Change Comes Fast To Religion Reporting

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by Frances Stebbins

A few weeks ago columnist Hayden Hollingsworth reflected on how medical education has changed since he was trained as a cardiologist years ago.

Coming across a 22-year-old report taken from a survey involving the Religion News Service, I was fascinated to see how not only churches but how they are written about has changed in the public press.

The changes come about because what were for centuries two institutional bastions of society have changed so much in the past 25 years. Middle class Americans used to go to their church and read their newspaper. Today both communication of news and supporting a church have broadened to the point where neither seems as effective as it used to be.

I like the metaphor of a searchlight versus a directed beam. We can bring in more people, but does quantity necessarily equal quality?

When I began my career writing about churches for the daily Roanoke evening paper more than a half century ago, the newspaper valued churches as supports of society. The executives went to church. To that end, much of the Saturday evening paper was devoted to information about what would be happening in the city’s congregations the following day.

One of my major tasks was to type a long list of sermon topics which had been sent in on cards by clergy. It was taken quite seriously. It seems incredible now that a newspaper would devote so much space, but then more Roanokers seem to have gone to church.

Until a few years ago it was routine for me to cover major denominational meetings; little about them is regarded as newsworthy now.

Today in the Roanoke newspapers religion gets its due chiefly in the acts of people; one must read between the lines. Of course, that’s what one’s religion is meant to do: lead a believer to treat others as he would want to be treated and to give credit to a supreme being through various forms of worship.

But I notice in news stories about people, even when their faith is acknowledged, that their particular congregation is rarely mentioned. I wonder why.

At one time, as a 1989 survey indicated, most daily papers carried news about the institutional church and they accepted paid advertising from faith communities. Ads for churches are fewer now; they never brought in a lot of revenue.

Seeing the well-regarded Atlanta Journal and Constitution recently on a Saturday, I notice its nod to churches in a personal column by a woman editor and a half page of small ads, some placed by a denominational office. The whole paper, like our local publications, is much smaller. The RNS professional organization, to which I once proudly belonged, may no longer even exist.

The survey of 22 years ago showed that readers then wanted to read church news, It examined the issue of whether newspapers should give readers only what they want –sex, sports, scandals– or what they need –information about their government, schools and churches.

The trend, even then, was to broaden religion coverage, a trend now intensified by the common words, “inclusion” and “diversity.”

There are now at least four ways of getting the day’s news–newspapers, radio, television and the Internet. The advertising dollar has been split many ways. As for churches, the denomination of one’s family matters less than it once did. Being friendly and offering conveniences are what bring in younger people who are sought everywhere.

Those with a conservative outlook continue to hold to inerrant Scripture and fear watering down the faith. Others will always see adaptation to the culture as also biblically based.

To which we can only say, change is constant.