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Why Are Newspaper Religion Reporters Quitting?

GetReligion wonders why some established and accomplished religion reporters are leaving newspapering. Poynter, the journalism think tank, notes that this may not signal an abandonment of religion reporting in particular, but rather this abandonment of religion reporting could be part of a general downsizing in specialty beats at resource-stretched US newspapers. Here’s what I think. […]

GetReligion wonders why some established and accomplished religion reporters are leaving newspapering. Poynter, the journalism think tank, notes that this may not signal an abandonment of religion reporting in particular, but rather this abandonment of religion reporting could be part of a general downsizing in specialty beats at resource-stretched US newspapers.

Here’s what I think. In a time when nearly all newspapers continue to contract, if I were a religion news reporter at a paper, I would not bet my future on my job being secure. A big part of this is due to the reason for Get Religion’s existence: often, decision-makers are among those in the press who flat-out do not get religion. That is, they don’t grasp the importance of religion in daily life, and may consider the religion beat to be something ancillary to covering the “real” news.

But I wonder to what extent newspaper readers — that shrinking population — are responsible for this state of affairs? I have no way of knowing, but it’s a question worth considering. When I lived in Dallas and worked for the local daily, my social circles were mostly religious conservatives, and they complained all the time about religion coverage at The Dallas Morning News, if they bothered to read it at all. Maybe they had a point, maybe they didn’t, but that’s not an argument that interests me.

What does interest me is the possibility that many religious people do not like to read newspaper coverage that treats their religion as a phenomenon among others — that is, as something to be covered by the same standards as one would cover sports, politics, and other staples of daily journalism. In my years at the News, among the News‘s Muslim readership, anytime we published something critical of Islam, however mild, we took phone calls accusing us of anti-Muslim bias. I know for a fact that in the editorial department, where I worked, we went out of our way to be fair in critical commentary about Islam. It was impossible to please the most vocal critics. I forget what the specific issue was, but I called a prominent local imam once to get his side of the story. His spokesman said he would not speak to me because I was biased. I told him I wanted to give the imam a chance to explain himself, and that I would quote him fairly. The spokesman refused. No doubt when the piece came out — I wrote that we had reached out to the imam, but he refused to comment — the people at that mosque took the fact that their imam’s point of view wasn’t reflected in the article as yet another sign of the newspaper’s anti-Muslim bigotry. The fact is they wanted to be exempt from the ordinary rules of journalism.

I imagine there were many Christians who felt the same way. Certainly there were some vocal Catholics in Dallas who felt that way, given the newspaper’s critical coverage of the Church’s behavior in the sex abuse scandal (the Dallas diocese was one of the worst). In fact, I don’t have to imagine it; I know it. I took some of those calls and e-mails, because they were at times directed toward me. I know too how hard my newsroom colleagues on this beat worked to be fair. In fact, I first heard from News reporter Brooks Egerton, who distinguished himself with great reporting on the scandal over years, when he called me cold at National Review, back in 2002, asking if I had any way to get in touch with Fr. Benedict Groeschel. He was trying to report a story about Groeschel’s involvement in some aspect of the recycling of abusive priests through the system, and wanted to get Groeschel’s side of the story. He told me that Groeschel wouldn’t return his calls. Brooks was making an extra effort to get through to Groeschel so that he (Brooks) could tell the story fairly. Brooks finally wrote his piece, and found himself denounced by Groeschel and sympathetic Catholic commentators for supposedly sandbagging the saintly friar, thereby showing how much the media hates the Catholic Church. It was a complete smear, but it was revealing of the contempt many religious believers have for journalism, even when reporters go the extra mile to be fair to their subjects. If I hadn’t known personally how hard Brooks worked to reach Groeschel for his side of the story, and if I hadn’t by then begun to learn that Groeschel’s role in the scandal was far more problematic than most conservative Catholics like we wanted to believe, I would have been right there with my fellow conservative Catholics, damning the News for their unfair reporting on poor Father Groeschel.

Now, I think it is important that journalists take criticism of bias seriously, and examine themselves and their reporting with this in mind. From my years in journalism, I recall one newsroom conversation, not one having to do with religion reporting, in which a senior editor characterized reader objections to the paper’s coverage of a certain subject as a case of ridiculous people hating to be told the truth. I knew something about that issue, knew that the readers had cause to believe as they did, and therefore knew that that editor’s comments were a bunch of self-serving hooey. That editor’s remarks was deeply ironic, because she clearly didn’t want to hear any feedback from readers that violated what she wished to believe.

That said, again, it has been my experience that many religious believers conceive of religion reporting as “publishing nothing but favorable news about my faith.” Anything remotely critical, however hard the reporter works to be neutral and analytical and fair, is taken by these readers as hopelessly biased. I was not a religion reporter at the News, but I had to take these calls myself for things I had written. You talk with enough folks like this and you realize that they don’t actually want you to practice journalism, because they don’t value journalism. They want favorable publicity for their faith or faith community; anything falling short of that propagandistic goal is considered biased.

That said, I know too from personal experience, and from reading sites like Get Religion, that the bias against religion — either from malice or (more often, I think) ignorance —  in American newsrooms is real. The less well-recognized aspect of this phenomenon is that many religious believers who read newspapers hold religion journalists to an impossible standard. If religion beats are dying off at American newspapers, and if some of the best people on the religion beat are losing confidence in the long-term prospects of their jobs, this is, in my view, not simply because many newspaper publishers and editors don’t value what religion journalists do. It’s also because too many newspaper readers do not value it either.

It’s like this. Back in 2002, with the sex abuse scandal raging, I spoke to one of the most famous publishers in the business about writing a book on the subject. This publisher was very direct in negging the idea. She said, “Nobody is going to pay $27 to read a book about priests [blanking] children.” And you know, she was right. For her, this was a strictly commercial decision. It wasn’t that she was saying this was a bad or unimportant story, only that she didn’t see how she could make money on it, given the nature of the story and the audience for it. Newspapers are run by a different standard, obviously, but they still have to sell papers. If a publisher sees her financial bottom line sinking, and knows she has to cut a certain number of jobs, if she looks at the beats that the readers of a paper are least likely to miss, I wouldn’t blame her if she targeted the religion beat among them. As a newspaper reader and a religious believer, I would very much miss religion reporting — real reporting, I mean, not just happy-clappy stories about peace, love, and spaghetti dinners with the bishop. But my guess is that readers (and believers) like me are in the minority.

What do you think?