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Religion Coverage

No writer about religion has reason to complain that too little has been happening in “the world of religion.”

Daily as we do our “sighting,” we find scores of items in international and domestic affairs that deal explicitly with “religion,” by any and almost every definition of that term.

The Martys begin each day consuming four newspapers over breakfast and chatting about the many references and what they mean for us.

Then it is off to the computer, where we are served by numerous blog postings and digital providers of items about religion.

Today, rather than report on religion in public life, I want to reflect on the enterprise of covering religion in the media.

The impulse for this was the March 26 article that originated in the Deseret News and made its way to the internet.

Author Chandra Johnson headlined her summary: “Why Faith-focused Media Outlets and Coverage Matter More Than Ever.”

What inspired me to write this column was Johnson’s view of our contemporary scene in which cutbacks in the print media world are making news.

She quoted Jerome Socolovsky in the vital Religion News Service, as he rued the fact that The Boston Globe and The Huffington Post cut back by disconnecting from particular news agencies or by deciding not to retain a full-time religious reporter.

Johnson had to know that she could not expect mass response to her column. What, among anything worthwhile, isn’t being cut back these years?

Every day there are ups or downs in sectors of the media world. Why mope or shed tears about the ignoring of religion?

Maybe Johnson, one might consider, overdoes the accenting on religion because her paper issues from Salt Lake City, the Latter-day Saints capital, where religion really, really matters.

But she is too conscientious a reporter to be caught with her provincial biases showing. Instead, she points and documents.

There is no reason to repeat her observations; her text is available. Nor is there reason to agree that media coverage of religion matters now “more than ever.” “Ever” points a long time back.

Yet stressing how religion is overlooked, downgraded, misunderstood and misreported points to something urgent in a world where, for a few instances, “we” get almost everything wrong about global Islam, “we” find religion to be the most messed-up topic in political life at all levels plus the most complex agent in legal controversies. And so on and so on.

Johnson is correct to point out that there are many metacultural factors in the overlooking and underestimating of religion in public life.

Public education, when its leaders are alert to the problems of discussing religion in a pluralist society, cannot fill the void left by “cutbacks” in nongovernmental agencies like churches, voluntary societies and the like.

She knows that like-finds-like in every profession, and that journalists and communicators are congenial with and influenced by colleagues who also find religion to be a distant, often alien, and even alienating, part of their lives.

Is this all true, “More than ever?”

Enough to matter. After five-plus decades of teaching history by daylight and acting the role of a journalist by moonlight – during which I had plenty of occasions to ponder problems and then add my personal churchly vocation – it seems even more ponder-worthy.

And I can testify that all along the way I have had in my sightings many astute and dedicated colleagues who addressed these various worlds in ways that struck and strike me as conscientious, informed, professional, civil and constructive.

Their presence now “matters” if not “more than ever,” than, at least, as much as ever, and deserves fresh appraisal.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission. You can follow Sightings on Twitter @DivSightings.