Summer/Fall 2002
Volume 7 Number 1






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Religion and Media: Covering a Mystery

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 Century.” 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,, 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 religious matters.

“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 his column.

Steven Waldman and Deborah Caldwell, both of Beliefnet (, 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 article.

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.

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