About a third of a century ago, back when I was doing graduate work in mass communications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I started calling up editors and asking them a simple question: Why doesn't your newsroom -- mostly newspapers, back then -- do more to cover religion news?
These interviews ended up being part of my graduate project, which was edited down and ran as a massive cover story -- "The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets" -- at the professional journal called The Quill.
Editors gave me all kinds of reasons for their limited coverage of the Godbeat, but there were two reasons that I heard more than any other:
(1) Religion news is too boring (and no one wants to cover it).
(2) Religion news is too controversial (and causes our readers to get too riled up and they write too many leaders to the editor).
And there you had it: The world was just full -- too full, it seemed -- of boring, controversial religion stories. Between the lines, these journalists seem to be saying that religion was boring to THEM, yet they could not figure out why THEIR READERS seemed to care so much about it. Thus, the strange blend of boredom and controversy.
I thought about that this week when "Crossroads" podcast host Todd Wilken and I were talking about that controversial speech that President Barack Obama gave at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. Click here to listen in, or subscribe to the podcasts at iTunes. You know, the speech that attempted a moral equivalence bridge between today's Islamic State and the attempts my Medieval Crusades to recapture the Christian sites in what they considered the Holy Land.
Anyway, I wrote an "On Religion" column this week focusing both on Obama's speech and the keynote address by NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip, who gave -- in very bunt terms -- his personal testimony as a born-again Christian. Do a Google search and you'll find out that Obama's talk was clearly deemed newsworthy, as a political story, of course. The Waltrip speech? Not so much.
The key was that Waltrip's speech was clearly religious, which by definition meant that it was not really worthy of news coverage. Waltrip said things that were controversial, but they were religious things that were controversial. Thus, too boring? The remarks by Obama, on the other hand, were also intensely religious -- but could be seen as political in nature. Thus, that content was considered newsworthy.
What was going on? As I put it in my column:
President Barack Obama and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip were ... sure the world would be a better place if many sinners climbed down off their high horses and ate some humble pie.
First, Waltrip bared his own soul and described how he found what he believes is the one true path to eternal salvation. Then, moments later, the president told the same flock that religious believers who embrace precisely that kind of religious certainty are threatening the peace and harmony of the modern world.
This was, in other words, a morning for red religion and blue religion.
While the president's remarks comparing the modern Islamic State with Medieval Christian crusaders made headlines, Waltrip's blunt testimony contained words that -- for many in the interfaith audience -- were just as controversial.
It was a fascinating event, but only if you were interested in the actual religious content offered by both the president, a liberal Christian believer, and Waltrip, a conservative Christian believer. It was a head-on collision between two radically different worldviews.
Why was one subject "hot news" and the other was not?
In my piece for The Quill, two veteran religion-beat specialists -- Louis Moore and Bruce Buursma -- offered some views about religion news and religion non-news that still seem relevant, in this context, years and years later. First, Moore said, of many journalists in major newsrooms:
"Often, people carry with them elements of religion that are associated with the family. When they think of religion they think of mama poking it down their throats. They don't see religion in the wider context. I just see a lot of hangups in a lot of journalists."
In fact, Moore said he believes many of the stereotypes of religion reporting have developed because of hangups about religion. It is easier to say religion is "boring" than to admit you are confused by religion or afraid of religion.
"Many journalists are afraid of religion. I think what they are really saying is, 'I'm not at peace with this subject, and I can't see how you can be. I don't see how you deal with these people,' " Moore said.
Along that same line:
Bruce Buursma said many journalists know religion is a powerful force in society, but they've "put religion behind them" and now feel guilty about it. Journalists also feel uncomfortable with beliefs and groups that talk about faith instead of facts. Newspapers are more comfortable with subjects that are obvious and easy to pin down.
"Also, I think [journalists] are skittish because religion is powerful. I think they don't want to admit it, but deep down they understand that religion influences people much more than a newspaper can," Buursma said. "Now, it doesn't do it in as spectacular a way as a newspaper occasionally does, or television might. But they are going up against a really strong institution... and they are trying to interpret it. That makes them pause."
Still true, decades later?
Enjoy the podcast.