Missing faith: Getting religion in the newsroom

Published: Saturday, June 4 2011 10:49 p.m. MDT

Photo illustration by Josh Ferrin

Editor's note: This article is the first in a two-part series looking at the mainstream media's efforts to cover religion. Part two examines how newsrooms, educators and nonprofit organizations are finding new ways to cover religion.

Selling heaven wasn't easy.

But in early 2005, ABC News producer Rob Wallace knew he had the perfect subject for a Barbara Walters television special. His idea was to examine the effect of belief in heaven on the way people lived their lives.

But when Wallace pitched the idea, his colleagues at the network resisted because there is, of course, no footage of the afterlife.

Wallace pushed back.

"Listen, you've got to do this because if you want to talk about what drives people, this belief is what drives people," he said.

Wallace, a veteran news producer, prevailed, and a Barbara Walters special titled "Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There?" was broadcast on Dec. 20, 2005. It brought ABC News its highest ratings in four years.

"Everyone was pleasantly surprised," Wallace said. "We were tapping into an audience that usually doesn't come to us."

Wallace has successfully produced several stories that focused directly on belief. But for various reasons the American mainstream media, especially major outlets and national networks, are sometimes reluctant to cover religion. It's hard to quantify, but it's one reason faith elements of major news stories are often missed or ignored.

A 2002 survey (the most recent data available) of 1,149 randomly selected journalists conducted by the Indiana University found that 34 percent of journalists say they have no religious affiliation, compared with 13 percent among the general population who said the same in a 2002 Pew Research Center survey.

The journalists were also asked how important religion or religious beliefs were to them. Roughly a third (35 percent) said they were "very important." By comparison, the figure among the general population, as measured that same year by Gallup, was nearly double at 61 percent.

It is unclear whether changes in the religious makeup of journalists have taken place over the past 10 years. But there is evidence that coverage of religion may be changing as journalists become more educated about religion and as media organizations realize that a large segment of the population is hungry for stories that include faith.

"I think there is a huge group that is interested in this sort of thing, and I think big media doesn't serve that group," Wallace said. "We don't focus on the religious elements in many stories because we are in the business of reporting facts and known events rather than concepts based on faith."

GHOSTS IN THE NEWSROOM

Articles on religion, however, are only one element of religion coverage. Stories about other topics ranging from politics to business to international aid often have a religious component to them. When that component is missing from a story, it can result in what Terry Mattingly calls a "religion ghost."

Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., and is a national columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. He also has a life-long passion for helping media professionals understand how to better cover religion, which prompted him to head up the blog GetReligion.org where he critiques media coverage of religion.

It's a task that involves both evaluating stories about religion and hunting down religion ghosts — in other words, pointing out sins of commission and also of omission.

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