There’s no good data on how many Christians are in newsrooms

The Week

Matt K. Lewis says newspapers need to hire more Christians: “Media outlets who want to understand America should at least have a few journalists hanging around who share — or at least, aren’t hostile to — the Christian faith.”

But Lewis doesn’t quantify his claim that Christians are unwelcome in newsrooms: He cites a New York Times obituary of McCandlish Phillips — an evangelical who said there were no fellow-travelers when he started at the paper in 1952 and who was leading prayer meetings there before he left in 1973 — and says that if more journalists were Christians, there’d be more coverage of Kermit Gosnell’s trial.

Lewis didn’t reply to a query about whether he had any data about Christians in newsrooms. Another problem: As happens way too often in media criticism, he lets the Times and The Washington Post stand in for all of newspapering.

The American Society of News Editors surveys newsrooms across the country annually about sex and race, but not religion, Executive Director Arnie Robbins told Poynter in an email. The closest I could find to industry-wide data was a 2007 Pew study that surveyed journalists on their churchgoing habits. The table is on page 55; here’s a somewhat hard-to-read screenshot (click to view a little bigger):

8 percent of journalists at national publications and 14 percent of those at local publications reported attending worship services weekly, compared with 39 percent of the general public who reported the same. But attendance and belief don’t always correlate neatly, and it’s important also to note that newsroom employment has plunged between 2007 and today.

So that leaves anecdotal evidence. Reached by phone, Huffington Post religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem said he’s had Mormon and evangelical colleagues approach him after he’s written a story touching on their faiths: “Sometimes it takes writing a story to have people come and let you know they are there,” he said. HuffPost senior religion editor Paul Raushenbush, for instance, is an ordained American Baptist minister, and HuffPost reporter Jon Ward, as Lewis noted in his piece, described himself as a “sinner saved by grace” in a recent interview.

Kaleem said he agrees with Lewis’ call for more religious diversity. “I agree on that broad point,” he said. “I just don’t know what numbers back that up.”

Marvin Olasky is the editor-in-chief of World Magazine and the dean of the World Journalism Institute, whose mission is to “recruit, equip, place and encourage journalists who are Christians in the newsrooms of America first and then the world.”

Reached by phone, he said he hadn’t seen any data about Christian representation in newsrooms but said encountering a politically conservative and “theologically Christian” employee at a major newspaper is akin to “spotting a unicorn.”

When training students at WJI, Olasky said, “I basically say to kids that are going to work on secular newspapers if you can actually follow the various journalistic codes” — writing balanced stories, giving equal space to, say, pro-life and pro-choice voices — “you’re doing a lot better than most newspapers tend to do.”

Christian reporters at some newspapers, he said, “run into a wall, they’re told implicitly we don’t want you giving equal space to the other side.” Journalism is a great discipline for a Christian, Olasky said: “What distinguishes the evangelical way of looking at things is you take experience very seriously, and you also take the Bible very seriously. And at least what I’ve seen in the 37 years I’ve been a Christian and journalist is they go together.”

Reporting on poverty, for example: “It is easy to find particular verses that you can use to justify one set of policies or another set of policies,” said Olasky, whose writings on poverty deeply influenced President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” philosophy.

Reporting out stories and letting facts take you where they will informs his understanding of the Bible and his subject, he said. “It cuts both ways.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=745168878 Larry Higgs

    Being a Christian isn’t measured by your attendance rate in church, it is measured by belief and how you put the teachings in to practice to be a better human being and how to help those in need. And for the record we have a clergyman on the newsroom staff.

  • klrcon

    Yes, I agree with this. I worked in newsrooms in the south primarily for a dozen years and I have never worked in a newsroom that didn’t have a contingent of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians – who were often outspoken about how issues should be covered. There were also lots of mainstream protestants and Catholics, many of whom were quite religious. I, too, worked with someone who left journalism to attend the seminary and others who did missionary work on their days off. Now many of those Christians were progressive in their politics but by no means all. So, sorry, this just smacks of whining to me – I don’t accept the premise that there’s a shortage of Christians because it doesn’t square up with my real-world experience at all. Where there is a lack of diversity is with other faiths – Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., who were extremely rare.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.marvel.58 Bill Marvel

    Martin, Not sure what you mean by “real journalists,” but since journalists come in both genders, all races, religions, sexual orientations, economic circumstances and political persuasions, I submit that a news staff practices “real” journalism only when it fairly represents all groups.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.marvel.58 Bill Marvel

    Correct, sargeh, though a literal interpretation would require us to believe that the heavens we look up to somehow separate us from the upper waters. That’s a concept even harder to grasp than a flat earth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.marvel.58 Bill Marvel

    “…evangelical and fundamentalist were the same thing.”

