Front pages around the country were ablaze with sexual abuse
allegations against the Catholic Church, which gave an urgent tone to the
April conference “Behind the Stained Glass: Religion and Media in the 21st
About 50 ministers, public relations professionals, church officials,
academics, and others gathered for the two-day event in New York City
sponsored by Auburn Theological Seminary,
CrossCurrents magazine, and
Princeton Theological Seminary. Participants listened to presentations by
and interacted with members of the New York and national
media—representing both print and Internet outlets.
Newsweek, Beliefnet, the Columbia University Graduate School of
Journalism, www.onReligion.com, and the New York Daily News were represented.
A highlight for participants was the participation of Jonathan Alter,
senior editor and columnist for Newsweek and a contributing correspondent
for NBC News and MSNBC.
Why don’t we get more or better coverage, asked some from the church
community. Those who worked in the press explained that it has to do with
the subject matter, the way a story is pitched, the presence of a personal
angle. There is also the problem that much of the press is not schooled in
“If you’re a small newspaper, you’re scared to offend people, which is
very possible,” said Gustav Niebuhr, who was a religion reporter for The
New York Times and is now an affiliate fellow at the
Center for the Study
of Religion at Princeton University, to explain the nature of much local
coverage. He also explained that in “politics, sports, and business, you
have a score.” Since there’s no score in religion, there tends to be
softer, more feel-good coverage (except in instances of scandal).
But the press didn’t just answer questions. They also asked them. Bill
Bell, religion reporter at the New York Daily News, solicited ideas for
Steven Waldman and Deborah Caldwell, both of Beliefnet (www.beliefnet.com),
explained how the Internet provides a unique, specially suited medium for
writing about religion. The privacy of an individual’s experience on the
web is such that he or she can ask questions that might remain unasked in,
for example, a Bible study where people might judge as unacceptable
certain questions. It also allows for multilayered coverage that includes
texts of Scripture, art, audiotapes and chatboards that accompany an
As a religious scandal played out in the local and national media (some
of the scheduled presenters were not in attendance because they had gone
to the Vatican to cover the meeting of American cardinals), a group of
religious leaders and representatives of the press gathered in the hope of
a better mutual understanding.