Journalism is moving from external to “depth” coverage of religion, says a top religion reporter, but churches do not always appreciate it

Sören Kierkegaard once wrote in his journal that the press was demoralizing because it went along with superficial popular opinion, no matter how wrong, and was afraid to stand alone, even to be right. He added: “The lowest depth to which people can sink before God is defined by the word ‘journalist’.… If I were a father and had a daughter who was seduced, I should not despair over her; I would hope for her salvation. But if I had a son who became a journalist, and continued to be one for five years, I would give him up.”

Those of us who work at reporting religious affairs for the press hope that whatever basis there was for this nineteenth-century appraisal has now altered somewhat. Certainly not all church spokesmen today have such a chilly regard for the news industry. They have taken a new look at it, and it is taking a closer look at them. Some changes have been made on both sides.

Back in the early part of this century, Stanley Walker, city editor of the New York Herald-Tribune, warned his fledgling newsmen to be wary of quoting clergymen: “They are the most touchy set of quibblers who ever plagued a well-intentioned editor. Some will even find fault with a stenographic report attested by a dozen albino notaries swearing on a Gutenberg Bible.”

But the no-trespassing signs are coming down. The press and other mass communications media—magazines, paperbacks, motion pictures, radio, and that latest non-stop household expounder, television—are prowling the field of faith. This recent development is still gaining in scope and depth and has a considerable distance yet to go to attain its potential. Nevertheless, it is a revolutionary expansion in the religious circulatory system that neither the mass media nor the Church can afford to neglect.

This is simply not a private world any longer, and its thinking is neither based, possessed, not produced in private. Knowledge has become an interdependent enterprise. It is too big for one method, one discipline, or one mind to manage.

If the Church is to get its message across in this globally influenced, commonly shared environment, that message must be poured into the common channels of information. These channels carry a mixed stream, to be sure, much of it trivial and tawdry; but some of it pushes out the boundaries of thought for humanity-at-large. This swift, mechanized flow of images and ideas is the system by which the masses of people today seek to keep up with their complex and fast-changing world. It is the variegated current in which attitudes take shape. It is the stream of impressions bursting on the young, swaying the wondering crowd, shocking the old.

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For good or ill, the mass media are the font at which many minds are provisioned. If the case for Christianity is not there in the stream of facts, theories, and appeals, then it is not in the place where countless people, uncertainly, form their ideas.

This is no novel concern. Church leaders have repeatedly asserted the urgency of getting religious insights pumped into the popular press and broadcasting channels. But the importance of the effort is magnified as the influence of mass communications becomes ever more pervasive and immense, modifying customs, changing tastes and interests, influencing opinions, shaping the tone and patterns of culture. This great influence is truly a critical matter for the Church. And it is even more critical for the people, for those who are adrift in the undifferentiated flood of claims, data, and conclusions, of headlines, pictures, and electronic discourse and display, looking for some basic answers to cling to.

But can religion gain entry into this clamorous domain? Yes, it can; and increasingly it does. Many misgivings and obstacles remain to be overcome, both in church and in communications quarters. But the process is firmly under way.

Since World War II, and particularly in the last ten years, the daily press, news services, magazine publishers, and broadcasters have progressively stepped up their attention to religion. Newspapers and wire services, with which I am most familiar, have broadened their coverage of religion tremendously and have also moved toward a greater depth of reporting.

Before this, religion generally was bypassed or dealt with only skimpily and superficially. Nearly all editors approached it guardedly, reluctant to carry anything about serious doctrinal concepts or problems lest they bring on a wave of complaints. The view was that religion was an intimate, private matter, too sensitive to touch, and avoided by the prudent.

What few stories there were appeared in a back section, usually on the weekend “church page,” and were limited to announcements of clerical appointments, church suppers, ground-breaking ceremonies, sermon topics, and the like. Handling religion was considered drudgery, and the task usually went to either the most inexperienced or the most decrepit man on the staff. Broadcasters largely followed a similar pattern, shying away from any substantial treatment of religion.

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But a reorientation has occurred in the nation’s news rooms. Religion has assumed a growing place in the press and on the air, taking on prominence in the regular news columns, in the front part of the paper, in mass-circulation periodicals, in newscasts and television documentaries. Editors of most large papers and many small ones have put top reporters in the field, and the role of religion reporter has become a sought-after one in the profession.

