November 30, 2023

As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, U.S. national media is reporting on a wave of antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks here at home. Anger and violence seem to be spreading, and the Anti-Defamation League and Council on American-Islamic Relations say these incidents are surging to levels not seen in years.

As I read these reports, I keep returning to one thought: local media must reclaim the religion beat.

In the past few months, journalism funders have announced ambitious initiatives to address the local media crisis as the country has lost almost 2,900 newspapers, and residents in more than half of U.S. counties have no, or very limited, access to any reliable local news. Without local news, residents are more likely to be misinformed and less likely to vote. But while funders consider many worthy local journalism projects — expanded coverage of town councils, boards of education, state legislatures, and BIPOC communities — it’s time to add religion to the list.

Today, in the United States, there are only a few dozen reporters in the entire country covering religion full-time for mainstream media — locally, regionally and nationally. Back in the 1990s, there were more than 500 members of the Religion News Association, the now-74-year-old professional association for religion reporters. Many of them broke stories that were picked up on front pages across the country, and they also wrote features that put a human face on local religious leaders and congregants.

I was one of them — covering religion for The Trenton Times in New Jersey and later The Dallas Morning News. In New Jersey, I interviewed the state coordinator of the Christian Coalition who in those early days revealed to me the movement’s stealth plan to “take over” the Republican Party, “precinct by precinct.” Around the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, I wrote about members of a synagogue, church and mosque in Trenton who started a monthly dinner series and were surprised to learn how much they had in common.

With all the attention on America’s increasing secularism, it’s sometimes hard to remember there are millions of people on the other side of that trend. In fact, most Americans — 77% of all adults — still identify with some kind of religious faith, with 41% of adults saying religion is “very important” in their lives and 45% of adults saying they pray daily, according to a 2021 Pew Research/NPORS survey.

Religious institutions still sustain much of civic life. Across the United States, there are 384,000 congregations and 177,000 faith-based nonprofits working on nonreligious causes — more than the number of schools, colleges and universities combined. These organizations provide food distribution sites, polling places, day care centers, homeless shelters, disaster relief, summer camps, legal clinics and more.

Few people are aware of this fact. That’s because today, The Trenton Times and most other local and regional news organizations no longer have a reporter on the religion beat. All over the country, the few journalists remaining in gutted newsrooms are scrambling just to keep up with the police blotter and city council meetings.

The reporters at RNS, a national nonprofit news organization where I serve as publisher and CEO, are among the few journalists in regular communication with religious leaders — or, for that matter, with anyone who identifies with or attends a house of worship. The religion stories that get covered by national media tend to be those fiercely political ones — the lie promulgated by Christian nationalists that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election or how Mideast war is roiling U.S. politics, college campuses and more. The problem is that reflects only a slice of religious life.

Of course, RNS covers its share of controversy. (See: the Israel-Hamas war, sexual abuse, racial and gender discrimination, genocide, Christian nationalism, politics.)

But RNS also covers many other facets of religious life: Jewish and Muslim organizations providing shelter to migrants in New York; churches in East Palestine, Ohio, supplying air purifiers to residents after a train derailment there; churches in North Carolina turning their unused buildings into homes for refugees; an “interfaith trolley” tour of sacred spaces in Chicago.

Local journalists should be looking for and telling these kinds of stories. Faith-based communities are a vibrant part of civic life, and coverage helps us build empathy for our neighbors. It’s hard to demonize someone in your town, even if you don’t like their views, if you read about that person providing a refugee a job or apartment, teaching senior citizens to make crafts, or volunteering to counsel someone through a bout of depression.

In late 2016, as national media was caught off guard by Donald Trump’s election, then-New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet acknowledged that media powerhouses “don’t quite get” religion, and he vowed to do better. In the intervening years, the news industry has shrunk, and so has coverage of religion.

But religious folks haven’t gone away. They are still the engines of community awareness, activism and political organization. Case in point: Recently, The Washington Post published a story about strife caused by the Israel-Hamas war in Teaneck, New Jersey, describing the town as “the unlikely avatar of the bubbling unease and, in some places, outright hostility” between Jewish and Muslim Americans. Soon after, the local news outlet,, published its own story: Interfaith leaders hosting a potluck that included halal and kosher foods brought by guests. “Community leaders are hoping that organized events can promote unity where there has been tension over the Middle East conflict,” it said. The local reporter didn’t shy away from the strife but found a faith-based silver lining.

Local media’s core responsibility is to help readers understand the forces shaping their communities. Sometimes that involves understanding what motivates people’s religious views and the role they play in daily life. Local reporters, with their nuanced understanding of communities, are better able to find those stories, if given the opportunity. Providing those resources for substantive local religion coverage has never felt more necessary — and urgent.

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Deborah Caldwell is the publisher of RNS. She joined RNS in 2020, having previously served as Vice President of Content Marketing at Bank of America.…
Deborah Caldwell

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