Canadian Media Grapple With Religious News

Two-thirds of regular church-goers in Canada feel the media do a "poor job" of covering issues of spirituality and faith, according to polling data the Angus Reid Group of Toronto recently released. The numbers seem to confirm what many editors already suspect from their own experience: No group sees itself as adequately or appropriately covered in the news media.

Angus Reid also found that the tendency to give the news media low marks for religion coverage tends to be connected to the frequency of church attendance: Only 34 percent of occasional churchgoers, and 24 percent of those who never attend, give the media the same failing grade. Such figures invite the suggestion that only those who don't know or care much about religion are satisfied with the way the topic is covered.

Peter Desbarats, a former dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, speaks of an "unbridgeable gap developing" between what he calls rationalists - typified by the secular media - and "fundamentalists," including the religiously inclined.

In a period when peace and prosperity are generally secure enough that people can think about personal rather than public issues, the conflict between rationalism and fundamentalism is "the biggest story of our time," Mr. Desbarats told a recent conference here on Faith and the Media.

Other observers are not sure the gap is so great or so unbridgeable. Perhaps ironically, the weakening of religious ties within society may be making it easier for younger generations in the media to deal with religion.

John Stackhouse, professor of modern Christian thought at the University of Manitoba and a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press, told the conference, "Younger Canadians have grown up in a country less marked by a Christian consensus, and so less reflexively antagonistic to the establishment."

He noted that the "God Is Alive" cover story that Maclean's magazine ran in spring 1993 - an article documenting unexpectedly high religious engagement in Canada - drew more reader letters than any story in the past decade except two: the Charlottetown Accord and the Quebec referendum of 1995.

In recent years, Canadian media have followed an American trend of increased coverage of religious issues, particularly in newspapers as contrasted with television. The Hamilton, Ont., Spectator has included increased religious coverage as part of an overall makeover of the paper. And the Ottawa Citizen, under a new editor, Neil Reynolds, has been giving better play to stories on religious topics.

"I feel like a hero in the newsroom now," says religion reporter Bob Harvey, "although I'm doing the same thing I was doing before."

Angus Reid found that 22 percent of Canadians worship weekly, as compared with 40 percent of Americans, and that 35 percent pray at least weekly, as compared with 55 percent of Americans.

Contrasting the data for Canada with those for the US, Andrew Grenville, senior vice president of Angus Reid, noted, "Faith is more privatized here. The levels of religiosity are lower, and the groups are smaller."

In the US, Mr. Grenville said, Southern Baptists or Roman Catholics are large enough "to take aggressive stances" on contentious public issues. Although there are some "strident voices" among small religious minorities in the public arena, he said, most religious groups are "big enough not to feel threatened, but small enough to know they're a minority."

He adds, "Where the media fall down and miss the story is that they underestimate the degree to which religion motivates social action."

Dennis Gruending, former English-language communications director for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, made a similar point: "A lot of the elite believe that faith is private, is personal ... but religion has a social dimension." People of faith should be seen as social actors, he added.

Peggy Wehmeyer of ABC News is the first, and so far only, full-time reporter on the religion beat at an American TV network. At the Ottawa conference, she took particular issue with the way, as she sees it, the media generally seem unable to respond to people who want to talk about a religious dimension to their experience.

She read from a transcript of an interview with Capt. Scott O'Grady, the American flyer widely hailed as a hero for surviving being shot down by the Bosnian Serbs. He continually brought up his faith in God as he told of his experience - and the interviewer kept changing the subject. "There's a real problem with religious illiteracy in the media," she said.

Some analysts have another view. Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., has written: "Good religion coverage should make religious leaders no happier than good political coverage makes politicians." In a Monitor interview he commented that reporters, in covering many stories with a religious dimension, often are "respectful to the point of not asking very tough questions."

"Reporters are constantly looking for hooks or ... angles," says John Longhurst, chairman of the conference and author of "Making the News: a Media Relations Guide for Non-Profit Organizations." He suggests that being able to mention a "faith angle" in a story should be a way for a reporter to find that hook. He goes on, "When someone says, 'It was a miracle that I survived [an accident],' it's OK to quote that.... It doesn't mean the reporter endorses the view."

A number of journalism schools offer courses or programs intended to help reporters cover religion better. Mr. Silk's center at Trinity focuses on "religion beyond the religions beat," as he puts it. "I see our job as ... making the news media more sophisticated in how they approach the religious dimension of the stories they cover" as reporters on beats such as urban affairs or medicine and science.

Trinity will have a series of seminars for reporters this fall, and Silk will also direct a series of regional conferences for supervisory editors.

If these "gatekeepers," who determine what play religion stories get, aren't included, the result is likely to be conferences on religion and the media "at which both sides end up cursing the same darkness and not much gets accomplished."

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