Religion on TV News:

Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns


How could the balance and fairness and context of TV religion coverage improve? There are some simple recommendations to increase the quality of religion reporting on TV news.

1. Hire a religion reporter. Networks continue to assign general-assignment reporters to the religion beat instead of hiring a religion specialist. None of the networks have a religion specialist. The reporters cited in this study – from ABC’s Brian Rooney and Dan Harris to CBS’s Jim Axelrod and Sharyn Alfonsi to NBC’s Roger O’Neil and Carl Quintanilla – have no noticeable background in religion coverage, nor do they have degrees in religious studies.

2. Hire reporters who are religious. Both opinion surveys of journalists and the tone of religion news suggest that the majority of reporters remain in the pattern of hostility toward traditional religious values. More religious reporters would bring greater knowledge and fairness to religious debates. Editors prefer to assign minority reporters to cover minority groups. Why can’t they find religious reporters to cover religion?

3. When covering religion stories, use religious questions and approaches, not just secular or political ones. The media elite have taken the separation of church and state into another dimension: the separation of church and culture, or ultimately the separation of church and news. Once again this year, news stories on the social issues that inflamed religious Americans the most, from “gay marriage” to embryo-destroying stem cell research, didn’t often find a place in those stories for a religious perspective. Religiously inspired political views are no less valid in the public square than atheistically founded political views.

4. If TV news wants to dabble in theology, the sample of experts interviewed ought to balance conservative and progressive experts. NBC still enjoys bringing on liberal Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley to speak for Catholics. As previously explained, CBS liked finding liberal Catholic experts and journalists to warn the bishops away from criticizing John Kerry. ABC found its expert in God with its own liberal medical reporter (and minister) Dr. Timothy Johnson, giving him two segments to plug his book, Finding God in the Questions.

Airing stories on complicated religious subjects is an ambitious undertaking. But viewers with traditional, more orthodox religious views often don’t see their worldview discussed so much as dismissed.