For all the navel-gazing that journalists do, one problem area they seem completely blind to is religion coverage. So I love to highlight examples of journalists calling for better religion coverage. A reader from Northern California passed along a good essay that appeared in the North Coast Journal. Marcy Burstiner, a journalism professor at Humboldt State University, laments the shoddy and insufficient look newspapers give religion stories:
This was how the Times-Standard began a story about the Jewish New Year known as Rosh Hashanah: "The blast of the ram's horn marks the end to the summer season. Jewish people around the world are roused by the piercing sound of this ancient instrument known as the shofar. The sound of the shofar announces the beginning of the Jewish New Year 5764."
But we are now in the year 5768. The paper didn't make a mistake. I'm quoting from last time the Times-Standard ran a story about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the single most important time of the year for Jews. That was in 2003.
Burstiner confesses that she's a non-observant Jew. But she is observant enough to notice that many of her neighbors are religious:
At a time when newspapers struggle to keep their circulation base and latch onto the new buzz word -- "hyper-local" -- I can't fathom why our local papers do such a lousy job of covering the one thing most people care deeply about. . . .
In the 20 issues I scanned, there wasn't a single story with original reporting. And that's too bad, because the pages hinted at good stories. Did you know that Cindy Storrs replaced Kate O'Leary as reverend of the Arcata United Methodist Church? How's that affecting the church? Or that the St. Innocent Orthodox church in Eureka has "acclaimed" gyros? Who makes them? Or that Easter and Christmas services are so popular at the Hydesville Community Church -- some 800 people attend -- that they have to have it in the River Lodge in Fortuna? I wonder about David Besanceney, the youth pastor there, and the challenges he has shepherding children and teenagers in such a rural outpost, where methamphetamines and marijuana are prevalent and immigration and the collapse of the lumber economy has transformed the community.
Burstiner wonders why local Faith pages are full of wire stories about the Hill Tribe Christians of Taiwan and the struggles of church bingo in Massachusetts. My husband is always incredulous at the number of religion wire stories in The Washington Post, so the problem isn't limited to California. The papers doesn't even bother to localize the national religious trend stories it gets off the wire, Burstiner writes. She proceeds to offer even more story and angle ideas before lamenting the negative spin of most religious news stories:
The media is quick to report negative news about religion -- child molesting priests, corrupt preachers, Holocaust deniers.
But mostly good comes out of most churches and temples, and that's rarely and poorly reported.
Wise words all around. Newspapers are frantically trying to localize news in order to retain and attract readers. Better religion pages should be part of that.