Why Don’t Journalists Get Religion?

A tenuous bridge to believers
Columbia Journalism Review | May/June 2004

Ash Wednesday was not a good day to eat breakfast and read the newspaper at the same time. Across the country, culture sections fronted a movie still of a man whose skin had the texture of raw meat, his palms nailed to a wooden cross, his head a bloody pulp crowned with prickly thorns. A crucified Jesus suffered next to our coffee and toast. And no one was immune to an immediate and gut-level response, somewhere along the spectrum between disgust and awe.

There is much to say about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and most of it has been said (about as much ink was spilled over this movie as blood in it). The question of anti-Semitism, of the film’s violence, its faithfulness to or abuse of scripture, all triggered a rare and refreshingly original discussion of an essentially religious subject. The souls of some movie reviewers were laid bare as they wrestled with their own faith to critique what for many was clearly more than just a blockbuster. Liberal and conservative pundits — Frank Rich and Bill O’Reilly the loudest among them — roared and scratched over the movie’s meaning. Many writers lumped The Passion together with Janet Jackson’s nipple and gay marriage as just one more flashpoint in America’s culture wars.

Yet a crucial element was missing. With rare exception, the movie was covered as a conflict story — first, for months before it opened, as one between Jewish and Catholic leaders and Gibson, and then, as the movie premiered, between those sickened by its violence and those who felt the story demanded it. But for the multitudes who made the pilgrimage to see The Passion, some of them crying, even falling to their knees in prayer, conflict was not the point. This was no mere controversial movie; it was a heartbreaking experience. It’s true that many religious Christians (both Catholics and Protestants) paid their ten dollars, or in some cases twenty-thousand dollars for a whole theater, partly as a form of political statement about the media’s general blindness to Christian narratives. But the larger reason for the film’s success was, undeniably, the visceral reaction most Christians had to it. People took their children to see it. The press, with little exception, stood open-mouthed at this religious expression. The best that most journalists could do was station themselves outside a theater to jot down a few tearful reaction quotes. Very few tried to grapple with the tradition of atonement theology at the core of the film’s depiction of Jesus’s torture, some writing it off with one word: “medieval.” “What reporters didn’t grasp was how important Jesus’s death, suffering, and crucifixion is in the emotional and spiritual life of many Christians,” says Steve Waldman, co-founder of Beliefnet, an Internet site that covers religion. Journalists can judge it exploitive or bizarre that Gibson should turn the passion story into a slow-motion blood fest, but the movie was meaningful to millions. Can we afford to overlook the deep well of faith and belief that ensured its success? Isn’t this journalism’s mandate: to offer not just a simple play-by-play of reality, but also to explore what stirs, inspires, pushes people to action?

We live in a religious country. Church steeples punctuate the landscape of even our most secular cities. We have a president who claims Jesus as his favorite political philosopher. And the touchiest societal debates we engage in — over abortion, stem-cell research, the pledge of allegiance, gay marriage — point us back to scripture. In a poll conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 81 percent of Americans said that prayer was an important part of their lives and that they believed in the eventuality of a judgment day in which they will have to atone for their sins; 87 percent also said they never doubted God’s existence. Journalists, especially in an election year, frequently wonder what matters to Americans. Health care, jobs, family values, war and peace are often cited. But running underneath these concerns, at a steady pace since the country’s founding, is a deep preoccupation with the ethical, moral, and existential issues with which religion grapples.

However central belief and faith might be to the American populace, our news media seldom puncture the surface in their reporting on religion. The various institutions are scrutinized, sometimes with great rigor, as a former cardinal in Boston might confirm. But it generally takes scandal or spectacle to get even the large denominations on the front page. And even then, the deeper belief systems of these religions are left unexamined. The theology and faith of the believers is kept at arm’s length, and the writing is clinical. The journalist glances at religious community as if staring through the glass of an ant farm, remarking on what the strange creatures are doing, but missing the motivations behind the action. To take a recent example: in mid-March, the Methodist church placed one of its ministers on trial for declaring that she was in a lesbian relationship. Coverage focused mostly on the dynamics of the conflict itself, the anger of some Methodists, the challenge it posed to the church, and the defiance of Karen Dammann, the minister on trial. Nowhere was there any exploration of the deeper theological debate over homosexuality taking place in the Methodist church (and, lately, tearing apart most mainline Protestant denominations), a debate that, at its core, is about how closely to interpret scripture.

