The "God Beat" Takes a Beating

The economic downturn has obviously hurt newspapers a great deal, but it’s hard to say which areas of coverage have been depleted the most. I have talked to people in many realms — international reporting, business, sports, entertainment — who claim their domain has been particularly hard hit. (Here’s a map from Paper Cuts that shows 2009 newspaper layoffs.)

But Cathleen Falsani, the Chicago Sun-Times‘s recently departed religion writer, makes the point that she is just one of four prominent religion writers who have been moved off their beats in the past month. The others are Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe, Eric Gorski at the A.P., and Peter Steinfels at The Times. This hardly means that religion will no longer be covered at those institutions, but that’s an awful lot of high-end human capital to leave one beat in a short time. I wonder what kind of religion articles we won’t be reading in the future as a result.


Dan Stewart

#8 -Casey says: "They obviously do not think much of religion, but it's this kind of attitude that gives fuel to the religious extremists."

This suggests that because I don't take religion seriously that some religious person will be offended and become extreme. If such is the case, then I would argue that the religious person was an extremist in the first place.

Bob Smietana

It's worth noting that Paulsen won a Pulitzer as part of the team of reporters that covered the Catholic priest sex scandal.
There's a lot of human capital left here on the Godbeat but it's a lonelier place with these four.

kvl

I'm not surprised that a number of commentators have advocated getting rid of religion. A number of enlightened leaders have already gotten rid of religion: Lenin, Pol Pot, Kim Il-Sung, and Mao Zedong. The results speak for themselves.

Dan Stewart

#23 -kvl

No one here is advocating "getting rid of religion" - although I don't doubt that what you perceived after reading some of the comments, mine included.

We're just happy to say good riddance to religious reporting in the newspaper. You see, many of us simply have no use for religion and don't regret the loss of reporting on the subject. That's it; please don't read more into it than what was said.

You remark about "enlightened leaders" is so rich that I'll leave it unmolested to stand as another glaring example of the hypocrisy and delusion that is so rife in religion.

Eric M. Jones

24--Dan Stewart

"No one here is advocating "getting rid of religion" - "

Okay, I am. Let's get rid of religion.

Dan Stewart

Eric, that's not my intent ... but now that you mention it, okay fine.

Bruce

Given the cuts that newspapers have been experiencing, I'm betting that there's been a bit of praying going on, if not on the pages of papers, at least in the newsrooms.

mfs

The hostility and intolerance displayed by those who consider themselves too enlightened to believe in God is striking, especially when it's the religious who are commonly accused of intolerance these days for holding to moral absolutes.

The loss of these religion correspondents will result in less articles that serve to promote understanding between people of faith and these 'enlightened' elitists. Although I don't expect God is wringing his hands in desperation over his loss of media coverage in the secular American press.

Obijan

@28:
But this is all part of God's plan, just have faith.

There's always Fox news.

Ken

@15: "hostile comments"
@28: "hostility and intolerance"

Equating religion with the belief in Santa Claus or astrology, not caring if there's less religious coverage in serious newspapers and regretting the influence that religion has on US politics: these views represent neither hostility nor intolerance.

Picketing soldiers' funerals, issuing death threats to authors and cartoonists, flying planes into buildings, burning books, stoning adulterers: these are hostile actions; that's real intolerance.

If you like believing bronze age fairy stories, knock yourself out, but to call people intolerant just for laughing at superstitious nonsense is breathtaking hypocrisy.

Karen H.

Ever think the reason why newspapers are losing subscribers is precisely because they are no longer in touch with the interests of the majority of readers?

If it's true that a majority of U.S. citizens consider themselves religious/spiritual, then it seems to me--on a purely readership level--that some exploration of religion/spirituality would keep them interested. I had thought that the purpose of newspapers is to inform, regardless of the topic, in an objective, well-researched way. Who on newspapers' staff decided that Americans are no longer interested in religion? Or, worse, thought that Americans should no longer be informed about religion and how people respond to it in society?

I have to say, as one who is religious, and also interested in the diversity of religions and cultures in the world, I have seen so many inaccuracies in newspapers regarding religion of all kinds in regular reporting that I am now skeptical of the validity of news reporting in general, and don't think it's worth subscribing to them. Such inaccuracies tell me that reporters really do not care even to do a Wikipedia search when it comes to religion. I could depend on getting some nuanced and well-researched reporting from the religion reporters. Now...well, I'm sure I will not see it.

