How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

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Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

Radical Muslims who recently seized power in Iran were exercising worldwide ambitions.

Stirred awake by born-again Jimmy Carter and Roe vs. Wade, the newborn Religious Right roared into politics, creating shock waves in U.S. presidential elections.

The Jonestown slaughter produced an ongoing “cult” scare.

The first non-Italian pope in centuries was continually on the road, shoring up doctrine and shaking up his Communist homeland.

As always, the Rev. Billy Graham was pulling huge audiences, while wrestling with Richard Nixon tapes.

Not long beforehand, authorities in Salt Lake City had opened all offices in their church to those of African descent.

Doctrinal hardliners consolidated their takeover of the giant Southern Baptist Convention as Missouri Synod Lutherans had managed previously.

Those themes continued to develop a decade later when Bates took a look, with some recently added blockbusters. “Cult” fears were reignited when 75 Branch Davidian disciples died in a federal raid. Muslim radicals had bombed New York’s World Trade Center, suggesting there might be more to come. Long before #MeToo, Catholic molesting scandals were already reaching critical mass and reporters were trying to hear the whispers behind closed doors at meetings of U.S. Catholic bishops.

At the time, ABC-TV had just hired Dallas-based Peggy Wehmeyer as the first full-time religion correspondent in network news (an innovation soon killed by hostile staff in that newsroom). But Bates said you’d never know how profoundly religious the American people were “from reading newspapers and watching television newscasts.” And, unlike 2019, news organizations then had substantial staffs and some money to play with.

What was the big problem?

Truth is, Godbeat practitioners have always struggled against the odds. As Bates and Mattingly reported, too often editors who made assignments, authorized travel expenses and allotted space had little interest or patience with the field or were overtly hostile to religious outlooks.

In such shops, religion makes news when it’s simply unavoidable (think acts of terrorism) or involves scandals and fanatics, thus distorting a massive field of human endeavor.

Both surveys suggested that journalists failed to “get” religion if they were not religious themselves, or else personally interested as non-participants or friendly with people who were either participating or interested. The important Lichter-Rothman study of 1980 had shown secularism was especially powerful in the big “elite” newsrooms where 86 percent of staffers seldom or never attended worship and a mere 15 percent thought adultery is morally wrong (compared with 85 percent of the general public).

Bates’ conclusions: “Religion occupies a marginalized position in most news organizations” and “today’s press basks in a resoundingly secular world view.” As a result, “selective overage skews our understanding of religion.”

Thus we had an infamous 1993 Washington Post front-pager that reported as simple fact, not somebody’s snide theory, that TV preachers’ viewers were “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”

In the discouraging climate of 2019, that same newspaper luxuriates in Bezos largesse and its Boorstein–Bailey–Zauzmer squad tears up the religion beat.

This work can be done, if the people who staff newsrooms are willing to hire professionals with the skills and experience to get the job done.

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