Thursday, November 18, 2004

Religion Reporters Are Scarce at TV Networks

Religion reporters scarce at networks
By Chris Baker
November 17, 2004

If the national exit polls were correct and "moral values" were one of the electorate's top concerns during the presidential election, what does that mean for television news?
The press exerts much energy reporting on scandals — whether they are political, corporate or religious — but other kinds of stories about morality are rare. The closest thing most outlets have to a morals reporter is the person who works the religion beat, which is common at major newspapers but almost nonexistent in TV newsrooms.
In the Washington area and other big cities, TV news directors cite budget constraints for the dearth of religious reporting by their organizations.
But it's not that simple, said Scott M. Libin, director of development and outreach for the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla. Morals aren't easily defined and religion is still considered taboo, keeping many reporters from covering them, he said.
"When people say they want you to cover religion more, they mean their religion. It's not an easy thing to do in a meaningful way. At best, you are going to offend more people than you endear," Mr. Libin said.
Peggy Wehmeyer, who pioneered the religion beat at ABC's Dallas affiliate and then at the network itself, said there is a lack of "ideological diversity" in TV newsrooms.
News directors strive to hire women and minorities, but they are less concerned with hiring religious people, said Ms. Wehmeyer, whom ABC laid off in 2001 after budget cuts.
A study four years ago by the Center for Media and Public Affairs and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative research group, found the proportion of journalists who regularly attend religious services rose from 14 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 1995.
"In order to cover that beat, you have to at least understand people of faith. But am I saying you have to be an evangelical Christian to cover religion? Absolutely not," Ms. Wehmeyer said.
The CBS affiliate in Hunts-ville, Ala., is one of the few stations that covers religion regularly. Anchor Amy George has reported a twice-weekly segment called "For Goodness Sake" since 1999. She has covered the construction of Huntsville's first Hindu temple, examined how churches remain segregated and reported on the debate over displaying the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court.
A TV newsroom that creates a morals beat wouldn't have to limit coverage to religion, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts that promotes higher standards in reporting.
A morals reporter might file a story on leadership changes within the Catholic Church one day and pieces on classroom cheating or road rage the next, he said.
"You would need a much more clever reporter, or a more intuitive reporter, than you would on most other beats," Mr. Rosenstiel said.
WRC's Condi coup
WRC-TV (Channel 4) anchor Barbara Harrison's two-part interview with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice begins today on the NBC station's 6 p.m. newscast.
Ms. Harrison met Miss Rice on the D.C. social circuit and lobbied for a sit-down chat for more than a year. She finally got it Friday, four days before President Bush nominated Miss Rice to succeed Colin L. Powell as Secretary of State.