And religious belief plays a part in more than just articles about religious institutions. On any given day, journalists miss the opportunity to explore the religion angle on any number of significant stories. Just open the paper. The paraplegic Palestinian Sheik Ahmed Yassin is killed by Israeli missiles and tens of thousands rush into the streets crying and screaming for revenge. From the American press, we hear that he was a “spiritual leader.” But what did Yassin preach? What form of Islam did he practice? What did he represent to those crushed by his death? In Haiti, we read stories of a president ousted for his abuse of power. Yet Haiti’s recent troubles have a distinctly religious flavor that we have yet to hear about. Aristide, a former liberation theology priest, last year legalized voodoo as an official religion. The rebels who ousted him were supported by members of the evangelical movement committed to taking back the country in the name of Christ. We read a story about Rwandans, a decade after the genocide, turning away from Christianity and toward Islam. But in the article, we get only facts and figures, how many have converted at what rate. Why is the Koran appealing to these survivors? Does its demand for total submission to God make it more attractive than Christian notions of free will? Such questions are left unasked.

If it isn’t piggybacking on a larger story, religion has almost no shot at all of making it into the news. According to surveys funded by both Pew and the Ford Foundation in 1999, it is rare to find articles that take faith as a starting point. Chris Hedges, a New York Times reporter, found this out when he proposed a series of stories two years ago that would each describe people grappling with one of the biblical commandments. The Times’s top editors resisted the concept, Hedges says, eventually relenting but keeping the series out of the national edition. “Thou shall not kill” was the story of a Vietnam veteran turned Catholic bishop coping with the memory of those he had shot in war. “Thou shall not commit adultery” was about a man whose life had been scarred by his father’s abandonment of his mother for another woman.

“Religious issues, issues of faith, issues of moral choice, those burdens and struggles that all human beings undergo — those issues deeply interest me,” Hedges says. “Death, birth, love, alienation, sin. This is the real news of people’s lives.”

Yet those are the stories we almost never see.

To be fair, religion writing has come a long way during the past two decades. Ann Rodgers-Melnick, who has covered religion for twenty-four years, currently for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says that when she started, the religion beat was “like the job you gave to the office alcoholic. It was considered a real do-nothing kind of job, writing about chicken suppers and maybe a cute profile about an ice-skating nun. Often it was just an anchor on Saturdays for church advertising.”

The Iranian revolution in 1979 and the televangelist scandals of the 1980s opened news editors’ eyes to faith’s relevance. Peter Steinfels, who has covered religion at The New York Times for twenty years, quips that without the Ayatollah Khomeini and Jimmy Swaggart he wouldn’t have gotten his job. But attention drifted away from religion in the 1990s, and only when Wahhabist Muslims flew planes into the World Trade Center did editors suddenly grasp its extreme importance again. The media clamored for an understanding of Islam, and critics demanded to know why journalists had ignored its fundamentalist strain for so long. The last three years, with the Catholic Church scandals, America’s engagements in the Muslim world, and battles at home over gay marriage and the pledge of allegiance, have reinforced the need for reporters who can do more than just report on the conflicts of, say, Sunnis and Shiites, but who can actually explain the different belief systems and practices that distinguish them.

In spite of the renewed awareness of faith’s role in the world, religion writers remain a tiny minority in the newsroom (there are about 200 of them working at secular newspapers). More of these journalists are coming to the job with theological training from seminaries and divinity schools, and many of them are fighting every day to get stories about faith on the front page. But with rare exceptions, such as The Dallas Morning-News, which has a weekly six-page religion section and a team of four reporters covering different aspects of belief, most papers have only one, maybe two, religion writers who can barely keep up with the hard news of religious institutions, let alone explore deeper questions of faith. Editors and owners simply do not make religion a priority, and journalists are not encouraged to make it a part of their stories. Laurie Goodstein, who has covered religion for the past eleven years, first at The Washington Post and since 1997 at The New York Times, compares her beat to the resources devoted to politics. “They have a Washington bureau full of political reporters,” she points out. “So, one is going to write the analysis, one will do the profile, and then there is an editor to pick out the excerpts to run in the box. But for religion, there’s me.

