Stephen Bates

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

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Spot the news story: Americans feel 'warmer' about faith groups, except for (#DUH) evangelicals

Spot the news story: Americans feel 'warmer' about faith groups, except for (#DUH) evangelicals

Several times a year, the Pew Research Center hits reporters with another newsy study -- full of numbers and public-square trends -- that is almost impossible not to cover.

The latest report was topped with this sprawling double-decker headline: "Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups -- Jews, Catholics continue to receive warmest ratings, atheists and Muslims move from cool to neutral."

That's a rather warm and fuzzy way to put it and that's precisely how The New York Times -- in a very straightforward and newsy report -- decided to cover this material. Of course, this survey was also framed with references (#DUH) to the 2016 presidential race. Never forget that politics is what is really real.

After an election year that stirred up animosity across racial and religious lines, a new survey has found that Americans are actually feeling warmer toward people in nearly every religious group -- including Muslims -- than they did three years ago.
Muslims and atheists still rank at the bottom of the poll, which asked respondents to rate their attitudes toward religious groups on a “feeling thermometer.” However, Muslims and atheists -- who have long been targets of prejudice in the United States -- received substantially warmer ratings on the scale than they did in a survey in 2014: Muslims rose to 48 percent from 40, and atheists to 50 percent from 41.
The religious groups that ranked highest, as they did three years ago, were Jews (67 percent) and Catholics (66 percent). Mainline Protestants, including Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who were measured for the first time, came in at 65 percent. Buddhists rose on the scale to 60 percent from 53, Hindus to 58 from 50, and Mormons to 54 from 48.

There was, however, one exception to this civility trend.

Evangelical Christians were the only group that did not improve their standing from three years ago, plateauing at 61 percent.

As you would imagine -- remember the journalism commandment that "all news is local" -- scribes at Christianity Today jumped on that trend right at the top of their report on the survey.

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More secular attacks on burkinis: The New York Times explains why this is not about religion

More secular attacks on burkinis: The New York Times explains why this is not about religion

All week long, there has been a wave of news coverage about the burkini wars (earlier post here) in the very tense land that is postmodern France.

Part of the problem is that public officials are not sure what has been banned. One Muslim woman was sent home from the beach for wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and pants, with a head scarf, according to The New York Times. Another got in trouble for wearing a "competition bathing suit" with a head cap. There appears to be confusion about whether it's illegal for Muslim women to take a stroll on a beach while wearing the hijab.

Meanwhile, one Muslim voice argued that it's progress that some Muslim women want to go to the beach at all, since a wet burkini still reveals the shape of their bodies. Progress!

In terms of journalism, the good news is that some reporters are beginning to explore what this story says about the links between French colonialism and the nation's aggressive approach to secularism -- which argues that all religious faiths must kneel before the powers of a superior French culture based on secularism, venerating modern saints such as Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim. I ticked off a few readers in an earlier post by suggesting this is a clash between Sharia law and a kind of secular Sharia law.

However, one still gets the impression that members of the college of cardinals in the Times newsroom are still clicking their heels together and chanting, "This is not about religion," "This is not about religion," "This is not about religion."

Well, it's hard not to sense a religion ghost in this haunted headline: "Fighting for the ‘Soul of France,’ More Towns Ban a Bathing Suit: The Burkini." The irony, of course, is that Prime Minister Manuel Valls and others have been placed in the uncomfortable position of arguing that their goal is to liberate women, by telling them what they can and cannot do.

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