Mormon Media Observer: Religion writing seeing noticeable improvement

Published: Monday, Feb. 6 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

In the late 1990s, Trinity College professor Dr. Mark Silk wrote a powerful book about news and religion coverage. Like so many other authors before him, he seemed to bemoan the quality of news coverage of religion.

The traditional complaint about news coverage of religion was — and continues to be — that news reporters are secular, and more irreligious in their outlook.

You need only look at a 2007 report by the Pew Charitable Trust to see that news reporters tend to be significantly less religious than their fellow Americans outside the newsroom.

Silk's unusual criticism, however, argued something more subtle by approaching the problem from a different angle. Media, in his view, are "unsecular." His idea was that news reporters of the 20th century rarely questioned religion and instead wrote trite stories about religion with little room for variety or doctrine. They accepted that religion — mainstream Protestant religion — was a good thing.

The religion coverage of the not-so-distant past focused on festivals of helping the poor and of cute little girls in their Easter dresses, rather than on the inner life of the religious. Religion coverage was often consigned to a back page on Saturday. Religion in the news was milquetoast much of the time.

But much has changed in the news coverage of religion since Silk finished his book — and I think that change has been largely a good thing.

For one thing, major news organizations have devoted reporters to cover religion at the national level — full time. These reporters, rather than relying on press releases about pot luck suppers in some pastor's backyard, now talk about the controversies and meanings of religion in American life.

Don't get me wrong, I have numerous quibbles with religion reporters and with their coverage. Often the reports stereotype religious believers; Latter-day Saint beliefs seem strange and evangelicals often seem bigoted, for example.

Second, these reporters usually struggle with how to cover scripture and revelation, two issues at the heart of religious experience.

However, there seems a growing willingness to discuss how religion influences the lives of believers and of how religion shapes them. In short, there are noticeable and meaningful improvements in the coverage of religion in recent years.

Thanks to the Internet, mainstream news organizations are able to produce new and exciting blogs about religion. For my money, the two best are CNN's Belief Blog and the Washington Post's On Faith blog. (This doesn't include the wonderful blogs of the Religion News Service, which late last week covered a conference in New York about Mormonism and the presidential campaign of Joseph Smith and did a thorough, fair post on the Latter-day Saints being unusual in the proportion of members who tithe.)

I thought of all this when I read a posting to CNN's Belief Blog earlier last week. In it, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan lays what her dying patients teach her about faith and family. The piece nearly made me cry.

Here is just one beautiful excerpt:

"We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully — just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters."

Maybe I responded to this moving piece because my dear brother served for many years as a hospice chaplain and told me similar stories, but I suspect it is the pure power of what was posted that most moved me.

Egan's post has been linked to on Facebook more than 15,000 times, "retweeted" nearly 1,000 times and is the subject of more than 3,000 comments online at CNN.com.

So I am not alone. This piece struck a nerve — in the way all good journalism should — because of its human insights.

To be sure, the media coverage of religion remains flawed, sometimes deeply, but as this amazing post in a mainstream news outlet shows, news organizations are increasingly grappling with the power and beauty of religion in all of its forms by showing how it is lived.

This is a good thing.

Many times, with slowly increasing frequency, these organizations do get it right.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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