Yes, says a communications expert, but most clergymen are utterly untrained in cooperating with the press

The American press—daily and weekly—fails to report religious news adequately, and among the reasons is that few newspapers and magazines try to do a good job.

A recent issue of Time presented only two articles on religion—one about Billy Graham in London, the other about the experimental ministry in the Delta country of Mississippi. The two items totaled four columns. The sports department followed with seventeen columns. Where the reader’s heart is, there will be the coverage. Sports also got the front cover and the featured article in this weekly issue.

Would anyone be so brash as to say that the single item on religion in America was adequate that week for the fifty states?

Coverage is not only incomplete; it is often faulty, and seriously so. Although much coverage is ably handled, considering all the circumstances, press errors naturally cause frustration and some fear of sensationalism among religious workers.

The recent “death of God” controversy, for example, was stirred up by the press, not the theologians, according to Dr. Gabriel Vahanian. “It was the press which catapulted everybody—theologians, preachers, church members, and the man-in-the-street alike—into a controversy about the death of God. It was not mine or anybody else’s book. No book, but the press did it …,” said Dr. Vahanian in the Religious Journalism Newsletter (Spring, 1966).

Most press shortcomings, however, grow out of limitations under which journalists operate, and some of them are only partly controllable.

Mechanical or physical conditions, too scantily recognized by the reading public, create difficulties that mold press handling of the news. First, there simply is not enough space in which to print all the news. Advertising with first claim may take 70 per cent or more of total newspaper space; standing features, such as comics and regular columns, take additional space. Perhaps the entire news hole left for the day’s news is only 10 per cent of total space.

Certain editors—known as “gatekeepers” in communication theory—decide what can go in and what cannot. Having sat in this unenviable chair, I know the headaches of deciding whether to condense, omit entirely, or run only the first paragraph or so. What does one do when he has ten times as much news as can be used? This may suggest why your religious piece is killed, synopsized, or slashed, seldom printed in full.

Time is another limiting factor. Copy has to be in the newspaper office in time to be processed. All the columns must be filled, presses must turn, and plane, truck, and bus schedules must be met.

Article continues below

Out of such pressures grow some of the most serious newspaper faults. The press is a victim of the constant and intensifying American rush to which it contributes. Spirited competition between local newspapers was once partly to blame, but this is less a factor today as the number of competing newspapers decreases. The competition of radio, television, and the weekly newsmagazines is mainly financial, not journalistic like that of other local newspapers. Special or “extra” editions and scoops play a very small role today. They were part of the fascination and romance of earlier newspapering, long since minimized.

The second group of influences, the economic ones, are a part of doing business in a competitive system. (This system also provides advantages, of course; but these are not within the scope of this article.)

The whipping boy of many critics is the advertiser, who is given more blame than he deserves. The truth is that he has little direct influence on editorial policy. He does not need it, because he and the newspaperman belong to the same general “establishment.” They think, talk, and write very much alike, and they believe mostly in the same economic, political, and social concepts.

Practitioners in both areas—advertising and news distribution—have about the same social status, seek the same social level, and have the same level of consumption. Advertisers provide up to 70 per cent—sometimes more—of the revenue of the press, but their influence on news content is negligible. They do not dictate newspaper policy, and seldom try.

Far more dangerous is the encroachment of advertising upon news space. I have never known a journalist who did not resent all forces that compel him to throw away newsworthy items.

A new economic factor some editors have learned to fear is the increasing problem of automation, introduced to cut labor costs and speed up production. It may accomplish these purposes, but in some ways it is a nuisance. Type set under automated impulses is often badly garbled, and these errors may remain through early editions. Religious news stories suffer here like any other kind of news.

News blackouts may be caused by strikes within newspaper plants by either editorial or production staffs. Some strikes have lasted weeks, months, or longer, and a few newspapers have closed their doors because of circumstances growing out of strikes, most recently the New York Herald-Tribune. Production costs rise over the years. Most such costs are passed on to the advertisers, for readers fight price increases by refusing to buy. So management cuts further corners, including amount of news offered, and religious news as well as all other types suffers.

Article continues below

Among the competitors of the press are radio and television, which have absorbed great chunks of revenue that might have helped create a better press. Press proprietors sometimes find that the only way to overcome this competition is to buy out competitors or start rival stations. Radio and TV stations have made extra newspaper editions useless, for they can always get news first to the consumers. But generally the churches will find more complete coverage in the daily press than over radio or TV.

Monied interests find the press an attractive investment. Frequently they enter the business in a completely cold-blooded manner with a willingness to scrap or sell, if the investment should prove unprofitable. “I’ll let nature take its course,” one of the country’s biggest press-owners said of a morning paper that was barely showing a profit.

This meant that if it did not show a regular and fair profit on investment, he would fold it. Thus went Collier’s Magazine, Woman’s Home Companion, the American Magazine, and many others in recent decades. The pressure upon journalists to be financially successful affects every division of the newspaper and periodical business. They cut many corners to save time and expense, because the sole choice often is between corner-cutting or getting out of business.

