In search of religion on the campaign trail

By Debra L. Mason

Celebrated U.S. church historian Martin Marty once asked me what religion beat journalists thought of a then-recent book outlining how journalists cover and think about religion.

The book’s author sat next to me.

I evaded the question—I thought it impolite to confess that religion reporters spend far less time analyzing what they do than their audiences or academics. I was nearly certain not even one religion reporter had read the book—or even cared to.

I feel a little sense of déja vu in this dialogue. Well-meaning preconceptions by people who haven’t worked the beat in the daily newspaper trenches year after year don’t quite hit the mark in terms of a religion writers’ reality—or their desire or ability to change longstanding journalistic tradition.

Religion reporters are part of a larger newsroom culture and well-entrenched there—nearly always coming to the beat from a different one.

That positioning makes them journalists first, and religion beat specialists second. The journalistic values of reporters writing about religion—complex and evolving as they are—do not generally differ from those who cover politics, medicine, education, or cops.

That’s not to defend those values or critique them–that’s not today’s task here–but rather it is to say that good or bad, religion reporters writing about politics fall into the same traps and journalistic mannerisms as non-religion reporters.

Witness the coverage of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings when they discuss sex abuse—and it’s obvious religion reporters are just as likely to succumb to pack journalism as campaign reporters.

To fix most problems with campaign coverage you have to look beyond the religion beat, to the larger journalistic community and conventions. Perhaps most importantly, you have to look at the same gatekeeping bosses both religion and campaign reporters share.

That said, religion reporters at their best can contribute to more complete, complex campaign journalism. Their contributions are richer than just recognizing religious rhetoric or ritual.

Reporting the Gray Areas

Former award-winning, Dallas Morning News Religion Editor Diane Connolly–now editor ofReligionLink–reminds us that politicians like to present things in black and white—clear successes and failures.

But, “If there is one thing religion reporters know,” Connolly says, “it is that there are few black-and-white issues.

“Reporting on religion is about acknowledging the gray areas of life: what happens when parents who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality have a child who tells them he or she is gay, or other situations where official teaching collides with unexpected experience.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Gayle White, the only religion reporter I know of who is covering values and voters groups fulltime for this year’s campaign, describes the messiness of understanding and reporting on how values shape people’s behaviors, thoughts and votes.

“Some voters, such as many African-American Christians, feel quite torn,” White says. “Their religious values tell them that same-sex people shouldn’t marry and abortion should be severely restricted, but that the government should help the poor and oppressed. Some voters who oppose abortion also oppose the death penalty and support strict gun control.

“Neither party is likely to satisfy either of those groups, who may feel they have to choose between two very important values.

“For many people, applying their religious beliefs and values to everyday life —including politics— is a struggle. They genuinely want to make good decisions, but they’re not always sure what those are.”

You don’t have to be a religion reporter to get that, but you better at least realize the importance of religion in America, both in individual people’s lives and in this overtly Judeo-Christian culture, White says.

These “gray zone” stories are not about the horse race or polls or he-said-she-said, and that’s their beauty. But they require subtlety, nuance and perhaps most importantly time—all things the U.S. newsroom has in scant supply these days.

To see an idea of how religion journalists frame stories reflecting the “gray zone” (and in a shameless plug for an RNA resource to help reporters get a grip on this) check out some recent ReligionLink story tips geared to the presidential campaign. Nine veteran, award-winning religion reporters and editors put these together:

Guide to covering the election

Covering pulpit and pew

Abortion and politics

Catholics and the White House

Bush and Evangelicals

The religious divide in party politics

While awareness of the “gray zones” might be the single biggest contribution religion-aware journalists bring to campaign coverage, they also understand the history behind some modern debates and the no-brainer of course is their recognition of religious rhetoric.

Placing the “now” in historical context

Religion reporters see the classic tales of greed, hubris, love, honor, transformation and redemption, in many religious texts and scriptures. So it’s easier for them to recognize the modern apparel these ancient issues wear today.

The tensions between church and state in this country have a rich history as well, and one religion reporters are most likely to know.

“Understanding the historical American struggle between the two parts of the religion clause in the First Amendment–freedom of expression of religion and freedom from government-imposed religion–helps to understand what’s going on in some quarters this year,” White says.

“Sometimes the same people want to be able to express their faith without government restriction, but don’t want the government to seem to endorse any expression. Thus–do you display the 10 Commandments in a courthouse or not? Do you have a moment of silence at school or not? Do you have the right to wear a ‘Jesus Loves You’ t-shirt to public school or not?”

Diversifying Voices

Connolly hopes for another result from reporters including religion angles in this year’s campaign coverage.

“If there is one positive legacy left by all the reporting on religion and politics this year, I hope it is an expansion of interview sources. That will lead to deeper and more sophisticated reporting in the future.

“Religion is probably the most studied and analyzed topic of all times, and an awful lot of smart, articulate and, sometimes, prophetic people devote their lives to it. There are people who are quietly studying the way public expressions of religion are changing in this country, and how that affects governments and life in general.

“Instead, we hear from the same old sources over and over again,” Connolly says, urging journalists to go beyond institutional religions’ official voices.

People who don’t know where to go for sources most likely pick up the ones quoted elsewhere, contributing to source recycling.

The How

All this begs the question of how to achieve a religious I.Q. in the country’s chaotic, territorial and competitive newsrooms.

To be sure there are more resources like ReligionLink, ReligionSource, professional training and the like to help. But despite a lot of foundation money going into some excellent resources, no one has quite hit upon the magic button.

And I don’t think they’ll find one. Rather, it will take everyone’s combined efforts to see real change.

I look forward to a rigorous post-mortem on the campaign, perhaps on The Revealer, to see how we’ve done.

Debra L. Mason, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Religion Newswriters Associationand co-editor of an anthology of religion reporting, Readings on Religion as News.

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