The meeting room at the Marriott Hotel on the Plaza in Kansas City was packed with military officers from several dozen nations, all currently taking classes at the Air War College in Alabama. (The photo here shows some of the group.)
I had been asked to be part of a three-person panel to address the religion subject. My cohorts were the Rev. Dr. Kara Hawkins, representing the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, and the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet, whose pioneering interfaith work in this area led to the founding of that council.
Well, it's silly to imagine that you can cover such a broad topic in an hour plus some individual conversations over lunch. And we didn't try. But I was asked to talk about the way the media cover religion in the U.S.
If you're one of my regular readers you may know that I think media coverage of religion is often inadequate and not well done when it's done at all. But I thought you might want to know how I addressed the question for these international visitor. So here, barely edited for space, is what I said to them:
What does it mean to be a journalist who writes about religion? It means I try to be an exegete of the world. That is, I seek to draw eternal meaning out of what and whom I see around me and to offer the gift of that meaning to my readers — not to entertain them but to get them to think.
That, of course, requires me to be mindful, as my Buddhist friends might say, to notice, to pay attention. Then I am called to hold what I have noticed up to the light, to think about it, to juxtapose it to other things I have noticed and to extract some useful meaning.
That is at least one role the media have in covering religion. In addition, of course, the media should be informing the public about developments and trends in religion, such as the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated — now nearly 20 percent of adults. And the media should be a place where adherents of one faith tradition can learn about another tradition.
So how well are the media in the U.S. doing that job? The sad answer is not well at all. Oh, there are certainly some excellent journalists doing their best to cover all of this and more. I think of my friends at Religion News Service, for example. But on the whole media coverage of religion in America is inadequate and at times incompetent.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was writing this book, The Art of Column Writing. She asked me for some advice about writing religion columns. I want to share with you just a couple of sentences of what I told her and that she put in the book. Now, understand that what I’m about to say was aimed at columnists, but much of it also applies to straight news reporting:
"They (columnists) help readers understand the many ways in which religion drives the news. They unpack religious motives behind social, cultural and political movements. They show readers how this or that theological position leaders to this or that public policy or action. And they reveal now only the various ways in which religion-run-amok causes disaster but also the ways in which healthy and construction religion improves the world."
At least that’s the ideal. But is it happening?
When I was the faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, I was in a reasonably good position to have a sense of how religion gets covered by the mass media. As I say, I think the answer, generally, is badly. There are some exceptions, but on the whole the mass circulation media in the U.S. — newspapers, radio, TV, general interest news magazines — shortchange this field and cover it haphazardly.
Let me use The Kansas City Star as an example. In 2004, I moved my column from the editorial page, where I’d been for some 27 years, to the Faith section. In addition to doing a weekly column there, I also wrote many news and analysis pieces about religion.
But when I took formal retirement in the middle of 2006, the full-time religion coverage staff was cut in half, down to one person, Helen Gray, who had been The Star’s religion editor for decades. I love Helen to death and I thought she did amazing work, given the many limitations under which she was forced to work. But she was only one person — and then a few years later she retired, too. Today no one at The Star is assigned full-time to cover religion, though an editor with many other duties puts together the Saturday Faith section, which amounts to about a page and a half of news and features.
Although I’m not writing regularly for The Star any more, I do a daily blog called “Faith Matters” that The Star continues to feature on its website. But I do that because I want to do it. I am not paid to do the blog. Still, I think it gives readers more than the now-unstaffed weekly Faith section alone can give them.
At any rate, The Star is like many newspapers in that it now assigns either one person or no one full time to cover all of religion. Imagine a one-person sports department having to cover all pro sports, all college sports, high school sports, amateur sports, trend stories, court cases, statistics and on and on.
It would be crazy and irresponsible. But that’s the way most major metropolitan newspapers cover religion. Part of that is because readers don’t demand more and part of it is because editors just don’t seem to understand that there’s a thread of religion running through almost every story in the paper and that thread needs to be followed and explored by well-trained reporters and columnists.
As I was writing columns — both serious and allegedly humorous — for the editorial page, the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. Immediately I was thrust into the task of helping readers understand Islam, and how the hijackers had twisted that religion for ideological purposes. This task took on both professional and personal aspects because my own nephew, the only son of one of my sisters, was a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.
So not only did I have to try to understand how anyone could kill nearly 3,000 people out of perverted religious motivations but why anyone would want to kill Karleton, who left behind an 18-month old son and a pregnant widow. I have written a number of columns about the death of Karleton and I believe those columns have helped many readers put a human face on the catastrophe of 9/11.
To help me with the task of writing about Islam, I took a trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uzbekistan in 2002 to talk to religious and government authorities and I attended seminars about Muslims in America and, more broadly, religion in America.
But Islam was not the only subject I had to worry about. Indeed, as I’ve already said, I found a thread of religion running through almost every story in the paper every day, from the abortion debate to the appointment of federal judges, from the struggles to achieve equal rights for gays and lesbians to the efforts to find peace in the Middle East, from stem cell research to presidential speeches. And I had to help readers understand those threads.
So I worked to develop good sources and to stay abreast of trends. But now there’s no one at The Star to do that and few people at other newspapers to do that, though some religion coverage now happens on blogs like mine and in other higher-tech ways.
I wish I had better news about how the media cover religion in the U.S. But the media’s failures in this regard simply mean that individuals in our culture must make a more concerted personal effort to learn about other religions and to stay abreast of religious news generally. This kind of forum today is one way to do that and I’m glad you’re all here to be part of it. So I urge you to become smart consumers of news about religion — and if the media outlets you follow don’t give it to you, complain, complain, complain.
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JACK DANFORTH'S POINTED WORDS
One good thing some members of the media did in light of the funeral Tuesday of Missouri auditor Tom Schweich was to reprint the full text of former Sen. John Danforth's sermon. It was a clear, forceful and necessary word against antisemitism, bullying and politics-as-usual today in the case of a man who apparently took his own life. No doubt many of you have read quotes from it or seen clips of it, but I urge you to read the full text. And then to wonder where, today, are the good Republicans like Danforth and Schweich? Instead we get people like John Hancock and Ted Cruz. How sad, though in the end it's the fault of voters.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.