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.
Mattingly recalled a conversation with the late George Cornell, a long-time religion writer for the Associated Press. Cornell told him that the AP's yearly list of top 10 news stories in the world always contains at least five topics with an obvious religion component.
In 2010, for example, seven of the top 10 AP stories of the year had a religion angle: the health care overhaul because it dealt with abortion, the U.S. elections, Iraq, Afghanistan, the tea party movement and even the rescue of the Chilean miners.
"You can find a religion angle to pretty much any story," said Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, a news organization that produces and syndicates news about religion. "Sometimes it takes a degree of sophistication to see it, but that's what we do day in and day out."
A DIVIDE IN RELIGIOSITY
Mattingly and others have documented myriad examples of missed faith angles. But the question of why such a disconnect exists is complex.
Some look to the religious beliefs of journalists for answers. The most recent data on that are the 10-year-old statistics from the Indiana University indicating that journalists are less likely to affiliate with a religion and less likely to say religion is important to them than the American public.
Barbara Walters acknowledged a personal lack of religious experience when talking about the show on heaven she worked on with Wallace. "I didn't have a very religious family," she told Beliefnet.com. But she was fascinated by the topic and worked hard to get the story right. "This was an education for me," she said.
Nearly all the sources interviewed for this story said reporters who specialize in covering religion tend to do an excellent job, and that problems or gaps most often exist when other journalists find themselves in unfamiliar religious territory.
For example, said Eckstrom of Religion News Service, a secular reporter may parachute into the Presbyterian debate over gay clergy without knowing the background or important players.
"When it's done badly, it tends to be because the reporters aren't well-versed or well-trained. To a degree it's not their fault, but they still have the obligation to do it right, and their editors have an obligation to take it seriously and to make sure what they're doing is done right," he said.
Another theory for the disconnect between the high religiosity of Americans on one hand and a tentativeness on the part of journalists in covering it on the other is that journalists fear getting it wrong.
"Journalists are afraid of religion not because they don't understand it's a big part of the story, but because it can be so contentious, especially when it's a situation they haven't been exposed to," said Elizabeth Tenety, editor of The Washington Post's On Faith forum. "It feels like a landmine, and when they have so much else to report on the story, it's easy to say, I'm on a deadline. This is relevant, but I don't have time to get to it.' "
Asking about a person's religion can feel to a journalist like asking about their weight, said Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a blogger with Mattingly at GetReligion.org. Religion is a personal subject, and some interviewees may not want to talk about it.
AN EDUCATION PROBLEM
But reasons for this hesitancy may go deeper than trying to be politically correct.
The underlying problem is one of education, said Michael Cromartie, Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center think tank in Washington, D.C., and founder of the Faith Angle Forum conference for journalists.
"The simple reason the press is this way is that they've all gone to universities where the secularist mindset is the norm. It's a higher education problem. They've been incubated in a world where religion is seen as a phenomenon of the past," he said.
Cromartie tells about a reporter who called him in the 1990s with questions about why Southern Baptists were debating the role of women in marriage.
"I said, Let me begin this way. In the book of Ephesians, Paul says —' "
"And she interrupted me and said, Wait a minute, what was the book you just mentioned? Who's the author?' and a third question: Who's the publisher?'
"I had to stop and explain that there's a book called the Bible, there's an Old Testament and a New Testament, and in the New Testament there's a letter from an apostle named Paul," he said.
The gap in this reporter's understanding, Cromartie said, went back to a gap in her education.
"I understand how it can happen. You go to Columbia School of Journalism, you work at the New York Times, you were raised in a secular family, and somebody says, 'Ephesians.' And you go, What's the name of that book again?' "
Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, tends to agree that higher education is a factor.
He adds that many people at their professional peak now have a religion gap in their training because they were educated in the academia of the 1970s, an environment in which religion was assumed to be marginal to public life and perhaps disappearing altogether.
Journalism, the academy, and the government sector all draw heavily from Ivy League and other elite universities on the east and west coasts, Lugo said, areas which tend to be relatively less religious than the rest of the country. But these professionals are increasingly sensitive to the importance of religion and are learning about it on the job.
A RECURRING ISSUE
Historically speaking, questions about religion coverage were around long before the 1970s.
As far back as 1934, the National Council of Christians and Jews became concerned about a lack of good religion stories in the press and answered by founding the Religion News Service, still in operation today as a nonprofit organization.
But the current debate over media coverage of religion, according to Cromartie, has its roots in the late 1970s when journalists were taken by surprise by the rise of the religious right. Evangelical Christians, he said, were deeply disappointed by Jimmy Carter, and their exodus from the Democratic party to the Republican party in response to Roe v. Wade and other cultural issues dramatically changed the political landscape.
The mainstream media began scrambling to learn about and cover religion, adding religion reporters and Saturday religion sections. What most of them missed, said Cromartie, was that Christians weren't trying to impose their views on America, but rather, they first felt imposed upon by the secular media and were waging a "defensive offensive," as Harvard's Nathan Glaser called it.
9/11 exposed a new gap in religious knowledge, not just among journalists but among Americans more generally.
Three years later, the 2004 election again caught the media establishment off guard. The 22 percent of voters who said "moral values" mattered most to their vote set off a debate about the validity of the survey question, but also sparked a new discussion of whether the press is in touch with religious movements in the U.S.
Many observers, including Cromartie, say journalists are much more informed and sensitive about religion than they were a decade ago. But gaps still exist and new issues of faith will continue to crop up that require a steep learning curve, such as Mormons running for president, international conflicts, or a host of other unpredictable issues, he said.
