Why Religion in the News?
Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

by Mark Silk, editor

Not long ago the American news media were regularly charged with hostility to religion. Most of the criticism came from the religious right, but not all. From the middle of the political spectrum, religiously committed authors like Stephen Carter and Garry Wills also chastised journalists for failing to take religion seriously.

Over the past few years, however, the criticism has tailed off-probably because there’s more religion in the news media now than at any time in recent memory. Across the country, newspapers have been increasing the resources they devote to covering the religion beat; dozens have expanded their old Saturday religion pages into new "Faith and Values" sections. The news magazines are putting religion on their covers year round, rather than just at Christmas and Easter. ABC News has a full-time religion reporter in its stable, and since last September most public television stations have been offering their viewers Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, a half-hour religion news show produced by WNET in New York. Why have the media suddenly got religion?

Economic considerations play a part. Over the past decade, daily newspapers have been trying to regain market share by devoting more attention to the daily occupations and concerns of the public at large-and religion has been deemed a major target of opportunity. As for the newsweeklies, since the early 1990s "religion covers" have gone from selling pretty well on the newsstands to selling best of all.

But commerce aside, journalists have come to believe that they have underestimated how much religion matters in contemporary society. For two decades, religion has been cutting a high profile in politics at home and around the world. In an era of smaller government, religious (or "faith-based") institutions are increasingly being looked to as providers of social services as well as sources of social cohesion. And, while the sociological data are not yet in, there is a feeling that some kind of a religious revival is going on out there.

Even on the American left, heartland of secularism, there are voices calling for more attention to, and even appreciation of, religion as a force in people’s lives and the affairs of state. Last fall, the muckraking magazine Mother Jones devoted a special issue to celebrating the importance of religion. This spring, The Nation published "The Politics of Devotion," an article in its "First Principles" series in which historian Michael Kazin took fellow progressives to task for religion-bashing-which, he said, "serves neither our democratic principles nor the practical need to build a culturally inclusive mass movement." In turn, not a few Nation readers took Kazin to task for saying so.

Religion has, in short, become a major topic of discussion in the American public square. The purpose of Religion in the News is to track the discussion through the news media.

As this first issue makes clear, our interest is not confined to the coverage of religion per se. Was Pope John Paul II’s trip to Cuba a "religion story"? It was that and more. Promise Keepers seemed to have a political significance that, for a while, all but drove religion out of the story. The McCaughey septuplets started out as pure human interest, but the reporters who trekked out to Iowa to cover them found the religious dimension of the story unavoidable.

One of the unfortunate consequences of our common division of the world into sacred and secular is that it does not come naturally to treat the two as intermixed. If something is really about political power, then it is not really religious. If it is really religious, then it is not really about politics. Or so we suppose.

We also tend to see religiously significant events through thick lenses of preconception. In the news media, stories are too often shaped by ideas of what religion is and isn’t, what it should and shouldn’t be, rather than by what reporters see and hear. If there is any lesson to be drawn from what follows, it is that adequate treatment of religion requires good, old-fashioned reporting.

Religion is anything but an easy subject to cover. This is not simply because, in America, it comes in so many brands. It also plays many different roles-from the most private and personal to the most public and ceremonial. It is also, these days, a moving target, changing its institutional forms, adding new dimensions to its operations, subject to shifting understandings of the First Amendment.

For these reasons, we offer--three times a year--this look at religion in the news.


Mark Silk is director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and editor of Religion in the News magazine.

Religion in the News is a publication of the Center's Program on Religion and the News Media.  
For a free subscription, please contact the Center at csrpl@trincoll.edu.