Journalists need to hear ‘music’ of religion

Most editors and reporters would panic, or call their lawyers, if news executives asked religious questions during job interviews.

Yet it’s hard to probe the contents of a journalist’s head without asking big questions. And it’s hard to ask some of the ultimate questions -- questions about birth, life, suffering, pain and death -- without mentioning religion.

William Burleigh carefully explored some of this territory when he was running news teams, both large and small. His half-century career with The E.W. Scripps Co. began in 1951, when he was in high school in Evansville, Ind., and he retired several years ago after serving as president and chief executive officer.

“I always thought that it was interesting to talk to reporters and editors about their education,” said Burleigh, who remains chairman of the Scripps Howard board. “How many people in our newsrooms have actually studied history and art and philosophy and even some theology? ...

“I have to admit -- quite frankly -- I always showed a partiality toward people with that kind of educational background. I didn’t do that because I am a big religious guy. I did it because I wanted to know if we were dealing with well-rounded people who could relate to the big questions in life.”

Burleigh won some battles. For example, a few editors decided to let a religion-beat specialist try writing a column for Scripps Howard News Service, and I’ve been at it ever since. This week marks the “On Religion” column’s 20th anniversary, and I owe Burleigh, and other editors who backed religion coverage, a debt of gratitude.

However, it’s crucial to know that Burleigh -- a traditional Catholic -- didn’t push this issue because he wanted editors to hire more journalists who liked sitting in pews. No, he didn’t want to see newspapers keep missing events and trends that affect millions of people and billions of dollars.

Some journalists, he said, don’t think that religion matters. Thus, many editors get sweaty palms when it comes time to dedicate time, ink and money to the subject. Few seek out trained, experienced religion-beat reporters.

“The prevailing ethos among most of our editors is that the public square is the province of the secular and not a place for ... religious messages to be seen or heard,” said Burleigh in an interview for my chapter in “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.” Oxford University Press will publish this book, produced by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life, late this fall.

“As a result,” Burleigh said, “lots of editors automatically think religion is out of place in a public newspaper. That’s what we are up against.”

The key is that this is a journalism problem. Any effort to improve coverage will fail if journalists are, as commentator Bill Moyers likes to put it, “tone deaf” to the music of religion in public life.

That’s a great image. I tell editors that religion news is something like a cross between politics and opera. The laws and structures that govern religious life can be just as complicated and technical as those that control our government, and there are hundreds of religious groups and movements in most news markets, not one or two.

Yet there is more to religion than laws, facts, creeds and hierarchies.

Every now and then, a reporter will be sent to cover a picky, boring, tense meeting and, suddenly, someone will start to preach or pray. The words can be folksy or Byzantine, inspiring or bizarre. But, suddenly, people are crying, hugging, shouting or walking out.

Reporters look on, dumbfounded. What happened? What did they miss? Truth is, they were covering a political meeting and then someone, in effect, began singing one of that group’s sacred songs. The reporters could hear the words, but they couldn’t hear the music.

Burleigh could hear the music, and he wanted to link that to news. He argued that editors should insist on quality religion-news coverage for one simple reason -- a desire to cover stories crucial to the lives of their readers.

“It’s how we answer the big questions about birth and death and the meaning of life that provide the foundation for our culture,” he said.

“Those questions define our culture and tell us who we are. How do we get those big questions into our newspapers? How do we cover those stories?”

(Terry Mattingly is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)

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