Religion in (or Out of) the News

Are there ANY major stories not related to religion? Terry Mattingly takes a look.

From Poynteronline
Posted, Jan. 22, 2006
Updated, Jan. 22, 2006

By Terry Mattingly

Year after year, the late George Cornell would read the Associated Press’ list of the world’s top 10 news stories and then shake his head in amazement.

For decades, Cornell was the AP’s only religion-beat specialist for the planet earth. Stop and think about that job for a moment. While trying to handle a tsunami of daily news stories on the beat, Cornell also worked hard to get his news organization to realize it was only scratching the surface.This would really hit home every year in that top-10 story list.

There’s almost always a religious element involved — and it’s almost always a powerful one,” Cornell told me. That was back in the early 1980s, when I was researching my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”The same thing is going on in the human-rights struggles around the world,” he said. “People just don’t see where the hammer is falling — where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it.”

In fact, Cornell said he could not remember a year in which the Associated Press list did not have at least five stories that included a strong news hook linked to debates about religion, ethics or morality. Often, the number was higher than that.

In other words, the coverage of many of the world’s biggest news stories could be improved if mainstream editors would add a religion-news professional to the team assigned to handle them. The goal, he said, was not to cover “religion news,” but to cover the role that religion played in shaping the news.I’ve been reading that top-10 list with this in mind ever since. Let’s look at the stories, one by one, in the Associated Press report about the 2005 poll.

1.) The top story — Hurricane Katrina — was also the No. 4 story in the top-10 list of religion news stories produced by the Religion Newswriters Association.

2.) The transition from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI on the throne of St. Peter at the Vatican. Enough said.

3.) Iraq: the country faces a wave of suicide bombers while bracing for historic elections. Any religious themes involved in any of this, among the bombers or the politicos?

4.) The battle for the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s see, were there any questions raised about the role of religious faith in the work of Catholic John Roberts, the born-again Harriet Miers or Catholic Samuel Alito? Any religion hooks in the clashes over abortion?

5.) Rising crude-oil prices. We will give this one a pass, even though most of the oil is coming from the tense Middle East.

6.) Attacks in July on three rush-hour subway trains in London killed 56 people, including four bombers with ties to Islamic militants. Here is a painful question: Can the press cover the role of religion in terrorism today?

7.) Earthquake near the Pakistan-India border kills 74,000-plus, leaving 3 million or more homeless. Religious groups were involved in the relief effort, noted the RNA poll, while this and other disasters also raised the question: Where is God?

8.) An agonizing family debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo turns into a national firestorm about the right to life and the right to die. Religious leaders and politicians on both sides accuse each other of trying to “play God.”

9.) The chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney is indicted after an investigation of a Bush administration leak about Valerie Plame of the CIA. We’ll give this one a pass, too.

10.) The struggles of President Bush. In the year of Katrina, there are doubts about Iraq, contentious U.S. Supreme Court nominations, etc. I do not know how, in the era of the red-versus-blue states, counties and ZIP codes, a major news organization covers this presidency (or that of Bill Clinton, come to think of it) without the help of a reporter fluent in the concerns of the religious right and left.

So there you have it — seven or eight out of 10, depending on the outcome of a few judgment calls. I am sure that nothing in that list would have surprised Cornell, or anyone else who has worked on the religion beat for a decade or two.

All of this reminds me of a speech by church historian Martin Marty at a conference on religion and the news at the University of Nebraska’s journalism school. You have heard of Marty, I am sure, because he is the journalistic gold standard when it comes to providing information and sound bites about religion. For years, “God-beat” veterans have had a cynical saying that goes something like this: The way to land a religion story on Page One at most American newspapers was to get yourself “three local anecdotes, a major poll and a quote from Martin Marty.”

Many reporters and editors are moving past that cliché these days. Marty would be the first person to applaud this trend. However, as he said in his Nebraska speech, he also believes that it’s time to move past the old “what is religion news?” question. It’s time to ask, he said: “In the wake of Sept. 11, is there any news today that IS NOT religion news?”

“We are now dealing with issues that all journalists are going to have to try to understand,” he said. “The horizons of religion and the news have touched and we all have to realize that, now.”

Look at that AP list again and tell me that Marty and Cornell are wrong.
Copyright © 1995-2006 The Poynter Institute

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