Published October 17, 2008
Here is a foolproof way for politicians to score points with evangelical voters: Attack the media, an institution widely seen as lacking conservative Christian voices.
One way to change this perception, some church leaders, social commentators and journalists say, is for mainstream news organizations to employ -- and keep -- more evangelicals in their newsrooms.
"Journalism has become more of a white-collar field that draws from elite colleges," said Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and a religion columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. "While there's been heavy gender and racial diversity ... there's a lack of cultural diversity in journalism," including religion.
Since the 1980s, when the Christian right emerged as a powerful force in American culture and politics, evangelicals have made significant inroads in law and government by training believers to work inside secular institutions. But while the same universities that helped students launch careers in those fields are offering similar programs in journalism, they haven't been as successful at changing the nation's newsrooms.
"The media -- journalism -- remain one of the hardest fields for them to realize their power," said D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University and author of "Faith in the Halls of Power."
Many evangelical journalists start out in secular news organizations but they soon join Christian media that offer an environment more accepting of their beliefs and more family-friendly than the long hours and low pay of secular journalism, said Robert Case II, director of the World Journalism Institute, which offers seminars for young evangelicals seeking work in secular media.
Martha Krienke, 26, who attended one of Case's seminars in 2003, worked for two secular newspapers in Minnesota before she finally took a job as an editor at Brio, a magazine for young girls published by Focus on the Family.
At one paper, Krienke disagreed with the edit of an opinion piece about what Christmas meant to her.
"My editor wanted to change several paragraphs, and it totally changed the tone and message of my opinion," she said. "Going through that situation just confirmed to me why I wanted to work for a Christian magazine."
It's unclear exactly how many evangelicals work in newsrooms, and federal laws against religious discrimination prevent news managers from asking about a job candidate's beliefs. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in 2007 that 8 percent of journalists surveyed at national media outlets said they attended church or synagogue weekly. The survey also found 29 percent never attend such services, with 39 percent reporting they go a few times a year.
Pew polling of the general public found 39 percent of Americans say they attend religious services weekly.
In seeking a greater voice in the media, most evangelical leaders say their goal isn't to evangelize inside newsrooms, which demand that journalists set aside their beliefs for the sake of objectivity.
"They have to be journalists first," Mattingly said. "You don't need more Christian journalists. You need more journalists who happen to be Christians if they're going to contribute to any real diversity in newsrooms."
He also says evangelical journalists can bring a range of contacts to the table and can draw on their knowledge to help explain and shape religion coverage.
Case's primary concern is that evangelicals are frequently portrayed in the media as a monolithic bloc, when in fact they are diverse politically, intellectually and theologically.
"It bothers me that when mainstream outlets want an evangelical voice, they've turned to Jerry Falwell or James Dobson or Pat Robertson," he said. "They are men of high regard and standing, but there are others who have a different take on things."
Scott Bosley, executive director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, doesn't believe there has been a bias against evangelicals in hiring or in the workplace, and that it's common for groups to feel underrepresented in newsrooms.
"I don't think the sole measures of the effectiveness or success of newsrooms in reflecting their communities depends on having precise quotas of folks representing all different ideologies, be they Christian or not," he said. "We have a lot of generalists in newsrooms and they tend to have to learn about a lot of things."
Religious scholars estimate there are nearly two dozen evangelical colleges in the U.S. that offer either journalism degrees or classes. And the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, holds an annual conference in which students get career advice from Christians working in U.S. media outlets.
The Rev. Pat Robertson, the well-known evangelical leader who is founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, even considered buying The Virginian-Pilot newspaper of Norfolk, Va., to give students at his Regent University opportunities for internships. But he later abandoned the plan because of newspapers' overall financial decline.
Still, "journalism is important and it's one of the areas in society I think our graduates should play a role in," Robertson said. "I think the idea of transforming the culture, of having Christians involved as salt and light in every area of endeavor, is an important thing."