ATLANTA — Over the past several years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution kept getting the same kind of letter. "We're in the middle of the Bible Belt, why don't you cover religion more?" readers asked.
So editors decided to do something about it. Last week, the paper launched "Faith and Values," its first weekly religion section. Instead of one religion writer, the paper now has four.
"Traditionally, we did one [religion] page once a week - usually one story - and that was OK for many years," says religion editor Ron Feinberg. "But in the last several years, ... there seemed to be this increased interest in religion and things spiritual."
The Journal-Constitution is not alone. In response to the public's renewed desire to probe spiritual questions, media outlets from newspapers to TV stations are paying more attention to religious issues. The demand for more substantive coverage is also forcing news organizations to reinvent how they approach the subject.
Indeed, within the past year, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Charlotte Observer added religion sections to their pages. The Arizona Republic is also considering starting one. And this summer, the Public Broadcasting Service, through its New York station WNET, will launch "Religion Newsweekly," the first-of-its-kind weekly news program on religion and ethics.
Theologians see several reasons for Americans' renewed spiritual interests, among them: the end of the millennium, which has sparked a tendency to look inward and upward; aging baby boomers who are searching for meaning in their lives; a more pluralistic society that requires understanding of different faiths; and religious conservatives who, some say, have increased awareness of the role of religion in public life.
"I don't think we've had anything as widespread and as much of a tidal wave as we have now in this high level of hunger for spirituality," says the Rev. Jimmy Allen, a chaplain in Big Canoe, a community north of Atlanta. "It's broader than it has been, it's probably less focused than it has been in other eras, and therefore it's also deeper in society."
Dr. Allen, a consultant in the field of religion and news for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says part of the media's focus on religion stems from the 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas, by Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.
Editors began to recognize that the key to understanding the event was to cover it as a religion story. "Nobody sent a religion reporter because they didn't recognize it as a religion story, and that became a pondering thing for thoughtful people in journalism leadership," Allen says. At the time of the incident, a Freedom Forum survey found a distrust between the news media and religious leaders.
The first daily newspaper to significantly respond to the renewed interest in religion was the Dallas Morning News. Three years ago, it launched its six-page weekly section on religion and expanded the number of reporters and editors from two to seven.
Community response has "been not just accepting but virtually 100 percent enthusiastic," says Ralph Langer, executive vice president and editor.
While a number of large dailies have also followed with religion sections, other papers are expanding their coverage by adding more stories or running religious articles in different sections of the paper.
"Reporters on other beats seem to be listening and ... using faith angles in other stories," says Gayle White, a religion reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Although the print media are ahead in their focus on religion, broadcast journalism is also responding.
Two years ago, ABC hired Peggy Wehmeyer as its religion reporter. Some local TV stations across the country have followed suit. In addition, religious programming has slowly started to increase. CNN, for example, spent a day broadcasting religious programs last Christmas season. ESPN had a segment on sports stars and the role religion plays in their lives. Even journalism schools have added classes on the subject. Last year, the Religion Newswriters Association added 60 new members to its 200-member organization.
Reporting on religion has gone through cycles. Religious coverage grew during the 1950s and again in the 1980s when several scandals involving religious personalities erupted. But this latest attention "seems to be broader and in part is redefining what religion coverage is," says Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association. "It seems to be more substantial."
Also, the coverage has become more diverse. Cecil Holmes, the religion editor at the Houston Chronicle, says when she started in the early 1980s, most sources were white men; today her sources come from a broader cross-section of society.
"It has also changed from being an institutional sort of beat to one that is much more topical and looks at religion as part of American society as a whole," she says. "That doesn't mean that a meeting of a national organization isn't covered, but there is more of an interest in trying to get beneath the bureaucratic story to how this affects the person in Houston."
Still, experts agree, there is room for improvement. "We've still got some cynical treatment, some secularized lack of understanding, but that's improving, Allen says. "We're seeing a pretty good balance."