DIFFERENT VIEWS OF TRUTH
Another reason for the discrepancy in religion coverage may be that journalism and religion assume different worldviews and ways of knowing truth.
E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post and long-time observer of the nexus between journalism and faith, says "there really is a fundamental conflict between the definition of truth used by journalists and the definition accepted by people of religious faith."
Doubting Thomas, he said, could be the patron saint of the journalistic profession.
"Our rules say, Prove it. Show it to me. Give me the evidence. Do you have two sources on the Virgin Birth? Why should we believe these guys who said they saw Jesus after he died?' "
On the one hand, he said, the basic skepticism of the journalist can strike religious people as wrong and even ungodly. On the other hand, a certain skepticism is unavoidable and is, in most contexts, a healthy aspect of the journalistic craft.
Dionne suggested that journalists should be willing to suspend disbelief and enter, even temporarily, into the world of the religious believer, giving as an example a story he wrote about a Catholic exorcist during his time in Italy covering the Vatican for the New York Times.
"He deeply believed he had encountered Satan," Dionne said, "and while I'm not big on Satan myself, it was impossible to doubt that this man's description of what he had encountered was entirely honest. I quoted him respectfully in my story. I couldn't resist at the end of the story quoting from C.S. Lewis's 'Screwtape Letters' in which Satan tells his nephew, and I quote roughly, all we have to do is get them to believe we don't exist and then we've won.' "
At the same time, Dionne said, people of faith may be partly responsible for the coverage they dislike.
"Churches themselves may actually discourage, rather than encourage, more extensive coverage and treatment of religious subjects. They do this unintentionally when they take offense, not simply at generally unfair coverage, but also at quite normal, less than favorable coverage."
Dionne suggested that believers need to develop a thicker skin when they choose to engage in the political realm — a realm that can be brutal to religious and non-religious alike.
CHANGING THE DISCONNECT
Mattingly of GetReligion.org also maintains that religious organizations and journalistic enterprises share responsibility for the disconnect.
"At the back of it all is the need for more intellectual and cultural diversity in our newsrooms. And I blame religious institutions and schools for that as much as I blame the newsroom," he said.
Mattingly believes that religious people can change journalism, but only if they appreciate it and take steps to get involved. "How can religious people expect journalism to improve when they hate journalism? Journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not by people who hate it."
His colleague Bailey added that newsrooms can only hire more religious people if religious people are applying to be hired. But many religious people shy away from the journalistic profession in favor of other fields to which they feel more called, she said.
Mattingly also has suggestions for religious organizations being covered by the media. Ministers, he said, could start by not asking reporters where they go to church, but instead how long they have covered religion. Religious leaders could also ask reporters who want to interview them to read certain articles in order to prepare.
Cromartie also suggests that educating journalists — and not just religion beat reporters — about religion is key. He founded the Faith Angle Forum, a biannual conference that brings together scholars of religion and top journalists, with this in mind.
"I'm not one who goes around beating the media up and saying they're extremely biased. They need information, and once they get it, they get it. We know about media bias. But I also know real professionals who say, I want to know the history of American evangelical Protestantism. Help me because I'm writing my story.' "
He cites the example of Michelle Boorstein, a religion writer at The Washington Post. She called Cromartie to talk about evangelical leader Charles Colson, and they spoke for more than an hour.
"She wasn't looking for a way to nail Chuck. She wanted to get Chuck right. And she did."
Cromartie says there are two kinds of secular journalists: those who are oblivious to the religion angle but are good people and open to learning; and those who are nasty and have an anti-religious agenda. The latter, he says, are few, but they do exist in newsrooms.
Cromartie also uses the Faith Angle conferences to introduce journalists not just to more information, but to more people of other faiths than they would meet otherwise.
"They see (religious people) as Martians from another planet. Then when they meet them, they go, They're awfully nice.' "
A case in point: Cromartie invited evangelical pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren to a Faith Angle event at the Pew Forum in 2009.
"There was Rick, walking around the room hugging all these guys. I can't imagine, if we'd done the same event 30 years ago, Jerry Falwell walking around the room hugging (journalist) David Kirkpatrick and saying, Oh, David, I love your writing, I read your stuff, good to meet you, come here!' "
The time journalists spent with Warren, Cromartie said, showed them "he's not a frightening guy, he's a regular guy. These people need to talk to each other. They really need to have a civil conversation. (Reporters) need to not only read an article about them,' but they need to meet them.' "
But educating reporters may not be enough. Editors also need to be educated, said Eckstrom of Religion News Service.
"It's great if reporters want to cover religion, but if the editor doesn't make it a priority or doesn't give them resources they need to do it, it doesn't matter," he said. Editors control resources and assignments, and when money gets tight they tend to look at religion reporting as expendable.
But this is ironic, said Eckstrom, because religion news stories are so popular.
"Once (religion) is done and done well, editors love it because it brings in readers, and it brings in awards. At USA Today, religion is one of their top traffic generators," he said, also citing On Faith as a popular blog at The Washington Post.
It's the same thing ABC News saw with the Barbara Walters special on heaven — there is a market for religion coverage, and there are religion ghosts in much of today's media coverage.
Mattingly has a simple formula for coaxing these religion ghosts out of the shadows:
"Do a cultural and intellectual study of the role of religion in those events. And then you just quote people. Pretend it's journalism. Go talk to qualified people, go talk to the people who are involved, and then quote them."
Celeste T. Rosenlof contributed to this story.