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American Journalism Review
Have a Little Faith  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   June/July 2006

Have a Little Faith   

At last, the mainstream media get religion.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (, president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

In the fall of 2003, I was browsing Newsweek and came across an article about an oddball movie project from Mel Gibson. The actor-director, a devout and conservative Catholic, was committing to film a rendering of Christ's Passion, one so literal that the actors would be speaking not English but the Aramaic and Latin of the period.

The magazine article was less about the film itself than how the big Hollywood studios were running from the project as fast as they could. Citing such box-office clunkers as "The Last Temptation of Christ," the studios couldn't imagine how such an aggressively difficult and politically controversial movie would draw an audience. And so Gibson, as influential as he might be in Tinseltown, was having trouble getting a distributor.

The industry spokesmen reaffirmed their respect for Gibson the bankable star, but there was a palpable sense that Gibson's piety had trumped his reason. Said one blunt producer, "People think Mel's crazy now."

But I remember having a different reaction: Mel may be crazy, all right like a fox. I thought that the subject of Christ's torture and crucifixion, even with its cringe-inducing violence and linguistic challenges, might just resonate with a lot more people, especially Christians, than Hollywood thought.

Exactly one year later, "The Passion of the Christ" had taken in $370 million at the box office and was easily the most commercially successful "religion" film in history. And I was wishing I'd had some points in the movie to go along with my hunch.

It's no surprise there's a disconnect between Hollywood, epicenter of hedonism, and the multitudes of church- (or temple- or mosque-) going Americans. The sunglasses-and-convertible crowd thinks heartlanders in general are gullible and unsophisticated hicks, doughy people whose tan lines stop where their Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts start.

But we journalists are in no position to cast stones at Hollywood, or anyone else who underappreciates, much less underestimates, Americans' embrace of religion. For a generation the mainstream media often ignored these people their readers and viewers, mind you and even now there remains an undercurrent of derision from some reporters toward the faith-based views millions hold on such important issues as abortion and evolution. So it is that the charge of "elitism" is hurled at us and, to some extent, sticks.

Having said that, there are signs that today's news organizations are taking religion, spirituality and ethical issues more seriously than was once the case.

According to the Religion Newswriters Association, there are 400 to 500 journalists in the U.S. who spend a "significant" part of their time reporting on faith and values, including reporters at virtually all newspapers with circulations over 100,000. Many journalists at smaller papers cover religion too, albeit in conjunction with other things. Religion-themed covers are among the biggest sellers at the newsmagazines. The major television news divisions routinely produce religion-oriented pieces, although very few reporters cover it as a primary responsibility.

Mind you, I'm not advocating proselytizing as journalism. I'm just saying that cultural diversity, including a recognition of religious belief, needs to be reflected in our news reports as surely as racial or economic diversity. It's a question of understanding and respecting one's audience.

I came of professional age in the '70s, when Vietnam and Watergate had ushered in a new generation of journalists who were largely single and deeply skeptical of all institutions, including established religion. But by the '80s, those same people were getting married and having kids. As often happens when people start families, church and faith issues circle back into their lives. And as those people also moved into editing ranks, they brought that personal importance into their decision-making. They saw what they had been denying that faith issues have always been important to mainstream Americans, and the media scrambled to catch up.

The enhanced coverage also owes a debt to current events. After all, we live in a world where the president openly talks about how faith informs his decisions, and innocents by the thousands are murdered in the name of religion.

"Religion reporting's fortunes are very much tied to power," explains Debra Mason, executive director of RNA, which trains reporters and promotes more, and more enlightened, coverage of religion and spirituality. "When the people in power employ or in some other way use or refer to religion, then news outlets tend to include it on their pages [and] in broadcasts more. That is what is going on now. It is about the third big 'wave' of popularity in the beat I've seen since I began reporting on religion in 1985."

Mason says it's important not to extrapolate broad conclusions about religion coverage based on the major media outlets on either coast. Some of the best religion coverage is happening out there in what Hollywood calls Flyover Country. The big media do fine work, she says, but "looking there is not necessarily the best place to read religion news that touches the heart and soul."

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