I have a lot of energy, but I have to produce both the news and analysis pieces myself.”The conventional wisdom about why religion gets shortchanged is that journalists, being predominantly secular, cannot appreciate or understand the world as religious people see it. Robert Case II, an evangelical Christian who runs the World Journalism Institute, a school where the objective is to “recruit, train, place, and encourage Christians in the mainstream newsrooms of America,” voices this well-worn criticism when he says, “There is a chasm between people that work at The Washington Post and The New York Times and people like us. We think that if someone from The New York Times lived next door to us they might eat our children. And they would think the same thing about us.”

This notion is accepted as doctrine, partly because of a 1980 survey known as the Lichter-Rothman study, which found that 86 percent of the “media elite” rarely or never attended religious meetings, and that 50 percent claimed no religion at all. The survey has been much cited as proof that journalists, as the vanguard of atheism in America, could never understand what is important to religious people. A more recent poll conducted by American Society of Newspaper Editors, however, contradicts that finding. In 1997 it discovered that almost 80 percent of journalists had some religious affiliation. This also confirms what journalists report anecdotally: that there is a wide range of religious belief inside newsrooms, that many reporters and their families are deeply involved with their religious communities.

The other classic complaint, related to the “journalists are from Mars, the spiritual are from Venus” argument, is that, beyond a lack of empathy, journalists just don’t know enough about religion. Recently, Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and author of Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want, made this point in an angry manifesto that rebuked most religion writers (many of whom call him up for expert information) for being “ignorant about religion.” In trying to understand why religion stories typically fall into a handful of simplistic categories — “fundamentalism, violence, scandals, homophobia, dying churches, repression, exotic rituals, political ambition, cults, trivia” — he posited that the problem was an outrageous lack of information on the part of the “secular knowledge class.” Smith claims religion writers he speaks to often don’t even know the proper names of the denominations they cover, let alone have a basic sense of their tenets. “I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the ‘Democritizer’ or ‘Republication’ parties, or about the most recent ‘Supremacist Court’ ruling.”

Yet while a lack of empathy and literacy might very well contribute to the problem, this can’t be the whole story. Not only, as the recent polls show, is it not true that reporters are too secular to get faith, but it shouldn’t really matter. No religion writer would say that one has to be a believer to understand believers. And although the knowledge problem is real, more and more religion writers are specialists and could potentially be a source in the newsroom for reporters who aren’t. The “secular newsroom” seems to be a myth, and the knowledge gap certainly surmountable.

Something else seems to be at work here, something more systemic. Diane Winston, who currently holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, sets the argument up by describing journalism and religion in the following way: “These are two institutions that both want to define the world for other people and both want to be seen as vehicles for truth, enlightenment, and guidance for daily living.” On the one hand, there is journalism, premised on the notion of objective reality. To report is to write about what can be seen, heard, touched, smelled. Journalism is grounded in this world and embodies a belief that everything can be known. On the other hand is religion, which is fundamentally about mystery and the unknown. Faith is grounded in this notion, that we surrender ourselves to greater powers beyond our reach. How can journalism, then, welded as it is to the known world, contend with faith and belief? Or, as Waldman of Beliefnet puts is, “You are dealing with very squishy, difficult to quantify topics. Do you have a soul? What happens to it? Journalists tend to look for proof of things, and this is one area where proof is harder to come up with.”

In a recent collection of essays edited by Christian Smith, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests and Conflict in the Secularization of American Life, Richard Flory writes about the period between 1870 and 1930, arguing that it was then that journalism began to take the rational, empirical approach of science as its model for seeing the world. As part of this process, Winston says, “religion was increasingly seen as an alternate worldview, a traditional worldview that was not in line with the values and ideas that newspapers had become instruments of.”

We see this tension in a number of different places. Journalism has a limited definition of news. A story must be pegged to something that happened yesterday or will happen tomorrow. From this perspective, nothing could seem more stagnant than belief and faith. From journalism’s point of view, these age-old concepts are not dynamic enough to merit writing about. This is why journalists are more likely to write a story about the trial of a homosexual minister than one that explains the changing nature of Christian doctrine about homosexuality.

The lack of a news peg is also why the press sidelines stories about the role faith plays in people’s daily lives. Yet these stories can be extremely illuminating. For example, a recent USA Weekend article looked at how being so close to death has changed the lives of young soldiers in Iraq. People struggling with issues like mortality and evil may not be journalistically hot, but, Waldman says, “in the life of an individual, the big news event is not who came in second in the Iowa caucus. It’s the death of their parents, the birth of their child.”

Journalism, Winston says, needs to reconsider “that there are things that go on in different time frames than yesterday, today, and tomorrow” that are worth exploring and are of great importance to people.