When we turn to social forces that affect the handling of religious news, we discover that the level of public education is a serious handicap. Today the average “man in the street” is said to have had 2.7 years of high school education. To reach him, journalists ought to write on the level of the high school sophomore, whose top reading ability ends with Reader’s Digest and Time.

In the newspaper, religious news has to compete for attention with other news, the comics, and the more dramatic sports. This kind of competition can be the death of the religious piece unless the reader is motivated toward religious thought. And the critic who deplores press handling of religious news should not forget that both magazine and newspaper must compete for the spare time of readers not only with radio and TV but also with Americans’ love affair with the automobile and outdoor activity.

Article continues below

Another force, and a dangerous one, is the publicity handout, which finds its way into many newspapers. There it uses space that could be devoted to religious news. It usually presents only one point of view, and that is not necessarily in the public interest. Most groups, even small ones, have publicity directors.

Publicists are found in almost all walks of life, including the highest echelons of government. They have one thing in common; they seek to create favorable public images for the groups they represent. Sometimes this is through releases offered to the press, and sometimes through facts they try to withhold.

Without doubt some disservice to the public occurs in accepting handouts from business, but it is not so great as press critics believe. Every journalist knows the handouts from the press secretaries of scores of clubs that bedog his days. But the big threat comes from governmental offices, particularly in Washington, where some of the most rugged fighting is waged by reporters to get the news behind the handout. It can be done, but persistence, shrewdness, and often inside friends are needed to break the barrier of classification behind which almost anything can be hidden from the public.

Sensationalism, though waning, is still present and likely to affect religious news reporting. Reporters still look for an interesting angle, and this may be the last point church or speaker wants played up. Sensationalism may distort the meaning or blow up some minor detail beyond its significance.

Important also is press predilection to get a story rather than to get the story. The first implies satisfaction with partial coverage and the latter with a balanced presentation. These traits extend to coverage of religious news, of course. It takes both time and persistence to get the story.

Some thoroughly competent religion reporters are found working for the two great press services, AP and UPI, and for several of the top newspapers. But usually the reporter on the religion beat has been moved in from another spot and is untrained. He is not well acquainted with theological vocabulary; he does not know about the origins of denominations, the differences in their beliefs, the proper way to handle their creeds and titles. Nor does he know where to get this information.

Some human factors also contribute to distortion of religious news. Among them are the biases of editors and reporters on political, religious, or social matters. Each sees facts through the screen of his own point of view, which is different for each observer. Frequently this has led to more complete coverage of news from Catholic sources than from Protestant sources. Readers as well as some religious reporters agree on this.

Article continues below

Low salaries in the newspaper profession have turned potentially good workers into other channels. Some who have entered it have lacked vision and high standards of workmanship. And some who did not have early religious training in their homes couldn’t care less what happened to the handling of religious news.

It is unfortunate, too, that most clergymen are utterly untrained in ordinary ways of cooperating with the press. They are ignorant of newspaper deadlines, of the perennial inadequacy of space for news of any kind, of who handles news in a newspaper office, and of how it is processed.

The clergyman could increase the news space devoted to the activities of his church if he knew a few rudimentary facts. His problems could mostly be solved if he would make use of a trained layman within his own congregation, or would interest some nearby school of journalism in offering a concentrated training program for himself and his colleagues. Or he might profit by going back to school—this time for training in journalistic techniques of communication. There is little question that churches could get more newspaper space if they presented properly written news items for consideration. Getting to know the religious reporter or editor for advice and acquaintanceship would enhance these possibilities.

Some influences, however, do promise better handling of religious news. The level of education and of journalistic training among newsmen is steadily rising. Also important is the rising level of education among newspaper readers. Where the “average man in the street” ten years ago had about 1.6 years of high school education, he now, as mentioned previously, has about 2.7.

Also, daily newspapers have been introducing religious pages, and most metropolitan papers now have full-time writers. But only a few trained men have been hired on a full-time basis by smaller papers. Capable men have not been available, although a few schools of journalism have adequate training in this area of public affairs, among them the School of Journalism at Syracuse University.

Some inadequate reporting of local religious events has partly been offset by editorials, some feature articles, and an occasional piece by syndicated columnists. Fortunately, too, newspapers are growing more thoughtful, publishing more interpretive pieces and giving more attention to introducing background into important stories. It is likely that some of the newsworker’s present haste will decrease as automation increases and as radio and TV continue to beat the press in being first to present the news, however inadequately.

Article continues below

The religious worker, however, should understand that much of his success in getting his news into print will rest upon his own efforts, and he should do something about it. A little training goes a long way.

Perhaps as many as 1,600 daily newspapers are doing an inadequate job of reporting religious news. While it is difficult to increase the “news hole,” condensation and omission of valueless news of other kinds will ease this pressure. Present slipshod reporting and minimal coverage of religion disgrace the daily press of this country.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.