I am sure there are many people of like mind. And, since it's pretty clear from the comments above that the readers of the NY Times are contemptuous of religion as well, and perfectly happy to remain in prejudiced ignorance, it seems to me that Peter Turner above is quite right about polarization: it's something that happens when people on both sides of a particular issue/country are happy to remain in ignorance and refuse to engage in dialogue.

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Bad Wolf

During the Me years of Ronald Reagan, the mainstream media were bought up by corporate conglomerates, who told them that EVERY bureau had to be a profit center. Before that, network news in particular, but newspaper foreign reporting were really loss centers. CBS, ABC, and NBC ran their well-staffed international bureaus at a loss, but did so because they provided a great cache of quality and class to the networks and were instrumental in establishing their overall ratings.

But, since the 1980s, foreign bureaus in the mainstream media, be it television or newsprint, have been cut back dramatically, along with their reporters, often experts in the regions they covered. Local stringers or AP feeds were substituted, and sometimes, in a big enough crisis, an anchor or principle reporter would be sent out on temporary assignment. Studies taken between 2000 and 2006 showed that overall in the mainstream media, coverage (let alone intelligent and well-informed coverage) of foreign news and events dropped by 66% in the mainstream media.

With rare exceptions, to get the sort of stories that make headlines on the BBC or in the Guardian in England, you often have to turn to page 8 at least in the NYT.

Even then, the stories are poorly reported, critical details that aid in understanding the stories and their import for us are often missed or misinterpreted, and half the time, the stories don't even appear in the American media at all.

One example that at least made the front page in June of 2008 was an excellent example of how Americans are now one of the most poorly informed people on the planet about what happens beyond our borders.

There was an article about a raid on a suspected militant hideout, a large estate in .Janana, Iraq A guard at the gate of the mansion was shot and killed by the attacking force. This was reported as a bare-bones story in the NYT, without identifying the target of the attack, the identity of the fatality, or the identities of the military force that attacked the compound - they were referred to as coalition forces in the official Pentagon briefing.

the U.S. media were told, and dutifully reported, that the guard had been shot because he came running out of the guardhouse brandishing an AK-47. For the next several weeks, relations between President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki were tense to the point of crisis, but Americans never were given a reason.

Yet, in the rest of the world, including our own closest allies, the following details were included in the story, giving it all the meaning lacking in the NYT article.

Faulty intelligence caused an attack on an innocent compound. The compound being invaded was the home of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sister. The province was Karbala, which had previously been given over to Iraqis to provide security, yet the Americans ran a covert operation without notifying their Iraqi counterparts, as required by law. The guard who was killed was named Ali Abdulhussein al Maliki and was the cousin of the Prime Minister.

The troops were a highly secret U.S. Special Forces antiterrorism unit that operates with almost complete anonymity and independence. It is the one believed to be headed by General McClatchey, the man now in charge of the Afghan/Pakistan war. This was cofirmed in on- and off-record statements by U.S. and Iraqi sources.

Al-Maliki's cousin was not carrying any weapon and was actually captured inside the guardhouse with three other guards. He had enough English to say, "I'm police. I'm a Maliki guard." Despite this he and the other guards had their hands tied behind their backs and Ali Maliki was led into another room. Ten minutes later, the other guards heard gunfire. The Americans had murdered Ali Maliki in cold blood while he was handcuffed.

The covert U.S. Special Forces troops, some 50 in number, then left the estate, having not made any arrests.

Perhaps if the U.S. population is more concerned with hearing real, uncensored news that affects their life than the mere regurgitation of Pentagon briefings by the AP and the mainstream media, they would ask that these Religion reporters being let go were replaced with competent investigative journalists with deep knowledge about the regions they cover.

If religion affects us in political ways (as is the case in the Middle East, where we are woefully lacking in knowledge about the multitude of Sunni and Shi'ite sects, their locations and their beliefs, it should be treated as news - and on rare occasion, we do see some religious information in the news.

But, merely reporting on religion for religion's sake and the doings within the various Christian denominations has no place in a public medium. Leave that for the religious publications, pulpit sermons, and church newsletters.

