Why Mainstream Media Coverage of Religion Makes the Media Irrelevant

When we were attempting to get coverage of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church three weeks ago one reporter for a major, mainstream publication bluntly told us why his editor wouldn’t assign him to cover it even as a religion reporter.

“My editor doesn’t understand why people go to church. He will only assign reporters to cover controversy. If you see conflict coming out of this conference I have a better chance,” he said.

The bipolar template of conflict that is applied to many stories from politics to religion and much in-between, creates its own filter and outcome. I believe it manufactures the news in a way that is detrimental to those who are covered.

In this instance the fact that a 13-million member religious community pledged to join a global partnership to end a killer disease (malaria) and raise $100 million to contribute to the effort was not news. In the scheme of things a protracted disagreement over human sexuality, a disagreement that is now more than a decade old, was still “newsworthy” because it involved conflict.

It’s tiresome. Journalism has fallen into a predictable track and when it heads down this particular track it’s increasingly irrelevant. There is nothing new to say about the debate over sexuality, at least nothing new has been said that I’ve heard. So making conflict the rationale for covering an event of this magnitude and ignoring the wide range of concerns of this number of people seems remarkably out of touch.

In an excerpt from her new book posted yesterday, Arianna Huffington offers a sharp, accurate critique of the mainstream media for its coverage of politics. It seems to me her critique parallels our experience in religious coverage. More specifically, it describes the nature of coverage by national mainstream media.
The most important insight, I believe, that can be gleaned from Huffington’s critique is that the persistent framing of conflict puts the agenda of the media in front of the agenda of the people involved. It pre-determines the nature of the story and this pre-determines content. It magnifies and legitimizes extremes, providing them a larger platform than they would otherwise have. And this can lead to the impression that the extremes are more representative, or more knowledgeable than, in fact, they are because the focus is on the conflict and not on the quality of information.

Extremist groups have learned how to play this game exceedingly well. Huffington says this symbiotic relationship between media and extremes is how “the lunatic fringe highjacked America.” Pretty strong words but a critique worth considering.

On the whole, given the incompetence of mainstream media covering religion, I was not disappointed they didn’t show up in Ft. Worth.

One Response to “Why Mainstream Media Coverage of Religion Makes the Media Irrelevant”

  1. Christine Gorman May 30, 2008 at 9:48 am #

    Hi Larry,

    ‘Twas ever thus. The difference now is that you don’t need the mainstream media as much as you once did to broaden the conversation beyond conflict. Congrats on the digital GC and the $100 million commitment to fight malaria.


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