A Dangerous Business

What it takes to increase religious literacy in newsrooms.

Debra L. Mason


Last November, as the finality of Donald Trump’s win in the United States presidential election flashed on my cell phone, I was in Cape Town, South Africa. It was my turn to address twenty-four professional journalists from across sub-Saharan Africa, as part of a weeklong training fellowship on covering religion and LGBTQ issues.

The journalists traveled from the Gambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Zambia, Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, Ghana—fifteen countries in all. They worked for international, regional, and specialty media.

Having just read about Trump’s win and readying myself to extol the standards of excellence in religion coverage, I suffered a meltdown I call PTSD—President Trump Stress Disorder.

Instead of lecturing, I started sobbing. I apologized on behalf of the United States and blathered on about being a privileged individual who believed in the virtues of democracy and the ideals that powered my identity as a U.S. citizen. I even sputtered that clichéd “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” business.

And in that instant, I realized my ridiculousness. To observers, I was a white, upper-middle-class citizen of one of the world’s richest economies who had the luxury of earning four college degrees.

My audience, in contrast, included one journalist who was exiled for nearly two years from his home in the Gambia. Most of the reporters lived in countries rife with government corruption. News media outlets in many regions were under heavy government influence. Some journalists had families decimated by AIDS or ethnic violence. The country where the training was held abolished Apartheid a mere twenty-five years ago.

I mention this embarrassing moment to give perspective to the difficult, although noble, task at hand: to improve the religious literacy of journalists and, by extension, the public. If the problem seems immense in the United States, consider its insurmountability across the globe.

Freedom of religion is restricted for three-fourths of the world’s population. Where religion is controlled—too often—so is freedom of speech and the press.

As Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero noted at an HDS symposium last fall, the world is a dangerous place for journalists and religious freedom advocates. Freedom of religion is restricted for three-fourths of the world’s population. Where religion is controlled—too often—so is freedom of speech and the press. Overt restrictions include the jailing of journalists in places such as Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia—the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 2016 brought a record in jailed journalists. Elsewhere, social hostilities encourage militia-style retributions, such as the hacking deaths of secularist bloggers in Bangladesh.

This problem of religious literacy and journalism is no less urgent in the United States. With religiously fueled hate speech spiking to record levels in recent years, the issue of religious literacy has renewed fervency in the United States; those whose concerns are piqued catch signals of interest from scholars, centers, foundations, donors, and NGOs. Such new energy toward an intransigent problem, however, collides with the crises found within major U.S. news media companies. Surveys show nearly four out of five people no longer trust “the media”—an imprecise term that conflates the likes of alt-right site Breitbart, entertainment gossip site TMZ, and reputable news companies such as The Boston Globe or NPR.

Indeed, assessments of the problem must first include an understanding of the devolution of daily journalism and its impact on the religion beat. What we used to call daily, weekly, and monthly print news outlets, news radio, public media, and educational television have all, for the most part, abandoned employing full-time specialists in religion news.

Although precision in tracking such things does not exist, metropolitan daily newspaper memberships have plummeted at the professional association for religion beat reporters, the Religion News Association. Newspapers and news companies in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Denver, Des Moines, Phoenix, San Diego, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Seattle, Milwaukee, and elsewhere have no one telling religion stories full time. At smaller media markets, the problem is worse. Although overall membership at the Religion News Association remains constant, its fastest growing membership category is among freelance journalists.

Abundant training and free resources already exist to mend the problem of journalistic illiteracy about faith and values. But systemic issues in today’s newsrooms—fewer journalists, little professional development support, and 24/7 news cycles that stretch staff thin—stunt a newsroom’s ability to produce faith and values content that meaningfully improves religious literacy.

This current lack of saliency for religion news was not always so. For example, the heyday of religion sections and content about religion was in the 1990s, more than one hundred years after their emergence following the American Civil War. By the 1920s, major newspapers usually had clearly identified religion sections. Even one hundred years ago, some journalists held the title “religion editor.”

Yet it wasn’t until the late 1980s through the early 2000s that religion sections thrived. In the 1990s especially, religion sections were glorious, with robust storytelling, engaging graphics, and diverse topics. Stories in these sections most often used non-conflict narrative frames and reflected diverse faiths and content. Complicated reasons exist as to why that moment in time spawned this unprecedented richness in journalistic attention and news hole space. But the primary reason, crass though it seems, is capitalism. News organizations are corporate entities, few of which are still family owned. The search for profits drives every decision on coverage and hiring.

In an era in which the Moral Majority brought evangelical Christianity more overtly into political discourse, the sections were a way to capture perceived audience interest in religion. But within two decades, publishers discovered that a religion section was no economic savior.

The problem of religious literacy is too big, too broad to ignore the profession of journalism. No medium reaches more people than news companies.

Advertisers, generally, failed to embrace religion sections—even advertisers such as Hobby Lobby, whose owners’ religious values are well known. For years, many newspaper corporate marketing directors didn’t ask seriously about religion news. Without such data or dollars, publishers had no choice but to begin killing religion sections and laying off staff. The decline in robust religion sections exacerbated both a bias of omission about religion in public life and a bias of simplistic frames honed on conflict. Perhaps most notably, when publishers began killing religion sections, few complained.

The religious illiteracy problem within newsrooms is further complicated by growing secularity in newsrooms themselves. The most reliable survey of the religiosity of nonsectarian journalists indicates more than one-third of all journalists view themselves as unaffiliated with a faith group—about twice the rate as the general U.S. population. Newsrooms also have far fewer journalists who identify as evangelical Christians than indicated in general public surveys.1 Reliable surveys are too small to measure the percentage of journalists among other faith traditions.