    Quite the opposite, sargeh. I know the difference, and I meant to signal that difference. Perhaps “or” was not the right conjunction. My apologies for not being more clear. i do maintain, however, that the clamor for more Christians in journalism jobs is not for more Presbyterians and Methodists. Or should I say Presbyterians OR Methodists? It’s for more Christians of a certain kind, more traditionally Biblical, more outspoken in defense of what are regarded as “conservative” religious and social values.

  • http://twitter.com/MartinBerliner MartinBerliner

    WHY should there be more Christians in newsrooms? Objectivity? Life experience? How about getting more real journalists and not worrying about religious orientation?

  • sargeh

    You nailed it.

  • sargeh

    I don’t believe you for a second when you say you were told the earth was flat and the sun moved around the earth. No one has held that belief for centuries. You can make your argument without stepping to that level.

  • sargeh

    You lost your argument right at the start when you posited that evangelical and fundamentalist were the same thing. Also neither word should be capitalized unless it’s in the name of a particular denomination. It’s merely a descriptive term.

  • harryeagar

    Pure bullshit. For 9 years I worked in the newsroom of what was probably the most liberal paper in the Midwest. It had a Catholic editor, 3 reporters who were ordained ministers and 3 staffers who left for seminary, plus numerous deacons, churchly piano players etc. I, an atheist, knew as much about Christianity as any of them. If our papers need anything, it would be more reporters willing to call the Christian bunco artists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.marvel.58 Bill Marvel

    Usually when someone complains that Christians are under-represented in journalism, they mean Christians of a particular kind: Fundamentalist Christians or Evangelicals. The assumption is that mainline Protestantism is too watered-down, too inconspicuously Christian to count.

    There’s something to be said for this. In my 48-year career I encountered three or four journalists who claimed to be born-again (one of those was in the closet, so to speak.) Catholics were reasonably abundant. (I’m one.)

    Did our coverage of religion suffer? Outside the “church pages”I think it did. Stories about the teaching of evolution, school prayer and abortion were subtly inflected so that the side upholding the more traditional view often came off in our stories as quaint, ignorant, an anomaly in modern secular society. The effect was imperceptible to editors and most of the staff. But our readers certainly picked up on it, with some justification, I think.

    Partly this is a result of the kind of students attracted to journalism. Most tend to be “progressive,” faintly liberal in politics, skeptical in religious views. Partly it’s the mind-set of journalists and journalism teachers, which prizes skepticism and questioning of received ideas. Oddly, that seldom means questioning skepticism itself, which is as much a received idea as any belief.

    There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern. (Read Michael Mooney’s profile of Robert Jeffress in D magazine.) But they are exceptions in a profession that is supposed to maintain a meticulous balance.

    If I were an editor about to send out a reporter to cover an anti-abortion rally would I pick a devout Catholic? Possibly not. I’d want to have a conversation first. Would I send a reporter I knew to be “progressive”in is or her social views? I think I’d want to have the same conversation first.

  • SFMH57

    I come from a journalism background that once prized objectivity, neutrality, even skepticism. The truth and accuracy came first. In this milieu, you would never *want* to be or have a boss or coworker who was overtly partisan in regard to a particular religious practice or political party. I still think advocacy journalism belongs in blogs and in regular columns or publications devoted to a school of thought or ideology. Go there. Have fun. Knock yourself out. As it is we don’t get enough good clear, neutral, useful reportage as it is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/athensjw Mike Andrews

    When I was in high school I remember reading in the Religion section of the Saturday Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a literal interpretation of the Bible required belief that the earth was flat and the sun moved around the earth. There was no citation of scripture or even a quote from someone who held that opinion. That was the authoritative voice of the reporter in a news story. I mentioned it to my adviser in a teen journalism group at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and she said she saw nothing wrong with the statement. I was (and still am) one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Let me tell you. Even in small-town journalism, a Christian perspective is way out of the mainstream in the newsroom. It is somewhat more prevalent in ownership and management. I remember at the time, the entry on my faith in the AP Stylebook was completely garbled. I wrote them a letter and it got a little better in the next edition and is now pretty serviceable. But I can attest that most reporters I’ve run into don’t know Noah from Nebuchadnezzar.

  • BrotherMatthias

    Christianity is not a good reason for journalists to cover Kermit Gosnell’s scandal.

    JOURNALISM is THE reason to cover Gosnell’s scandal.