Poynter appeals -- again -- for better Godbeat coverage

poynter courtyard2A few days after 11/2, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel did some local enterprise reporting, trying to find out if there was a common theme among African-American voters who went against decades of conventional wisdom and voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry. It didn't take reporters Gregory Lewis, Alva James-Johnson and John Maines long to spot the pattern. The headline was blunt: "Bush makes inroads with black Christian voters." Once again, those old words kept showing up in familiar combinations -- like "family values." The president's vote totals in the black community didn't rise much, but in the tight Florida race every little bit helped. What was the news hook?

"Even though [Caribbean-Americans] tend to be Democrats, when it comes down to moral and cultural values they may lean more toward the Republican party or independents," said Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-American who led a Soca D'Vote campaign to register new Caribbean voters and educate them on political issues.

"Not that any one particular party has an exclusivity on faith, but it's clear to me that this election was a testimony as to the moral and cultural compass of the country," said Hill, a Democrat.

Does this mean that these African-Americans have become "conservatives" on other issues? Of course not. Does this mean that, all of a sudden, their priorities are aligned with the Rev. Pat Robertson? Of course not. Might this mean that they do not see a contradiction between cultural conservatism and being politically progressive on other issues?

Did the Democrats need these votes? Yes. And, to switch to a related topic, do journalists need these people to continue buying newspapers and watching the evening news? Yes. Might journalists do a better job of covering people in pews -- before, during and after elections -- if newsrooms contained more people who "get religion" or want to learn how to cover these issues?

I'm happy to report that the journalists over at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. (pictured), have used the surge in "values gap" reporting as a hook for another yet effort to appeal to newsroom managers to get their act together on faith issues. Aly Colon, leader of the think tank's ethics and diversity programs, wrote the lead article in the package and, I am happy to report, urged journalists to take advantage of the information and opinions expressed at websites such as The Revealer, ReligionLink and, yes, GetReligion.

"Moral values," he noted, is a term that gets

. . . (Pinned) on people who oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. Reporters use such terms as evangelical, religious, Christian and conservative to describe them. And often, journalists use these terms interchangeably. But what do they know about the topic? And what do they need to know?

We need to look behind the "moral values" label to address such questions. When we do, we will come across a host of descriptions. They show a spectrum of differences that get overlooked when we lump them under just one term. . . .

Cover the full spectrum of people who see values as a critical component of their lives. Look beyond the labels. Visit their places of worship. Look into the programs they say reflect their values. Offer fuller profiles showing how they live them out.

And all the people said, "Amen." There is much more to quote from this piece, but we will stop at this point. The Poynter package also includes an article by Steve Buttry, who was raised among Baptist progressives -- yes, that left-of-center evangelical crowd again -- and thinks it is time for journalists to start listening to the stories of evangelical believers. Buttry, by the way, is now a Roman Catholic who says that he has become rather uncomfortable in that flock, as well.

The bottom line: If journalists cannot understand the faith stories of evangelicals, and report them accurately, then journalists are going to struggle to understand these people. In the most fascinating essay in this collection, Dr. Roy Peter Clark hauls off and admits that he is struggling -- big time -- to do precisely that. You need to read it all. But here is a taste.

I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. "Different" is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens. Maybe it's worse than that because we usually see and suspect the alien in our midst. The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible.

I see the cheering crowds at the Springsteen concerts. I tap my feet while celebrities rock the vote. I imagine pro-Kerry college students heading for the polls, getting hernias from lifting Michael Moore on their shoulders. But there's stuff I can't see. . . .

• I don't know the difference between evangelical and charismatic, but I can argue about who has sluttier videos, Britney or Christina.

• I know little about the "born again" experience but can celebrate the narrative structure of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

• I've never listened to a religious radio program or attended a church supper, but I can tell you whatever you want to know about Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge.

It's clear, writes Clark, that going to Sunday Mass is not helping him understand this other America. It's also clear that he needs to understand the other side of the values divide, or it is going to hurt his work as a leader in the industry that is supposed to help Americans make sense out of the news about their lives and the lives of other people.

Honest. That is what he says. You don't believe me? Here is the final kicker:

This is starting to sound like a confession. Maybe it is. I once was blind -- and still can't see. My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist.

Please respect our Commenting Policy