April 12, 2013

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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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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