Then there is the problem of language. Goodstein at the Times expresses it best: “It’s very hard to cover people’s beliefs because when you try to explain it, either by quoting them or even by paraphrasing, it sounds like jargon. The vocabulary that believers use is their own vocabulary. To outsiders who may not have the same beliefs, it sounds like gobbledygook.” Part of the problem here is that journalists usually go to religious leaders when they want to get a quote about belief. This is what journalists do — find authorities who will speak for a group. But these authorities can be precisely the least reflective and interesting thinkers about their own religion, the main producers of “goobledygook.”

It was reporters’ reliance on religious authorities that first frustrated Krista Tippett, founder of the public radio program, Speaking of Faith. “We have in our head a very clear idea of what religious people sound like when they speak in public,” Tippett says. “They have answers. They make people angry. They alienate listeners. They proselytize.” She wanted to hear a more interesting and thoughtful discussion of religion in the media. So she came up with her one-hour show, produced by Minnesota Public Radio and distributed nationally by Public Radio International. The show’s objective, Tippett says, is to “trace the line between theology and human experience.”

Tippett’s forum is very different from a newspaper article (her interview subjects have plenty of time and space to be thoughtful), and she will be the first to acknowledge that “religious ideas don’t translate very well into sound bites.” But her method is instructive. She says she never has religious authorities on her show: “Nobody speaks for their tradition — for all Buddhists, for all Jews.” Instead, she has individuals talk about how they grapple with the ethical and moral questions of religion. No one spews the simple religious party lines or clichés we associate with religious talk. To listen to her show is to hear how intelligent and thoughtful religious people can be when they are allowed to be subjective and not merely regurgitate dogma.

It would be unreasonable and unfair to suggest that Tippett’s hour of radio is any kind of model for what a daily journalist could do. Still, the gobbledygook factor is real and it needs creative solutions.

Mark Pinsky, who covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel, says he often asks his interview subjects to rephrase what they are saying. “I would prefer to give them a chance to say it in another way than to paraphrase it. I just respect what they have to say.” Sometimes, as often happens with the evangelicals Pinsky spends much of his reporting on, they will quote the Bible. “I just tell them, ‘People can read the Bible for themselves. I want to know what you think.’”

“We have been questioning the myth of objectivity in recent years, and I don’t think this is a value we should put aside,” Tippett says. “But if you say that to report on religion I have to get objective opinions, or that I have to keep belief at an arm’s length, and weed out everything in what people are saying that is too subjective, you are going to miss the point. And you are going to end up by just giving the blow-by-blow of scandals, and it’s just going to sound like all the other news. And religious people will end up sounding like caricatures.”

Yet another way that the journalism-religion antagonism plays out is when religious belief is shoved into political categories. Journalism tends to see the world through a political prism in which there are often only two sides, conservative and liberal, and religion is seen as a function of these two categories. We only care whether Catholics are for or against abortion, but not why they are. The internal theological debates or the religious logic that leads a group to support or oppose a particular issue is often ignored. So are the many shades of difference between a religion’s official position and what its practitioners actually believe.

Religious people themselves sometimes adjust to this reality, molding their words to fit political language in order to get coverage and attention by the press. Krista Tippett thinks that in this way denominational leaders contribute to their own poor depiction in the media. “It’s totally alien to religion — the conservative-liberal divide. It’s not a religious divide,” she says. “It’s a political divide that religious people have squeezed themselves into, and they have gotten smaller for it. And our public life is diminished for it.”

This could be said for the debate over abortion, gay marriage, homosexuality in the church, and even discussion of The Passion. It is this tendency that leads to the dominance of conflict stories, which reduce every issue to a two-sided argument.

Mark Silk, a professor of religion at Trinity College and author of Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America, argues against the idea that journalism cannot understand religion. He thinks, in fact, that conflict stories are what work best, even when they skim over belief. “Journalists do well at going places and finding what people are struggling about. It’s what journalism is,” Silk says.

He offers an example: Suppose you are a reporter covering the temple in Jerusalem in the year 33, “and this guy comes in,” Silk says, referring to Jesus. “What are you going to do? Ask about his faith? No. You are going to talk to people about why he turned over the money-changers’ tables. What do the money changers think and what do the temple authorities think and why do people think he’s done this?”

As to the question of what Jesus believes, Silk says, “You’d want a sidebar on this Jesus character.”

