James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Journalism and religion

Posted by James McPherson on May 1, 2008

Journalists don’t cover religion as well as they could, for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons I discuss in my forthcoming book, and will not go into great detail here. But other than what will fit on around the church ads on the Saturday religion page, religous coverage tends to focus on how religion may affect politics (Rev. Jeremiah Wright, abortion, gay marriage) or on religious figures involved in scandals (Catholic pedophiles, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker) or who are perceived to outside of the theological mainstream (radical Muslims, Wright and Pat Robertson, though Robertson has gained an inexplicable media following). As I write in the book:

Despite the claims of some religious conservatives, rarely has the mainstream American press been particularly unfriendly or unfair toward the faithful. After all, most journalists also identify themselves as Christians, and few publishers or news directors want to alienate a significant part of the potential audience. Admittedly, journalists often have been somewhat inept at covering social institutions, including religion. As with other subjects, journalists typically downplayed or ignored the everyday religious aspects of American life simply because those religious activities did not provide the immediacy or conflict of subjects considered newsworthy. Space limitations sometimes also dictate formal or informal “quotas” for various types of news. Occasional exceptions have come with conflict-oriented stories about issues such as school prayer or abortion, scandals involving church leaders, or discussions of how a political candidate’s faith might influence the electorate. Other religious stories tended to be about religious conflict in the Middle East or about those viewed as religious extremists, ranging from Islamic militants to Baptist television evangelist Jerry Falwell’s conservative Moral Majority. The more dramatic but atypical depictions of religion may have given a distorted picture of Christianity—and, for many Christians, of the news media.



In a column today, Aly Colón offers a couple of worthwhile online sources for journalists who want to do a better job covering religion, or those simply interested in seeing how the media are doing with the religion beat: “The Revealer” (with the slogan “A daily review of religion and the press”) based at New York University and “Get Religion.” Both sites have teams of writers who focus on the press and religion.


And related to whole issue of journalism and religion, I’m briefly quoted in a story scheduled to come out tomorrow in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Whitworth University, the Christian institution in which I work. A 45-minute interview led to the use of one paraphrase–something I note not because I had anything more to offer that was more valuable than what was included in what turned out to be a good story, but to illustrate to would-be journalists the value of spending a lot of time interviewing a variety of sources, so that the reporter can choose from the most useful information.

One Response to “Journalism and religion”

  1. […] nature of “news,” religion and other aspects of day-to-day life tend to be ignored or poorly covered. As I’ve noted elsewhere, journalists typically are neither anti-Christian nor anti-religious […]

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