I certainly am not going to miss the intrusion of religion into public media, but I am horrified at how poorly the American people are informed by their media about issues that we have to make life-or-death policy decisions on - like the current escalation of the Afghan war or the intense conflicts between the White House and the Pakistanis, which began under Bush and has only been continued under Obama (perhaps because they both are relying on the advice of the generals and SecDef Gates).

One sage said after the end of the War in Vietnam, that the most important lesson we failed to learn is that the White House listened much too much to the advice of the generals and not nearly enough to the advice of civilian experts on the region. Generals can advise a president on how to fight a war, but should have no say in whether to fight the war, why to fight the war, and what should be the overall political objectives.

Let's not mourn the passing of religions correspondents, who deal primarily in matters of supernatural "belief without evidence of what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel." [Ambrose Bierce'

It is said that philosophers and theologians are both searching in a pitch black cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there. But, only the theologian finds it.

Religion as news in public media - all fine and good. Religion for its own sake - keep it in the hands of the shamans behind their altars.

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Joe C

Reading these sanctimonious comments makes it far easier to understand how some folks dismiss unthinking secular humanism as quickly as they dismiss creationism. At least the creationists don't pretend to be simply using logic to reach conclusions...unlike some of the posters here.

One doesn't have to believe in a particular religion - or any religion at all- to realize the impact that it has on world and our need to understand its motivation on people and world events. This should be obvious to anyone even moderately educated. If recent proofs are needed-- try to understand Iran without understanding Islam, or Israel without understanding the various strains of Judaism or what happened in Poland in the early 1980's without understanding the impact of the Catholic church.

Steve's post - on the" its all about the rational" Freakonomics blog shows he gets it.

Kaden

Cathleen Falsani is a great writer no matter what her topic, but being able to detail the movement of human spirit is her gift.

Witty commentary aside, she makes her reader think and enjoy it.

Luckily, she's still at http://twitter.com/godgrrl and http://www.godgrrl.com and working on a new book.

Jack Stokes

This note of clarity is from Sarah Nordgren, Deputy Managing Editor of The Associated Press:

"While you are correct that Religion Writer Eric Gorski has taken on a one-year assignment focused on higher education, religion coverage in fact has gotten stronger and more focused at the AP in the past year. We now have a team of a dozen reporters spanning the country assigned to our religion beat team and giving at least two days a week to the assignment. They include reporters focused on Southern Baptists, on Mormons and Lutherans. In addition to the enterprise from that team, AP produces a Religion Today column on a weekly basis, and a package of religion briefs each week. Finally, Rachel Zoll, our very gifted national religion reporter, remains on the beat full time, keeping AP ahead on any number of religion stories. Her recent work has included a number of stories on the struggles of American Muslims to establish themselves in the United States and keep extremism at bay."

Jack Stokes, AP Corporate Communications

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pyotr

The problem with the loss of religious coverage occured long before the reporters left. There are a lot of stories which get covered, which have a religious component which most people are blithely unaware of. Event he reporters and editors.
E.g. recently I read an article on a Coptic community here in the States, about their continuing their tradition of tattooing crosses on the wrists of babies. No mention of why that had started "back in the old country" or why it was still being done in the day and age. [Short form: because Coptic Christian children were and are regularly kidnapped to be raised as Muslims.]
But hey, we're all modern and enlightened, and have no need for any religious coverage, it's all just so much old fashioned superstition. Except to those who do take it seriously.

Arielle

As a Christian College student who has grown up in Israel, I find this article and the reactions to it very interesting. I especially appreciated the comment: "If Jesus comes back and no one is there to cover it, will it still count?"...hilarious.

I have to say, that though I feel strongly about my convictions, I often follow this train of thought. Religion as a topic is very hard to represent in the media, accept as it correlates to policy. However, whether many like it or not, it somehow seems inextricably connected to political policy, especially in the U.S. and the Middle East.

During the present economic downturn, it is interesting to see that our focus has shifted elsewhere. Perhaps recognizing this will enable both those who are not religious and those who are, to see where our priorities really lie, despite our religious or anti-religious language.

Though I understand that many of those who commented would like to see less attention paid to religion in the press, it seems to me to be vital to understand the impact religion and ideology have on political and social discourse. Otherwise, how do we keep track of how decisions are really being made?

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