Do religious readers really want quality religion coverage?

It has been awhile since our own Bobby Ross, Jr., quoted that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tweet by New York Times religion scribe Laurie Goodstein that said (all together now): “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?” Mocking the typical newsroom attitude that three anecdotes equals a valid news trend, Ross asked if it was time for someone to write a story about "why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore?"

Discussion ensued, including this item at, and Bobby quickly wrote a follow-up post covering the conversation. In the midst of all that, I asked:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

To be more precise, what I meant to say is that -- in light of the current advertising crisis in the news business -- it is understandable that some professionals are questioning whether the religion beat, along with other complicated specialty beats, can thrive in an age of 24/7 journalism, with fewer journalists trying to produce more and more digital news products. There are, of course, many people (see art atop this post) who are convinced that the advertising crisis is going to kill American-model mainstream journalism, period.

On top of this new reality, there is the sad old fact that I stated in The Quill back in 1983:

The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

You might even say that far too many newsroom managers simply do not get religion, or words to that effect.

As the discussion rolled on, Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher posted an item under this blunt headline: "Why Are Newspaper Religion Reporters Quitting?" You need to read all of it, but I would like to respond to a few statements in his post. So, let's proceed:

Here’s what I think. In a time when nearly all newspapers continue to contract, if I were a religion news reporter at a paper, I would not bet my future on my job being secure. A big part of this is due to the reason for Get Religion’s existence: often, decision-makers are among those in the press who flat-out do not get religion. That is, they don’t grasp the importance of religion in daily life, and may consider the religion beat to be something ancillary to covering the “real” news.

Cue the choir. Moving on.

But I wonder to what extent newspaper readers -- that shrinking population -- are responsible for this state of affairs? I have no way of knowing, but it’s a question worth considering. When I lived in Dallas and worked for the local daily, my social circles were mostly religious conservatives, and they complained all the time about religion coverage at The Dallas Morning News, if they bothered to read it at all. Maybe they had a point, maybe they didn’t, but that’s not an argument that interests me.

If heard those same voices for decades and it doesn't help that some of their concerns are valid. It also doesn't help that they have stopped purchasing mainstream news and calling their local editors to praise journalists when they get it right, as well as offering informed criticism when they get it wrong. Back to Dreher:

What does interest me is the possibility that many religious people do not like to read newspaper coverage that treats their religion as a phenomenon among others -- that is, as something to be covered by the same standards as one would cover sports, politics, and other staples of daily journalism. ...

(It) has been my experience that many religious believers conceive of religion reporting as “publishing nothing but favorable news about my faith.” Anything remotely critical, however hard the reporter works to be neutral and analytical and fair, is taken by these readers as hopelessly biased. I was not a religion reporter at the News, but I had to take these calls myself for things I had written. You talk with enough folks like this and you realize that they don’t actually want you to practice journalism, because they don’t value journalism. They want favorable publicity for their faith or faith community; anything falling short of that propagandistic goal is considered biased.

This is a totally valid comment, as far as I am concerned. In fact, I have made the critical examination of this slanted point of view one of the major themes in my teaching at the Washington Journalism Center, a full-semester journalism program operated by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. There are many, many religious leaders -- right and left -- who have a public-relations view of journalism and that's that. As the president of a major Christian university once told me, what these people really want is "happy little Jesus stories."

Is that an attitude that produces accurate, balanced, informed journalism? No way. Thus, I constantly tell my students that journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not by people who hate it.

So here is Dreher's bottom line:

... I know ... from personal experience, and from reading sites like GetReligion, that the bias against religion -- either from malice or (more often, I think) ignorance -- in American newsrooms is real. The less well-recognized aspect of this phenomenon is that many religious believers who read newspapers hold religion journalists to an impossible standard. If religion beats are dying off at American newspapers, and if some of the best people on the religion beat are losing confidence in the long-term prospects of their jobs, this is, in my view, not simply because many newspaper publishers and editors don’t value what religion journalists do. It’s also because too many newspaper readers do not value it either.

Let's continue the discussion.

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