasts. Waves of news reports about the potential horrors that might be unleashed by "The Passion of the Christ" followed increased coverage of Catholic sex scandals, religious themes in the age of terrorism, Pope John Paul II's 25th anniversary and the election of Gene Robinson (right), the first openly noncelibate gay bishop in the small, photogenic and influential U.S. Episcopal Church. The researchers noted:

The hottest Protestant story of the year was the installation of openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, but reporters on that story treated it as a milestone against discrimination, focusing on its political impact, not its scriptural or theological implications. Most of the TV time on the happy-talk morning shows went to Robinson and his supporters (ten interviews to just one for an opponent). Just like in other political stories on the gay issue, the labeling was very imbalanced, since Robinson's critics within the church were described as "conservatives" 42 times, but Robinson's supporters drew just five "liberal" labels. Robinson himself was so revered that not once was he ever described as either "liberal" or even as an "activist."

But there is more to this God-beat trend than a few major stories. Bozell noted increased signs that mainstream journalists are, in addition to covering disasters and celebrations, trying to tap into a rising tide of interest in "spirituality" and even "faith." This has been happening for years in print media and it now may even break into television news, a zone in which there are zero God-beat specialists.

What can we expect this coverage to look like? Will any increase automatically be a good thing, for those of us who care about picky, factual things like the history, rites and doctrines of the major religions? Will all faith fads and trends be created equal? Bozell does not think so and he has his reasons.

Progressive religious fads often emerge from academia, where professors can be located to tout ­ as the most credible, objective, social-scientific findings ­ loopy conspiracy theories like "The DaVinci Code" or phony "gospels" that teach Jesus was less like God and more like a profound Grateful Dead groupie. Sadly, the media's Rolodex of religion experts was dominated by academics who are hostile to religious orthodoxy. They are never described for the viewer at home as boutique liberals or hard-line secularists.

Personally, I think the number of hard-core secularists out there could all fit in the faculty lounge of the poli-sci department of your local tax-dollar-funded state university. What is more interesting is what is happening among the elite thinkers -- from Harvard to the New York Times -- who are obviously pro-spirituality, but they are anxious to divide the world up into good, tolerant religious believers and bad, doctrinal religious believers. Yes, reporters could ask Dr. James Davison Hunter about this trend.

Years ago, at one of those private, God-beat seminars, I heard a religion scholar make an interesting statement. She said that one of the man reasons that journalists needed to improve religion-beat coverage was to "undercut Judeo-Christian hegemony" in American life. An executive from a giant newspaper chain was not so sure about this. He said that he thought that the reason journalists should strive to improve the work on this beat was to do a "better job of covering the lives of our readers."

These are radically different motivations and, if acted on, would lead to radically different kinds of coverage. I think this tension is part of what Bozell was seeing in the television-news coverage over the past 12 months.

This is one case where I would cast my vote with the newspaper executive.

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