Maybe religion reporters aren’t so stupid, after all.

By Diane Winston

I understand Chris Smith’s frustration with the secular media’s coverage of religion (“Religiously Ignorant Journalists”). While Smith was rattled by a Dallas Morning News reporter who called Episcopalians “Episcopals,” I recall an even bigger blooper. A few years back, a Morning News reporter profiled a messianic Jewish congregation for the paper’s annual Passover story. Neither the reporter nor his editor realized the group was anathema to the organized Jewish community—until the subsequent outcry.

The irony is that the Morning News is one of the best venues for religion coverage nationwide. Most of the time, its journalists produce smart, well-researched pieces. But no one remembers yesterday’s news, and now everybody’s a media critic. Smith echoes much of the recent criticism directed at religion coverage, and his point is valid as far as it goes: Most reporters suffer from a cultural ignorance/avoidance of religion. But as one who has reported on and studied religion as well as helped foundation efforts to improve media coverage of it, I have a somewhat different perspective.

The 200-plus religion reporters now employed by newspapers and (a few) television and radio stations probably know the correct pronunciation of evangelicals (another of Smith’s quibbles) as well as the salient social, cultural and theological aspects of the group. Of course, they’re always on the lookout for something new, but if they chat up Smith, Mark NollBob WuthnowNancy Ammerman, or John Green, it’s likely they’re hoping for an angle or an analysis on a story they’ve already identified. Steady work on a beat gives journalists an intimacy with sources and a familiarity with issues that most academics don’t have. Information is a two-way street, and good reporters provide grist for the research mill.

However, full-time religion reporters don’t cover every story that has a religious angle. It’s a matter of time and turf. Is the debate over tuition vouchers a religion or an education story? What about stem-cell research? And who follows the Democratic presidential candidates’ proclamations of faith? Obviously, reporters who don’t know much about religion are handicapped when thrown a story where the faith angle is in play. But that’s standard for an industry where generalists routinely morph into specialists. Need political background? Call Brookings and Heritage. Working on world trade? Find someone at the International Monetary Fund. Covering a court case? See who the local bar association recommends. It’s not just religion reporters who ask dumb questions; anyone scrambling to understand complex issues on deadline is at a disadvantage.

Compounding the problem is the media industry’s reluctance to invest in continuing education across the board. A 2002 Knight Foundation survey found that reporters want to improve their skills and knowledge, but it’s not a priority for management. Instead, organizations such as the Poynter Institute and the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland offer short courses and seminars, and a handful of foundations fund programs to improve coverage of specialized beats such as health, science, and foreign affairs coverage and religion. The Pew Charitable Trusts, where I have worked, makes grants for resources and educational opportunities that enhance non-religion reporters’ understanding of religion and public life.

Smith grouses about the number of NPR stories on “sex-abusing Catholic priests,” but the network broadcast more than 700 segments on religion last year, and most were not on the scandal. Others had to do with a myriad of social issues—from education, health and welfare to entertainment, war and peace. Ironically this is a shortcoming, too. Two 1999 studies—one funded by the Ford Foundation and the other by Pew—found the majority of stories with a religion angle focus on religion and . . . something else. Religion is a theme in a minor key, a signifier without much content. According to researchers, stories rarely explain what or why people believe. Rather, religion is covered opportunistically, as an aspect of a larger story. It appears where and when it cannot be ignored. How could you avoid religion when writing about gay marriage, the new Iraqi constitution or the flap over Mel Gibson’s Jesus film?

Media critics write about the meta-narratives that shape reporting, and the frequent use of sports and warfare metaphors. Just as comparisons to horse races, contests, battles and juggernauts flatten and simplify political coverage, so do similar tropes truncate the possibility of what we can and should know about religion. Take the current debate over the consecration of an actively gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Conservative Episcopalians frame their disagreement with this development as a conflict between those who believe the Bible is God’s revealed word and those who don’t between “orthodox” believers and everyone else. The resulting “pissing match,” as reporters call an “us versus them” story, is easy to frame and familiar to report. Moreover, it echoes a popular paradigm, for both religion and politics, of conservatives against liberals.

The problem is that it dumbs down a complex debate: What do religious people choose to believe from the Bible, and why? The Bible, and Jesus for that matter, explicitly condemns divorce. But George Barna, whose market research firm specializes in Christianity and culture, has found that “born-agains” (his term) have the same divorce rate as other religious and non-religious groups. The Hebrew Bible, where prohibitions against homosexuality can be found, forbids the mixing of milk and meat, accepts polygamy and recommends stoning for disobedient children. What hermeneutic makes homosexuality a Biblical taboo while these other directives are ignored? Casting the debate as a conflict between “orthodox” interpretations and relativists ignores the sociological truth that, save for those who live in cloistered religious communities, we are all relativists to some degree.

Smith is correct when he says the knowledge class ignored religion for most of the twentieth century. In fact, the first step to improving religion coverage would be to make world religions a mandatory course in American schools. In his new edited collection, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests and Conflict in the Secularization of American Life, Smith includes an essay by sociologist Richard Flory explaining how, in the early 20th century, journalism’s secular elites, believing their profession to be the new religion, marginalized the competition. Media scholar Jay Rosen, in his blog Pressthink, suggests not much has changed. In this light, the media’s dismissal of religion may be a case of professional hostility; both claim the power to frame stories and shape ideas.

While some critics speculate on “the problem” journalists have with religion, the point is not whether reporters are hostile, suspicious, ignorant or just uninformed. The bottom line is they need to “get” religion; not just its sociopolitical significance but also its ideas and beliefs—if they want to faithfully cover today’s world. Religious folk who want reporters to take religion seriously might be careful what they wish for. The toughest questions have yet to be asked.

Diane Winston is the Knight Chair for Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.