With nary a religion beat specialist in sight and growing secularity, religious illiteracy is as rampant in newsrooms as it is on city buses, in baseball stadiums, or in some university classrooms. Thus, it was a welcome surprise when New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet mentioned religion news in a wide-ranging Fresh Air radio interview following the 2016 election coverage.2

“I think that the New York–based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better,” Baquet told Fresh Air host Terry Gross.

Baquet’s musings were followed in the months since with queries for a handful of new religion specialists, including a position advertised at BuzzFeed to cover Muslim life. Yet even with this small recent uptick in religion beat journalists, there are not enough specialists seated in newsrooms.

Some believe creating nonprofit news organizations is the key to answering the problem of better-quality religion news, with scholars serving as core content producers. A number of sites, including The Immanent Frame, The Conversation, and Religion Dispatches, all rely on scholars to shoulder the heavy religious literacy work. The sites skew politically liberal and they reach primarily academic audiences, making them ineffective vehicles for broad-scale religious literacy efforts. For-profit religion-only sites such as Beliefnet and Patheos tried serious journalism and burned through millions of dollars in venture capital and earned revenue, only to ultimately fail. Today, the sites are outdated in design and busy with largely insignificant blog posts that help generate enough online revenue to keep them open.

Replacing journalists with scholars does not work on a large scale. The tenure and academic systems do not wholeheartedly support public commentary in ways that merit the time spent on such endeavors. Although a handful of academics have morphed into reputable and regular mass communicators, in most cases, they speak to elites. The problem of religious literacy is too big, too broad to ignore the profession of journalism. No medium reaches more people than news companies. Despite the inherent problems of religious illiteracy within the profession, we must work within journalism while seeking to improve religious illiteracy. This includes journalism produced by online-only news companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox, and Politico.

There are not enough resources and not enough money in the world to bring religious literacy to every journalist who needs it. However, it’s vital to have religion specialists in newsrooms who can flag gross inaccuracies. In the absence of economic or altruistic reasons to employ a religion specialist, the public, and religious scholars in particular, must plead the case with corporate news managers.

I further want to note the need for scholars of religion, politicians, NGOs, and other parties in the religious literacy arena to make sure journalists are included “in the room where it happens,” helping to collaborate on solutions to problems surrounding the public’s lack of religious knowledge. This is starting to occur at the American Academy of Religion, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in global forums countering violent rhetoric abroad, at Google, and within the U.S. State Department. These examples, however, are few and insufficient.

What we need are scholars, activists, and others who can elevate what’s exceptional from the swamp of information cluttering our feeds and in-boxes.

Related is the issue of case-study analysis itself. There are ample instances of the media’s failures. The sausage that is news journalism is messy in its making. What is not often done is to highlight and share examples of high-caliber journalism about religion, which does, in fact, exist. Every day you can find a story that includes context, history, empathy, and all the components of quality storytelling that serves to improve the public’s understanding of religion.3

At no time in our history have we had access to so much content about religion and so many resources to create quality content. But there’s a cacophony of content. What we need are scholars, activists, and others who can elevate what’s exceptional from the swamp of information cluttering our feeds and in-boxes. We need scholars to share where we get it right, so that great content can serve as models. These sorts of efforts have, to date, been insufficient and lacking.

Scholarship that looks at religious media or religious messaging and discourse is similarly sorely lacking in the profession. Religious media is not valued or respected as a serious scholarly pursuit. Students who wish to specialize in the topic in schools of journalism or mass communications are steered toward ethics or law or history as a more “viable” career goal.

Finally, scholars keen to impact the religious literacy of the public should be charitable toward journalists who seek them out for clarity on matters of religious practice and belief. The persistent dissing of journalists fails to fix the greater problem at hand: religious illiteracy. Scholars must know—and accept—that journalists looking for local or regional experts rarely grasp the intricate research specializations within religious studies or theology. Most journalists seek explication of simple concepts, a duty nearly any religious studies scholar can handle. And while the pace of academic publishing makes most daily journalism deadlines seem unreasonable to academics, it’s an urgency unlikely to change.

Challenges are inherent within the journalistic technique of information gathering, especially at local and regional news outlets. Mass communication is an imperfect art. But if the professional educators, who are best equipped to explain faith and belief to journalists, ridicule rather than inform them, how will the professional journalists who reach the largest mass audiences improve religious literacy themselves? Although acknowledging the imperfections of our professions is fair, the world is too dangerous and diverse for scholars and journalists not to partner together in this lofty quest for religious literacy.

 

Notes:

  1. Only about 5 percent of journalists call themselves evangelicals, compared to about one-quarter of the U.S. population who self-identify as evangelical.
  2. New York Times Executive Editor on the New Terrain of Covering Trump,” Fresh Air, National Public Radio, December 8, 2016.
  3. Stalwart religion scholar Martin Marty’s newsletter, Sightings, often riffs on such news.
 

Debra L. Mason is publisher emeritus of Religion News Service, and she directed the Religion News Association and its foundation for two decades. She is Professor of Journalism Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and director of its Center on Religion and the Professions. This is an edited version of a talk she delivered in the “Donald Trump and Evangelicals” panel during the “Religious Literacy and Journalism Symposium” held December 8–9, 2016, at HDS. The symposium was sponsored by the Religious Literacy Project, in collaboration with Boston University.

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