“It’s a terrible irony that religion is so prominent in the world and yet so absent from the news,” Niebuhr told a gathering of journalists from two groupings of North American journalists, the Associated Church Press and the Evangelical Press Association. “The post-Cold War world can’t be understood without understanding religion.”
Currently an associate professor at Syracuse University teaching both religion and journalism, Niebuhr said that since his days as the religion editor at The New York Times, newspapers are cutting back on news about religion and the civil society with which it intersects.
“The coverage of religion news is suffering,” said Niebuhr. He warned that the recent closures of prominent regional U.S. newspapers such as the 146-year-old Seattle Post Intelligencer and the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News in Colorado and the near closure of the Boston Globe was a pointer to “the collapse of an institution.”
“Economically these are exceptionally bleak times for the institution of newspapers,” lamented Niebuhr. He described the Los Angeles Times, once known for its strength in the coverage of religion, as a former national newspaper that is a shell of its old self and suffering the fate of other publications.
“The coverage of religion in print journalism beats is suffering in this recession,” noted Niebuhr, speaking in Indianapolis, the city in which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has its headquarters and is a denomination known for evangelistic and ecumenical work.
The Indianapolis May 6-8 meeting was the first joint congress in about 20 years between the ACP and the EPA. The ACP includes journalists covering mostly traditional Protestant denominations, such as Baptist, Episcopal (Anglicans), Presbyterian, and United Methodist churches, and the Roman Catholic Church. The journalists belonging to the EPA cover mainly evangelical churches.
During his May 8 speech Niebuhr recalled some of his experiences covering religion in a 16-year career in newspaper journalism, most recently at The New York Times and previously at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlanta Journal/Constitution.
He rued, “Religion writing is dimming if not going dark,” in a reference to fading attention being paid to religion. “Those journalists who ignore religion risk being surprised when events take place that they did not report.”
Niebuhr referred to an editor who once said, “If only reporters had paid more attention to African-American news in the South [of the United States] in the 1950s they would have come to understand the potential power of them civil rights movement much earlier.”
This meant that the journalists in the ACP and the EPA would be left to tell the stories of U.S. Christians today. “I cannot think of a time when your work is more important. You are going to challenge the dark times.”
Niebuhr said that while working for the secular media he had often needed to turn to the specialized press covering religion for his insights. “Your words mattered to me and they continue to matter, especially in the present climate.”
He added, “When one pays no attention to religion, one misses the dynamism of new movements that transform society.” Niebuhr said, “When religion returns to news coverage, journalists will turn to religious writers.”
While Niebuhr was working for The New York Times and on his way to work on September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks were taking place in the city.
“In the weeks that followed, we lived with a strange demonic symbol, the smoke that billowed from the sky,” following the “murderous attacks that were carried out by people claiming to act in God’s name.”
So Niebuhr set out to find if “9/11” had another meaning. What he found was that on the very day that al-Qaida’s hijackers were committing their acts, “Christians and Jews were gathering outside mosques and other religious buildings to prevent vandalism, in a largely spontaneous response. To this day the knowledge of those events passed largely below the radar of the news media.”
The phenomenon led Niebuhr to write a book, “Beyond Tolerance,” and to explore what might help move the 21st century beyond the cycles of violence in which it is now enmeshed.