// you’re reading...


Beliefnet And The News

April 29, 2002


Religion reporters say sparkling grains hide in dull stained glass

by Debra Wagner

(ENS) It won’t surprise many Episcopalians that when top religion reporters, online producers, and academicians get together to talk about religion and the media, the institutional church is often seen as an impediment to an interesting story.

So when Auburn Theological Seminary, CrossCurrents magazine, and Princeton Theological Seminary brought together a top flight panel of speakers for “Behind the Stained Glass: Religion and Media in the 21st Century,” on April 24-25 in New York, religion as part of an individual life emerged as the topic that draws and keeps readers.

“Institutions are soulless,” said William Bell, religion reporter for the New York Daily News. “If the denominational press can’t cover fully, fairly, and accurately a particular topic, they can’t expect us to do their job.”

The founder of Beliefnet again reinforced this disdain for the institutional church. “Previously, there was too much reporting on institutions and not enough on individuals,” said Steve Waldman, Beliefnet’s founder. “If my religion producer asked to go to the Methodist Conference I would say no–we need to use our resources for something relevant to people’s lives.”

Relevant to Beliefnet means interaction. The online experience allows for reading a story, posting to a discussion board, listening to a prayer, and pondering a meditation. “Our visitors are questioning basic Christianity,” said Deborah Caldwell, former Dallas Morning News religion reporter and now senior producer at Beliefnet. “Who cares about institutions?”

Although Beliefnet filed in bankruptcy court last week, 150 million people visit the site per month, posting 130,000 messages each day and making it the largest interfaith dialogue online. Over five million people each day receive one of their nine newsletters.

What’s news in religion?

The conversation at the seminar also included ways to understand what constitutes a news story.

Gustav Niebuhr, a religion writer for 16 years–including 7 ½ years at the New York Times–and now teaching at Princeton University while writing a book, revealed his approach. He surfed denominational websites weekly for background but kept his ear to the ground for a good story about an individual.

“A good story is catholic with a small-city approach,” he said.

Bell based his advice on pleasing his readership, which is blue collar and highly ethnic. “A story pitch is not a laundry list–it’s one specific idea,” he said. “I build to the pews and need to explain the story on a pew level.”

Public faith, private doubt

And those in the pews are learning about religion in the privacy of their own homes. Steve Waldman of Beliefnet explains, “Religion sites are like porn sites. People come in droves because in print or in church they risk being seen as doubters. The internet allows them to search in privacy.”

Privacy also allows visitors to read controversial authors within their own denominations. Based on numbers of postings, the most popular Beliefnet columnist is the Rt. Rev. Jack Spong, former bishop of Newark. (Apparently, he has a conservative following that follow his postings closely.)

In addition to the internet, the cult of personality runs strong with religion reporters.

“Cardinal O’Connor stole the show and Protestants still haven’t recovered,” said Ari Goldman, tenured professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism and former religion reporter for the New York Times. Although he admitted that he covered elephants going up the steps of the Cathedral of St. John and quoted the now-retired Episcopal bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. Paul Moore because of his “moral authority,” he was clearly taken by the now-deceased cardinal of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

“[Cardinal John] O’Connor couldn’t pass a mike without making some comment that went straight to the average New Yorker–no matter what faith,” continued Goldman. “Reporters eagerly covered his sermons every Sunday because he commented on world events in a way that engaged the individual.”

Mainline lacks presence in new media

Personalities are much easier to report than complex issues that face denominations.

“Mainline denominations are in a financial and identity crises,” said Charles P. Henderson, Jr. executive director of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life (ARIL). “They have not stepped up to the plate to create a presence in new media that is reaching thousands of people.

Where is the liberal mainline Protestant voice?

“A committee statement is not a story,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. “Mainline Protestants are reluctant to put forward an individual.”

In addition editors are reluctant to antagonize readers. Silk cited several instances when the New York Times missed breaking stories because they “would have offended Catholic readers.”

“The New York Times was late in reporting on the current story that is rocking the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1980’s the Times> watched as the New York Post broke the Covenant House scandal. And no New York paper ever recorded the sexuality of Father Mychal Judge after his tragic death at the World Trade Center.”

It is safer then for the media to focus on the individual rather than the institution. It appears to be a working compromise, as readers and internet surfers make clear with their wallets and browsers.


–Debra Wagner is director of communications for the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York & New Jersey.


Send QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS to James E. Solheim, director of Episcopal News Service, at: Or to Jan Nunley, deputy director, at: The enslist is published by Episcopal News Service. Visit the ENS web site: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/ens


Comments are disallowed for this post.

Comments are closed.