ABC's Peter Jennings is being remembered this week for many aspects of his work, but one aspect that bears particular notice is his efforts to increase network news coverage of religion. He was directly responsible for ABC's 1994 hiring of Peggy Wehmeyer as network news's only full-time religion correspondent. (She was laid off as part of a staff reduction in 2001 and now hosts a radio program for World Vision.)
Jennings "was absolutely instrumental [in getting mainstream media to cover issues of religion and spirituality]" Alan Wolfe told The Christian Science Monitor. "It was a testament to his own interest in the subject, and the balance and sobriety he brought to the question."
Jennings in fact used to say that some of his ABC colleagues thought he was "positively pedantic" about finding the religion angle in any news story. But he was unapologetic: "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by uspolitics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."
In a 2004 Christianity Today interview, Jennings explained why he was so interested in religion:
I have lived in the Muslim world, covering the Middle East, Russia, and Africa among many other assignments. I saw it was important to understand or try to understand the intersection between religion, spirituality, and life. Events in these and other locales got me interested in covering religion as a "news story." This coverage shows the deep interest in and pervasive nature of religion.
When I got back to this country, I understood how religion impacts people how it intersects with people's daily life. As such, it is important to cover.
In 2000, he told us about his instructions to reporters to take religion seriously:
I'm sympathetic to the notion that people are moved by faith. I once gave a brief talk here at ABC in which I said to reporters, "When you go to an airplane accident and you ask people what they think it was that got them through this crisis, and they say, 'God did,' don't ever ask them, 'No, I mean what really got you through?' " I'm sensitive to faith to that extent. But on this project, what interested me most was the reportage.
In a Harvard Divinity School speech, Jennings said focusing his journalistic attention on religion helped to focus his personal attention too:
Though I do think it proper for journalists to keep their distance, I discovered there was a new spark to my own faith. I had been raised in a fairly predictable Anglican communion, where the practice of religion was, I am sorry to say, often as much social behavior as it was spiritual. But today I find there is both comfort and challenge in practicing my faith, and though I am a dismal failure on many fronts, in trying to live it my own faith has helped me to develop eyes that see the spiritual dimension in many stories.
In 2000, Beliefnet (which credits Jennings for its survival) asked him to say more about that "new spark." The anchor responded:
I have gone through a subsequent period of seeking to understand what or how strong or what are the connections I have to God. So I've spent some time with other men who have tried to understand that about their own lives. I've spent a little more time in Bible study, though, my goodness, not enough, and I've sought to go out and find the value of this in other people's lives. I suppose, subconsciously, I'm finding it so invigorating, enthralling, that maybeI haven't taken enough time to stop and examine it yetin some time it will take me some other places.
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