“Religious news has more prestige among editors of American newspapers at this moment than at any previous time in the history of the American press,” says Willmar Thorkelson, religion editor of the Minneapolis Star and past president of the Religious Newswriters Association. This association, formed to advance the standards of religion coverage in the secular press and made up of about one hundred reporters across the country regularly assigned to that job, itself offers evidence of the growing maturity in the field. There were only about a dozen in the group when it started in 1949. At present about 500 of the nation’s 1,800 dailies, both major wire services, both leading newsmagazines, and all three television networks have religion specialists, editors, or reporters assigned to exploring and disseminating the story of religion. Some papers have two or more men at it full-time.

What brought on the change? In part it was the initiative and diligence of the early religion reporters. They showed that the job could be done with balance and perception and without outraging ecclesiastical sensibilities or inflaming boycotts of the paper.

Moreover, the stories drew avid readership. People—and not just church people—were interested. Admittedly, that consideration weighs on the editorial scales. But it is not the only criterion. News is not just what the customers want to read but also what they need to read so that they can better comprehend the human scene. At any rate, religious news struck a lively chord among the listeners.

Beyond that, perhaps a more basic cause of the shift in approach was the disturbing world situation—the troubled aftermath of war, the frightening possibilities of nuclear power, the ideological strains of cold war, the giant of technology enveloping civilization, new military upheavals, racial storm. These things stirred some sober rethinking in many quarters, including the news industry, whose business it is to mirror the world’s realities as candidly and searchingly as it can. And something was missing in the clangorous rush of news.

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The public was getting the full panorama of externals—the scientific feats; the politics, diplomatic maneuvers, and economics; the courts, crimes, and conflicts—but there was little exposition of the motivation, the ideals and aspirations behind the surface events. Pushing into this area, seeking to provide more reporting in depth, the news industry trained its spotlight on religion.

It has steadily intensified its scrutiny there. News executives are increasingly aware of the powerful impulses and values nurtured in the religious realm and of religion’s bearing on the course of humanity.

The late Pope John and his Vatican Council, with all the transformations the council let loose, further spurred the advance of religious news coverage, as have the extensive unifying realignments among Christians, the intellectual ferment in theology, and the lively trends in methods, understanding, and spheres of action.

Into the field moved the newsmen and networks, taking in religious conventions, examining the techniques of religion, recounting its decisions and positions, tracing its objectives, explaining its content and conflicts, describing its leaders, bringing out its policies and practices. The swing is toward more thorough, discerning coverage, and this will continue. At the Associated Press, we regularly get calls from meetings of managing editors for fuller religious coverage.

But the performance still falls short. Despite the progress made, we still have a long way to go in covering religion in a way that benefits its significance, its influence, and its relation to nearly every other aspect of life.

Too often coverage remains slight and shallow, consisting mainly of personnel changes, statistics, and speech abstracts. The space accorded religion is still small, compared with that given to entertainment and sports. And in some city rooms, it seems to rate about equally with the daily horoscope and racing results. Habit dies hard, and the old chariness about religion still lingers among some editors, who prefer to ignore it or to confine it to a few trivial and innocuous puffs.

There is another hurdle to cross also. Strangely, the growth of press interest in religion is not always appreciated in the church sector. A British pastor, the Rev. Sinclair Snow, complains: “The religious beliefs of the people of this country are in complete chaos. And since the popular press has discovered that articles on religion pay, the chaos has become much worse.”

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Such broadside sniping is familiar to the religion reporter, who often has heard convention speakers castigate the press for letting the home folks know what action has been taken. Editors also are sometimes baffled and discouraged at the niggling criticism directed at frank, factual treatment of religious controversy. Of course, if a story is in error, churchmen ought to squawk; but petty carping is more a deterrent than a help in improving the effort.

Among some clergymen, there seems to be a kind of occupational distrust of newsmen, a tendency to evade questions, to give reporters the cold shoulder and the “no comment” runaround, as if conveying church concerns to the population at large was too petty to bother with.

The Roman Catholic magazine America observed that “at a time when religion has become, in the judgment of editors of the secular press, a topic as newsworthy as science, labor, or city planning, reporters’ attempts to gather news of the church are frequently rebuffed.… Church officials regard the secular press with deep misgivings if not outright hostility.”

