A popular YouTube video of strangers huddling together in a convenience-store cooler to survive the devastating Joplin, Mo., tornado vividly captured spontaneous prayers and acts of kindness among people in the throes of nature's fury. Was such behavior the exception or the rule? Little of the mainstream media's follow-on coverage of the tornado considered the poignant angle of faith and prayer even though the social media world was alight with its direct manifestation.
In "The Art and Craft of Feature Writing," the well-loved Wall Street Journal writer William Blundell encouraged beginning journalists to delve into "broad subject areas that interest you, that appear to touch the lives of many readers, and that the paper covers sporadically or barely at all." The two areas Blundell particularly recommended: faith and family. Why? Accordingly to Blundell, faith and family are the two topics "uncovered by practically everybody" in the news business although relevant to most readers.
In today's Deseret News, Michael De Groote and Allison Pond explore the disconnect between journalism and faith. The article explores a complex set of questions. Does the disconnect result from the education of journalists, the norms of the profession, the religious life of journalists, or the seeming inscrutability of belief?
Tellingly, the disconnect is not market driven. Religiously oriented stories and blogs at traditional news outlets drive significant online traffic. And why wouldn't they? As Robert Putnam and David Campbell document in their book "American Grace," Americans have very high rates of religious belonging, behaving and believing. Eighty-three percent of Americans report that they belong to a religion, 59 percent pray weekly, and 80 percent report an absolute belief in God.
If journalism wants to be relevant to its audience, journalism needs to connect to the religious sentiments of its readers.
But simply more coverage of religious topics and religious organizations is not precisely what Americans clamor for. Based on focus group responses from Deseret News readers representing a variety of faith traditions and geographic regions, there is a clear sense that readers believe standard journalism fails to reflect that religious belief and behavior are vital to almost every newsworthy story, not just those ostensibly about religion.
Breaking news is often about tragedy, betrayal or injustice. Such stories are infused with moral dimensions. If the moral sentiments of the vast majority of Americans are cultivated through faith, wouldn't one expect belief to appear in coverage of pain and loss? Readers don't want faith covered in a contrived, forced or overly sentimental way, but they would appreciate seeing it as a rigorous part of fleshing out the full human dimension of a story.
Whatever the causes for the secularization of journalism, we believe that as interactive technology brings journalists into closer contact with the hearts and minds of their audience, there is an opportunity to improve the connection between journalism and faith.
We foresee journalists who are schooled not just in their craft, but in the history and practices of the faith traditions within their communities. We look forward to more accurate and nuanced news coverage of faith and religion as vital forces for human motivation. We envision more stories of redemption that highlight individuals and families overcoming loss and betrayal, often through faith. In short, we wish to see in rigorous media coverage the full dimension of purpose and meaning that faith suffuses into the lives of most Americans.
The innovations in media that drive writers and audience to connect have helped identify the disconnect between the practice of journalism and the cherished faith-based ideals of readers. Media outlets that bridge that divide with rigor and integrity will be more relevant to an increasingly discerning audience.