Media tunes in to religion

From TV to the Web, the press increases its coverage of religion to meet people's interest.

When Lino Rulli started a popular cable-access show in Minneapolis called "Generation Cross," he didn't know where it would lead.

But his off-beat approach to discussing faith - he cooks with priests in a segment called "Burnt Offerings" and takes nuns swing dancing - caught the eye of a local TV news director who had been looking for the right person to cover religion for his station.

Last month, Mr. Rulli, who has a master's degree in theology, made his mainstream debut on WCCO's Friday newscast.

Like more and more media outlets, WCCO has found that - for many viewers - religion is as important to the news as regional forecasts or movie reviews. In a time of self-help books and profound scientific advances like cloning, Americans are increasingly searching for spiritual meaning. From local papers to the Web, the press has responded with more religion news than at any time in decades.

"There is more attention to religion in the American news media these days than there has been at anytime since World War II," says Mark Silk, author of the 1995 book "Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America." "There's just more religion out there, and that's going to show up in the public media."

In the past decade, many newspapers have added sections devoted to faith and values and reporters to go with them. Newsmagazines now regularly feature religious subjects on their covers - and do brisk business when they do. Religion news is also increasing on the Internet, and to a lesser extent on TV and the radio.

Stories about everything from prayer groups to reincarnation to African-based ancestor worship have replaced what 30 years ago was primarily the domain of bake sales and church notices.

The increase has been gradual, observers say, beginning in the 1980s, when religious groups began to play a greater role in politics and televangelists went astray. Now, sports figures and entertainers are more open about their faith - bringing the issue into public discussion - and more people, including journalists, are seeking spiritual answers.

Pulpits in the press

Last month, a joint study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs and the Ethics and Public Policy Center reported that the number of journalists attending church at least monthly more than doubled between 1980 and 1995. It also found that the amount of religion news in major national outlets doubled from the 1980s to the 1990s. The majority of the coverage still comes from newspapers, but the study shows steady increases in religion news on television.

Most of the stories tracked by the study, however, focused on religion and politics, or church crime and wrongdoing, not on spirituality or theology. That's not enough, says Daniel Amundson, a co-author of the study, adding that the press needs to take a deeper look at how religion shapes society.

"[Religion] has a role in the way we make decisions about public policy and it can divide groups," he says. "Its importance really can't be overlooked."

America is among the most religious countries in the world. Some 59 percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives - a number that has changed little in recent decades - according the Gallup polling firm.

But the nature of that religion is transforming, say some observers. Today, for example, Mormonism and Islam are growing rapidly, with some figures showing there are about as many Muslims in the US as there are Presbyterians.

"We are in a period of enormous religious reformation in this country," says Phyllis Tickle, author of "God-Talk in America." She says like the Reformation in the 1500s, a confluence of factors are contributing to this one, such as the self-help movement, transient family patterns, and immigration.

How these cross-currents have played out in Los Angeles, recently named the most religiously diverse city in the world, is an insight into the forces shaping current religion coverage.

"There's a very, very great interest in all things spiritual," but not necessarily only traditional expressions of it, says Larry Stammer, one of five religion reporters at the Los Angeles Times. It's the largest contingent in the paper's history. (The Monitor has one full-time religion writer.)

Mr. Stammer and Silk both say a factor in the increased coverage is the continuing effort to attract and keep audiences.

"Let's face it, there's a market out there, and it's in the newspaper's interest to cover religion," says Stammer.

In Minneapolis, those seeking religion can now get it from at least two local television stations: WCCO, where Rulli is, and WTSP. There, anchor Angela Davis started reporting a Sunday morning religion segment in January.

"People do want the good news," she says. "[They are saying] 'Because we have been fed the bad news over and over - give us some good news, some tools ... so that we can do good and feel good about ourselves.' "

Leery newsrooms

Still, not all newsrooms are easily embracing the "God beat." In many cases, one reporter is covering a vast topic. Religion reporters are also sometimes left off important stories like the Pope's visit to Cuba in favor of political writers. And editors and writers are often leery of religion stories, because religion stories can be complicated and raise the ire of readers.

"Journalists are accustomed to dealing with things they can comprehend," says Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC's World News Tonight. "Faith and spirituality are not always easy to comprehend."

Since 1994, ABC and National Public Radio have added full-time religion correspondents, and PBS's "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly," which debuted in 1997, isnow the network's No. 1 non-prime-time program. To date, however, Peggy Wehmeyer at ABC is the only religion correspondent at any of the major networks. "Broadcast media has a long way to go before it can feel good about religion news," she says.

One place religion is thriving, though, is on the Web. One new general-interest religion site, beliefnet.com, was co-founded in January by Steven Waldman, a former US News & World Report national news editor.

One of the motivations for creating the site, he says, was "related to a feeling that the traditional media, though making great strides, was not covering matters of the soul nearly as well as consumers wanted."

In the meantime, the public is getting the majority of its deeper explanations about religion from books and popular television, argues Ms. Tickle. "For most of America, it is easier to get theology off of 'Law and Order,' 'NYPD Blue,' and 'The West Wing.' "

Rulli in Minneapolis considers his humorous approach more entertainment than journalism. He is not a reporter, but plies his subjects with common-man type questions. "I think I help people find God, or find their faith," he says, "but I don't have to be serious to do it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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