The news editor at the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette — my first real newsroom gig — had an interesting name for for a certain kind of over-the-top reader who would call to complain about the news.
It didn’t really matter if the reader’s criticism was right or wrong. It was all about tone and, especially, whether or not the reader was complaining about a subject that editors took seriously.
My editor referred to these callers as “green frogs.”
You see, many of these adamant readers were complaining about issues linked to religion, morality and politics. (At that time, the born-again Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the Religious Right was just starting to organize.)
As the complaining went on and on, the news editor’s eyes would glaze and he would put the caller on hold. That’s when I would hear the following, since everyone knew that I wanted to become a religion-beat pro: “Mattingly, there’s a green frog on the phone! You talk to them.”
This brings us to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in), in which host Todd Wilken asked a question that, in various forms, I have heard a thousand times over the past 40+ years.
Yes, that would be: Why don’t journalists “get” religion?
However, there are many variations. Why don’t editors hire trained religion-beat reporters? Why do newsrooms mess up the basic facts in some many religion stories? Why do many, not all, journalists IGNORE essential religion issues and themes in important news and events? Why do religious issues show up so often in studies probing media bias? Long ago, back when journalists in major newsrooms dared to fill out surveys about their work, why did half of pros in elite newsrooms write the word “none” in the space describing their religious faith?
I could go on and on. My chosen wording is this: Why don’t newsroom managers handle religion news with the same old-school journalism methodology — hire reporters who have training and experience on this beat and let them do their work — that they apply to subjects that they respect (such as politics, sports, law, arts, business, etc.)? When covering culture-shaping stories in which religion is clearly a factor, such as many cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, why not use a team approach in which the religion-beat professional plays a role in the coverage?
This was, of course, the subject of my 80-page graduate project at the University of Illinois in the early 1980s, which ran (in shortened form) as a cover story at The Quill journal in January 1983: “The Religion Beat — Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets.”
That essay led to some national debate on the topic, including a series of stories by the late, great, media-beat reporter David Shaw of The Los Angeles Times. Shaw, who was candid about his own liberal views, returned to a related topic in a 1990 series that opened with this: “Media Bias Seeps Into News.”
While researching the Illinois thesis, I heard many mainstream editors say that, to them, religion news was “too boring.” The same editors then — frequently — also said religion was “too controversial.”
That’s the problem. The world is packed with boring, controversial religion stories.
What’s that all about? Here is a key passage from the original Quill essay:
… Louis Moore of The Houston Chronicle said he has had trouble with secular editors as well as “anti-religion” editors. Moore said the nature of the religion beat is different. Often the vocabulary and style of religion make writers and editors uncomfortable.
“The problem is that a lot of journalists have not come to grips with their feelings about religion,” Moore explained. “And I’m not saying that they have to be born again, that they have to be evangelical. Many journalists are just not at ease with religious movements, with religious people, with their own religious feelings….
“Often, people carry with them elements of religion that are associated with the family. When they think of religion they think of mama poking it down their throats. They don’t see religion in the wider context. I just see a lot of hangups in a lot of journalists.”
In fact, Moore said he believes many of the stereotypes of religion reporting have developed because of hangups about religion. It is easier to say religion is “boring” than to admit you are confused by religion or afraid of religion.
“Many journalists are afraid of religion. I think what they are really saying is, ‘I’m not at peace with this subject, and I can’t see how you can be. I don’t see how you deal with these people,’ ” Moore said.
Here is another quote that riled up some people, care of the late George Cornell, who covered religion news (his beat was all of Planet Earth) for decades at the Associated Press:
“You know, usually, where people put their time and money, that’s where their interests are,” Cornell said. “Newspapers give a great deal of space to professional sports … [Americans] put into the local and national churches much greater amounts of money than they do into professional sports. And that money is their work. That’s them. That’s a projection of their own lives. “They are putting much more time and money into religion than they are into sports-and sports are getting the vast displays on television and in the newspapers. Whole sections of the newspaper. … Newspapers’ attention and space are supposed to be geared to people’s interest. Right?”
On the 25th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column, I returned to this topic. Here is yet another variation on the essential “why don’t the GET religion” question:
The other big mystery, for me, is why professionals who lead newsrooms rarely seek out experienced, even trained, religion reporters. Discussions of this topic often reference a religion-beat opening that Washington Post editors posted in 1994, noting that their “ideal candidate” was “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”
Please note the word “ideal.” Try to imagine editors saying that their “ideal” candidate to cover the U.S. Supreme Court would be someone who is not an expert in the law. How about similar notices for reporters covering politics, education, sports, science and film?
“The religion beat is too complicated today for this kind of approach to be taken seriously,” said Russell Chandler, who covered religion for years at the Los Angeles Times. I interviewed him for “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” from Oxford Press.
“If you don’t have experience, you have to pay your dues and get some. Then you have to keep learning so that you get the facts right today and tomorrow and the day after that,” he said. “I have never really understood what this argument is about. It’s like saying that we want to sign up some people for our basketball team, and we don’t really care whether or not they can play basketball.”
I’ll end this podcast background piece — please listen to the case studies in the podcast — with a quote from my second cover story for The Quill — “Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage? — written 10 years after the original piece.
This is long, but essential. The bottom line: Prejudice against religious believers is real, but rare. There are other essential “biases” — bias defined as forces steering the news business — that are more important.
* The bias of space, time and resources. Simply stated: You cannot print a story if you have little space in which to print it, time to write it, or the money to hire a professional to do so.
An example: In 1983 I received a series of anonymous calls from a PTL Club insider. He offered proof of a scandal involving Jim Bakker, but he said we must meet in an airport far from Charlotte. My editors said there were few, if any, funds for religion travel. The source refused a local meeting and signed off by saying: “Just remember this name – Jessica Hahn.”
Many editors insist resources are too thin to support professional religion coverage. But anyone who understands newsrooms knows budgets are windows into the priorities of those who manage them. Budgets help shape news.
* The bias of knowledge. Fact: You cannot write a story if you do not know that it exists.
Recently, I saw a feature article on prayer based on quotes from three small-church pastors in Denver. The newspaper’s region included at least four internationally known groups that specialize in prayer ministries, yet their leaders were not quoted. The big question: Did anyone in the newsroom know these groups existed?
Many journalists work hard to become trained political, arts or sports reporters. But editors do not consider it a high priority to hire professional religion writers. Why not?
* This leads to the bias of worldview. Simply stated: It is hard to write a good story if you don’t care that it exists. The result is, at best, a blind spot on religious issues, and the people who care about them.
A now infamous case came in February, when The Washington Post printed a story that said evangelical Christians are “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” A Post correction bluntly said there was “no factual basis” for this statement. Reporter Michael Weisskopf repented, sort of, and said he should have written that evangelicals are “relatively” poor, uneducated and easy to command.
Post ombudsman Joann Byrd made the following point: “When journalists aren’t like, or don’t know, the people they are writing about, they can operate with no ill will whatsoever and still not recognize that a statement doesn’t ring true. It may be even harder to see how deeply offensive a common perception can be.” …
* Finally, there is the bias of prejudice. It’s hard to produce balanced, fair coverage of people you dislike, distrust, or whom you feel are irrelevant.
Yes, many on the right like to blame all poor, negative or shallow religion coverage on this fourth bias. … I am convinced that the first three biases play greater roles in shaping religion coverage, with the “bias of worldview” being the most important. The bottom line: A vast majority of Americans, and this is a proven fact, know more about religion, and care more about religion, than most journalists.
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited photo of “Hyla cinerea — Green Treefrog,” at the Herbs of Arkansas website.