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Media awkward about religion, shun it, experts say.

NEW YORK --Journalist John Seigenthaler made a confession to about 60 of his peers at a recent national forum, "Religion and the News," at Columbia University: "I'm not really comfortable dealing with any spiritual matter."

Many in the room agreed that discomfort with religion and things spiritual has kept religion off most front pages and almost completely out of television newsrooms.

Seigenthaler, who heads Vanderbilt University's Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, sponsor of the Oct. 5 conference, said that when it came to religion, journalists "provide skim milk, even sour milk. More often than not we diet ... walk away and turn our backs. But we feed on politics.

"We're trained to be doubters, cynics and skeptics. Perhaps that's why we're so comfortable with politicians," said Seigenthaler, a Catholic and founding editorial director of USA Today.

The fact that "hard news" is grounded in facts, whereas religious news presumes a faith beyond the facts, also accounts for why many journalists would rather write about almost anything else, several forum participants said. Only 67 of America's 300 daily papers employ a full-time religion reporter or editor.

Religion seldom gets reported on network news, said Brian Healy, a 20-year veteran of CBS News who produces "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung." Healy, a Catholic, pointed to "an inherent suspicion and hostility" toward religion in TV newsrooms.

He concluded that most television journalists think religion has no bearing on life and that the personal biases of journalists influence what is telecast. "Most of my colleagues are one-minded," Healy said, "and that mind is made up." Many, he added, ignore religion because they don't understand it or they are worried about misinterpreting it.

In a public conversation, Gus Niebuhr, religion writer for The Washington Post, and the Rev. Donald W. Shriver Jr., a Presbyterian theologian at Union Theological Seminary in New York, suggested ways in which the media and religion might better interact.

Niebuhr urged pastors and those dealing with religion to contact religion writers, get to know them and let them know "what you'd like to see covered." But he advised that the hostility many church persons exhibited toward the press was not the best approach.

Shriver said that religion writers would do best if they studied in a seminary or majored in religion or history. He said seminaries should convene forums on the media and offer courses in understanding the media to all students.

Muslim readers feel that the American media is trying "to drive a wedge between Muslims and fragment them ... by attempting to link Islam with terrorism," said Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan, director of Interfaith and Communications at the Islamic Center of Long Island. He cited editorials and signed opinion pieces in three U.S. national papers and an executive summary by a Republican Congressional Task Force on Terrorism as efforts to "vilify" a religion.
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Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 22, 1993
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