July 30, 2001

July 30, 2001 | Commentary on

Closing the Gap

For seven years, she stood alone.

But Peggy Wehmeyer, the only religion correspondent in network news, will lose that distinction this fall when ABC drops its religion beat. The network pioneered the idea, but none followed suit, leaving a virtually empty field in television news.

That's enough to ruffle the feathers of any journalism student interested in religion, and I'm no exception.

ABC says the cut is budget related and vows to continue religion coverage through a Web-site partnership with Beliefnet, Inc., a non-denominational group whose motto is "we all believe in something." Of course, that's not remotely equivalent to having a religion reporter on one of the "Big Three" networks, but it looks as if Americans with an interest in religion news are just going to have to settle.

That's a shame -- especially since a separate religion beat isn't the only way to include the religious angle in a story. Without religion reporters, editors and news directors need to work harder to cover this aspect of American life, and coverage suffers as a result. As Wehmeyer herself told me, religion permeates many stories about the cultural conflicts that surround such hot-button issues as the death penalty and abortion.

"Many people in the front lines of these conflicts are motivated by their faiths," she said. "It's important to understand their faith to understand the conflicts."

And there's the problem -- and solution -- in a nutshell: Religion coverage must go beyond the beat. The religious undercurrents of many stories can unlock the answers to key questions, provided they aren't overlooked by a reporter. How did that woman raise five children by herself? What was it that death-row inmate said about his experience? It doesn't explain everything, but religion is a driving force behind many people's actions.

Take the last presidential election. In the June 9 issue of National Journal, Michael Barone said religion was the one demographic factor that separates voters more than any other. In fact, "the difference in voting behavior between the religious right and non-Christians is bigger than the difference between blacks and whites," he said.

Barone concluded that the "less observant, more relativistic trended toward Gore, and the rest of the country -- observant, moralistic -- trended toward Bush." Interesting. But how much did we hear about this pattern after the election, as opposed to the differences between black and white voters, male and female voters, or urban and rural voters?

Religion isn't completely ignored by the media. Many newspapers give it a weekly nod, usually in a Saturday page or two. But it's mostly treated like the "Home & Garden" features: A couple of benign stories. A few handy tips. Maybe some phone numbers to call for more information. Network TV news shows do the equivalent with their annual "Christmas/Good Friday/Easter in Jerusalem" stories or coverage of the pope's trip abroad.

But research shows this smattering of coverage doesn't reflect the reality of American life. According to Gallup polls, 57 percent say religion is "very important" in their lives, while 65 percent say they are members of churches or synagogues. In addition, nine out of 10 people say they believe in God.

No less an authority than David Broder, a syndicated Washington Post columnist considered by many to be the dean of Washington journalism, has said there's a gap between journalists and religious newsmakers. "We have a hard time in the media understanding people for whom religion is central in their lives," he said in a recent panel discussion at The Heritage Foundation.

Michael Getler, the Post's ombudsman, agreed. Reporters are exhibiting "less understanding and inclusion of religion in American life," he said.

We must close this gap. When assigning and reporting stories, the media must remember that people are not neatly sectioned into news, sports, business and religion. These elements of life overlap considerably, and journalists need to realize that.

As Wehmeyer said, reporters need to "get to the heart of where people are living," regardless of any designated beat. We must listen to what people say and ask the questions that matter -- the ones whose answers will reflect reality.

Amy Menefee, a senior at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., is an intern at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy institute.

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