This seems to me to be definitely a passing attitude, however, both in Roman Catholicism and in other churches, though traces of it still hang on. Having to work under the prying intrusions and inquiries of the press is a new situation for church officials. They are understandably hesitant and cautious, just as editors used to be protectively timid about covering religion.

The church, says historian Christopher Dawson, is “a sleeping giant—or perhaps rather it is a giant that has not yet learned to speak.” It has been so long preoccupied in talking to itself on a “closed circuit,” he says, that it doesn’t know how to talk intelligibly in the wider arena of the world.

The conduct on both sides may sometimes still be awkward, unsure, blundering. But both are working at doing it better.

Clergymen and denominational officials have become increasingly conscious of the importance of getting religion into the mass outlets. Most of them are thoroughly cooperative and helpful, even a little too helpful for comfort at times.

Nearly all the larger, mainline denominations—and a few smaller ones—have set up special information staffs, or public relations offices, to relay material about the churches to the communications media. About 1,000 church “P. R.” specialists now work at this task, hold conferences about how to do it, and provide handbooks for guidance of local church offices and parishes on ways of getting material in print or on the air.

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The daily mail now brings bundles of information on religious affairs to the desks of religion reporters. Some of it is used; most of it is not. Institutional publicity releases tend to concentrate on internal organizational business, but this is ordinarily not what edifies or interests the general reader. So these releases go on the spike. Promotional chaff is of no use to reporters. Their role is not to boost or “sell” religion but to reflect its substantive aspects fairly and objectively. And that, incidentally, may further the cause in the best way—on its own merits.

All this is not to say that the church public relations operations are not helpful, for they are. They save reporters a lot of leg work and alert them to many matters they otherwise might miss. They help particularly in supplying church reports, texts, survey findings, and similar research data, which may be the basis for newsworthy stories.

In this connection, I’ve noticed that the evangelical wing of Christianity pays scant heed to the mass media. Most of the smaller evangelical denominations rarely volunteer potential news material. Few have any special arrangements or designated personnel for routing such material to the press. Reporters have to look for it, hunt for quotable sources, and generally tug material loose, sometimes with difficulty. Except for a few individuals and instances, mum’s the mood—as far as outside media go.

Of course, the reporter has the job of keeping the full range of religion in perspective, from all its legitimate viewpoints, and of digging out the information to do that, whether it is volunteered or not. He does not want institutional personnel to take over that function, or even to try.

But churches can contribute to the task by exerting some effort to make their resources readily accessible to communications media. This is not to say that smooth Madison Avenue tactics will get religion into the papers. Responsible newsmen spurn artificial or manufactured “news.” And strong-arm pressures (of the type that frequently come from fringe groups devoted chiefly to a monotonous assault on other churches) will win no special consideration.

At the same time, a church that doesn’t keep its informational lines open to the news media would seem to be muffling its own works amid the bulk of religious developments and the vigorous, expert vying for a hearing.

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In another respect, however, the evangelical churches have a characteristic that should make them a particularily fertile ground for news production. That is their intense concern for doctrine.

As I see it, the newsiest aspect of religion is its inner core of convictions, the reasoning behind them and their implications for men—in short, “what makes Christianity tick,” as Lutheran leader Franklin Clark Fry once put it. This is what pricks the interest of the listless bystanders and people at large, and what gives religion real weight in the modern surge of information. Evangelicals should concentrate on these fundamentals.

Doubtlessly, there are some cautious churchmen who want nothing to do with the world of mass communications, considering it too crass, blatant, and conglomerated for religion to be a part of it. They feel that it does not use pious language, that it is raw and rough, shot through with the horrors and passions of the world, its murders, misery, dirt, greed, and duplicity. And this is so. It is not a “nice” region for religion to occupy.

Someone once said newspapers were like the tree in the Garden of Eden—a source of knowledge of good and evil. And this is the way they have to be, if they are to tell the truth. Thus the organs of information blare with the miscellany, with the folly as well as the streaks of wisdom, with the shoddiness and also the nobility.

Putting religion into that jumbled arena will not give it any secure niche but instead will subject it to the cross fire of other visions and other claims, to the harsh tests of questions, criticism, analysis, and opposition. The territory is a challenging one, where many propositions bid for allegiance.

Some Christians may hold back, disdaining any part of this cluttered outpouring of information. But like it or not, avoid it or not, it is where people today keep posted on life. And religion has a stake in it.

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