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What’s Become of Press Coverage of Religion?

Just when we need it, it’s not there.

I refer to the need of the American public for thoughtful analysis of religious issues. Religion played a significant role in the World Trade Center attack, and religion has been at the heart of our response.

The prayer services came first; then the purchase of books on Islam and public lectures and discussions. Now the debate is about the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: why is there so much violence where Christianity and Islam coexist? Do we all pray to the same God? Can Islam embrace democracy and pluralism? What is the depth of our prejudice against Islam? What does a westernized version of Islam look like?

All of these questions, together with the events that have brought them to the forefront, reaffirmed the role of religion in international affairs.

It is safe to say that few, if any, elements of the human experience, save survival itself, are more significant in shaping local or world culture than religious ideas and practices.
Simply put, it is impossible to understand what is going on in Afghanistan without understanding Islam. Likewise, it is silly to describe American life without describing our religious habits and spiritual values.

Yet media organizations have neglected these habits and values. Experts in economics, politics, and especially sports are employed and empowered to research and write. Investigations, opinions and articles are devoted to these elements of American life.

But religion is a power and a presence that too many media organizations are afraid to touch.

ABC News terminated the contract of its first religion reporter, Peggy Wehmeyer. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press “retired” the popular religion columnist, Clark Morphew. The Lexington Herald Leader reassigned their religion writer, leaving the position unfilled for nearly two years.

Why is the reporting and analysis of religion so marginal to the pursuit of excellence for these media organizations?

Jeff Sheler, religion writer for U.S. News and World Report, recently addressed the American Academy of Religion. He said: “One of the many ways that life has changed since the tragedies of September 11 is the tremendous explosion of public interest in world religions.”

He gave these statistics: Newspaper coverage of interfaith activities by the nation’s top 50 newspapers rose from 122 articles before to 446 articles after the terrorist attack. References to Islam or Muslims went from 2,100 to 15,500.

“Many of us who cover religion full time in the secular press have found ourselves in the sometimes uncomfortable position of trying to help raise the religion literacy level at our news organizations …” he said.

Good for them and good for us.

The American public needs thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of our culture, including the influence (for good and ill) of religion.

The Dallas Morning News recently won, for the fifth consecutive year, a national award given to the best religion department in the newspaper business. One editor, five writers and one photographer keep this paper producing the kind of copy that other newspapers ought to imitate.

Maybe editors in New York, St. Paul and Lexington will take this to heart. So that when we need it, it’s there.

Dwight A. Moody is Dean of the Chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.