But Silk’s example seems to undermine his point. The greatest profile opportunity in two millennia would have been reduced to a five-hundred-word sidebar.

What do we miss when journalism fails to grasp religion? The full spectrum of the evangelical movement, for one. A December 2002 Gallup poll found that 46 percent of Americans consider themselves born-again or evangelical. They elect presidents and make films into blockbusters and books into bestsellers. At the very least, they are an economic and political force to be reckoned with. They also happen to be incredibly diverse, both theologically and politically. Timothy Morgan, deputy managing editor of Christianity Today, an influential evangelical weekly, points out that evangelicals are “a tremendously large and complex social movement, just speaking sociologically. And then theologically, there are all kinds of subtleties.”

“Most of the dynamism within American religion comes from the evangelical movement,” says the Orlando Sentinel’s Pinsky. “Most of the time, I know what the secularists are going to say and I know what the mainline denominations are going to say. I just know and it’s not informative. But where the fluidity is, where the real interesting dialogue is, for me, is within the evangelical movement.”

Most of the press ignores this diversity, and instead caricatures a movement that encompasses millions of Americans (including Jimmy Carter, one of our most liberal presidents) as politically conservative outsiders who think modern culture is evil and believe in the Bible literally.

In January, The New York Times announced to its staff that David Kirkpatrick, formerly on the publishing industry beat, would be given a new assignment. He would “examine conservative forces in religion, politics, law, business, and the media,” according to the Times’s internal staff memo. Bill Keller, the Times executive editor, when interviewed in The New York Observer about the new beat, said he worried it would seem as if “The New York Times discovers this strange, alien species called conservatives, and that’s not what this is about.” The handful of stories Kirkpatrick has written so far center mostly on evangelicals. He wrote about Patrick Henry College, a higher education institution for Christian home schoolers, for example, and about the release of the twelfth Left Behind book, a wildly popular series (over forty million sold) that recasts the book of Revelations in modern times.

But viewing religion, in this case evangelicals, as merely a subgroup of conservatives, already frames the coverage in such a way that limits Kirkpatrick’s ability to explore the diversity and depth of their belief. Kirkpatrick’s articles, at least those he has written so far, do not further our understanding of evangelicals. Kirkpatrick basically reports on the religious the way he would on a sports team: who won, who lost, who the key players are. We are told what evangelicals are opposed to — gay marriage, abortion, and bans on prayer in the schoolroom — and when we do hear a bit of their own language, it is left unexamined (and generally seems intended to scare those of us on the outside). The article on the Left Behind series, for example, tells us that the authors’ purpose is to detail “the gruesome perdition ahead for unbelievers and the merciful salvation awaiting faithful Christians.”

Kirkpatrick himself says that capturing evangelicals’ religious beliefs is not part of his beat. When I called to ask him how he deals, or plans to deal, with some of the theology and faith that motivates the movement, he quickly said, “I’m not the best person to talk to about covering religion.” He didn’t want to say much more, but he alluded to classic reasons journalism has for avoiding religion — that he was focused on evangelicals because of their political significance, not their religious world view. And that there was nothing newsy about looking at belief.

Jeff Sharlet, co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, a book about how religion is practiced in America, manages a blog (therevealer.org) that scrutinizes religion coverage. His site has been critical of what it calls Kirkpatrick’s “one-note” reporting on evangelicals, writing that it is clear that “reducing stories to the bare bones of conservative vs. liberal is his job.” Sharlet says “there should be a starting point in which a reporter says, ‘Let me just sit down here and talk to these people until I can imagine a world where this makes perfect sense, in which this is reality.’” In neglecting to do this, reporters fail to see even the political range of the evangelical movement, he says. “Would David Kirkpatrick have missed the story if there was a fundamental split in the Democratic Party over ideology?” Sharlet asks. “If there was a struggle over which way it was going to go? Why aren’t these stories being talked about within American religion? Ultimately, these fights are going to affect politics just as much.”

And the reason these subtleties get missed is not because journalism or journalists are secular, it is because journalism is journalism. To grasp religion in a robust and full way, it would need to alter its basic notions of what news is, how religious people are interviewed, and the frame of politics as a way of understanding religion. In a sense, journalism must examine its own dogma.

By excluding faith, we miss the core of so many stories — What motivates people to act? What are the beliefs that give meaning to our lives? What ideas are we willing to live and die for? If journalism means to relay the day-to-day saga of our society, it can’t continue to ignore these questions.