Reporters wonder if they should have colleagues who understand religion
Maybe it's Bush's use of religious language. Maybe it's the rise of Islam. Maybe it's just a realization that religion matters. Maybe it's the publication of Doug Underwood's book, From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press. But for whatever reason, several reporters, columnists, and others in the media are noting a lack of diversity in their newsrooms.

The most recent lament comes from New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. "Claims that the news media form a vast liberal conspiracy strike me as utterly unconvincing, but there's one area where accusations of institutional bias have merit: nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch with a group that includes 46 percent of Americans," he writes in today's edition. "That's the proportion who described themselves in a Gallup poll in December as evangelical or born-again Christians."

Kristof's column in itself is evidence that he needs to understand evangelicals better. He clearly sees them as drawn, above all else, by eschatology. "There may be an element of messianic vision in [Bush's] plan to invade Iraq and 'remake' the Middle East," he writes, and makes mention of the Left Behind series and the Book of Revelation.

And, unlike David Brooks in his "Kicking the Secularist Habit" piece for The Atlantic, Kristof is quick to say he's having a faith crisis. "I tend to disagree with evangelicals on almost everything, and I see no problem with aggressively pointing out the dismal consequences of this increasing religious influence," he says. "But liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable."

About a week ago, Los Angeles Times columnist David Shaw also noticed a missing link. But he focused less on evangelicals and more on religion reporting as a whole. Like Kristof, Shaw is quick to point out that he's "not a very religious person myself," but he says the media don't take religion seriously and are often insensitive to people of faith. Still, he argues, "The skepticism, iconoclasm and suspicion of authority that are intrinsic to the practice of journalism are inimical to the faith and obedience to authority that are intrinsic to the practice of religion. … Religion, as an institution, is committed to maintaining continuity with its own past and to promoting unity and comity. The news media thrive on change and challenge, conflict and discord."

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That remark drew several comments over at the Jim Romenesko's journalism weblog. "As one who grew up in a deeply religious home, I can say that there's nothing about faith that is antithetical to skepticism, inconoclasm, or the suspicion of authority. Many Christian and Jewish homes I know—and I'm sure Islamic ones, too—are marked by constant questioning and probing, deep thought and frequent argument, wrote Michael Elliott.'s Steven I. Weiss wrote, "What Shaw doesn't understand is that there are issues within the faith community that need to be taken seriously by news media in order for them to be resolved. Religious leaders are often aware of the news vacuum they inhabit, and are therefore able to engage in all manner of scandal without the expectation of a check on their powers. All religions deal with basic questions of how the world works and how adherents should approach it—so long as the issues within that discussion remain undisclosed, the news media will continue to fail its responsibility to provide information that its audience needs in order to deal with the issues affecting their daily lives."

"Good coverage of religion includes the same tools and filters as political coverage, school coverage or any other beat you can name," says Dallas Morning News religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss. But he adds a warning: "This is not an easy beat to jump into. Nuance is everything. And seemingly similar faith groups really aren't."

The oddest dispatch in the media's awakening is from Fox News's Eric Burns. "The central fact of life to millions of Americans is not even an aside to journalists, except when priests molest children or Islamic terrorists murder innocent men and women. And then it is the perversion of true faith that is reported, not the core values," he says. "On the other hand … just because something is significant does not mean it is newsworthy. In fact, one might make the case that religion is too significant for so quotidian a vehicle as journalism." In his defense, Burns says he lacks a point of view on this subject and hopes that letters will "help me take a stand."

The fact that he doesn't have a clear point of view on whether there should be religion reporting is another indication that this isn't something that has been discussed enough in American newsrooms. One hopes the conversation continues. Those looking for good resources on the topic should check out the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, the Religion Newswriters Association, and Jim Romenesko's employer, the Poynter Institute, which has had several articles and events on religion reporting lately.

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More stories

War with Iraq:

  • Pope presses Bush on Iraq | Pope John Paul II has decided to send a personal envoy to Washington to deliver a message to United States President George W Bush about the threatened war against Iraq (BBC)

  • Also: Praying for papal intervention | Pope John Paul II is causing heartburn among one of the president's key constituencies: conservative Catholics (Mary McGrory, The Washington Post)

  • Also: Bush's advisers greet Catholic leaders | The president plans to meet in the next day or two with Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States (Associated Press)

  • Iraq's Christians fear being caught in the crossfire | They could face a religious backlash from die-hard regime supporters who might perceive them as accomplices of American invaders of the same faith. But they also risk a political backlash from those who have considered them allies of President Saddam Hussein (Financial Times)

  • Meeting a moral standard for war | The just-war tradition, its last-resort criterion and the debate on an invasion of Iraq (Peter Steinfels, The New York Times)

  • Churches sound as one voice | Do not initiate a war, they all say (David Waters, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis)

  • Church leaders mobilize for peace | Opposition to invasion of Iraq often not shared by parish members (The Baltimore Sun)

  • Hawaii clergy split on question of 'just war' | When it comes to debate among Hawaii religious leaders about war in Iraq, there's plenty of talk of God to go around (The Honolulu Advertiser)

  • Chaplains step up as war looms | Commanders consider chaplains their partners in maintaining strong, well-adjusted, motivated forces (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Sexual ethics:

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Church life:

Missions and ministry:

Yesterday's World Day or Prayer:

  • 'Prayer warriors' seek world peace | At 3:33 p.m. today, millions of Christians around the world will take three minutes to pray for peace (Calgary Herald)

  • Holy Spirit, fill us | Area churches to recognize World Day of Prayer March 7 (The Algona, Upper Des Moines, Ia.)
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Clergy sex abuse:

Supreme Court RICO decision:

  • The right to choose protest | The First Amendment wins one in court—and Sen. Schumer loses (Editorial, The Wall Street Journal)

  • Celebrating the return of free speech | The U.S. Supreme Court last week struck one of the most important blows for free speech and political dissent in at least a decade (Dennis Byrne, Chicago Tribune)

Internet and technology:

  • Web opens new window on prayer | Increasingly, people are going online to seek and offer prayer, a phenomenon that has allowed strangers from different regions and diverse faiths to spiritually connect with one another to a greater degree than ever before (The Washington Post)

  • Philippines bans txt confessions | Issue of confidentiality bars priests from responding (BBC)

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