What Does a Diminished Religion Beat Mean for Us?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 19, 2009 — 1 Comment

If you’ve been paying attention to some the more prominent religion bloggers lately, you’ll have noticed quite a bit of thought given to the decline of professional reporters on the religion (or God) beat. As newspapers cut their budgets across the country, those who cover religion and faith-related issues are feeling the pinch.

“The numbers told the story at this year’s Religion Newswriters Association Conference. It was the 60th time religion reporters from secular news outlets gathered to discuss their craft, gather new story ideas, recognize the best religion stories from the previous year and generally recharge their batteries on a beat that is one of the most challenging and rewarding in journalism … Kevin Eckstrom, editor of the Religion News Service and president of the Religion Newswriters Association, said attendance was half that of last year’s conference in Washington … Last year,  40 exhibitors staffed booths outside the conference ballroom, hoping to attract the attention of journalists. This year, there are 15. Travel budgets are down, both inside newsrooms and among faith-related companies and non-profits. But the fact remains that there are simply fewer reporters covering religion.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Paulson called religion-beat reporters a “dwindling band” who have suffered a “serious reversal of fortune” compared to a decade ago. Meanwhile, veteran religion-reporter Gary Stern blogged about his paper eliminating the religion beat, and Mollie at Get Religion wondered how these shake-ups will change the way that blog analyzes religion reporting.

“It will be interesting to watch this change in print media and it will be interesting to see if and how that changes our role here at GetReligion. In the meantime, our best wishes to Stern and all of the other veteran Godbeat scribes who are adjusting to the new landscape.”

But what does this mean for modern Pagans? This is anecdotal, but in my daily scouring of various news sources concerning modern Pagans I see more and more entries from blog-sites like Examiner.com and far less from what we would call “mainstream” media sources. Further, an increasing number of stories that I blog here aren’t directly related to modern Pagans, but are instead of some related concern to our communities (Santeria legal cases, for example) . Could this be due to dwindling resources and fewer reporters exclusively covering religion? CUUPs official David Pollard recently pointed out something interesting to me about a graph from the Google News Archive search that I had recently posted.

A representation of how many times the word “Wicca” was used in news stories since 1970, it showed a huge spike in 1999 (when modern Paganism and religion journalism were both riding high) and a noticeable drop in the last few years. Now, I know that Wicca hasn’t shrunk in any discernable way lately, and indeed seems to remain popular among the teens that many said artificially inflated our numbers and would eventually abandon us back in the 1990s. Nor has Wicca, not to mention other modern Pagan faiths, failed to be involved in newsworthy events. Pollard wondered if that drop was instead related a decline in news coverage in general, and that seems to be the case. A look at Google Trends (which combines news mentions with search trends) shows declines not just for Wicca, Paganism, and Asatru, but for more mainstream faiths like Christianity and Judaism. Are these trends related to a diminishing of religion-beat reporting? Out of sight, out of mind?

What has become ever-clearer to me is that it may be years before the mainstream media reorganizes and stabilizes enough to start spending resources on religion reporting again. In those years the only religion stories that will be getting regular coverage are those that will involve millions of people or dollars (or votes). Religious leaders will have to be powerful (or scandalous) enough to demand attention from reporters on the “hard” news-beats. This will leave minority faiths with an ever-dwindling access to news that could have a direct effect on their lives. Religion coverage could increasingly become an editorial page instead of an investigation. It’s for this reason that I’m working to help build a Pagan-centric newswire, because if we can’t report on ourselves, we may find no one else willing or able to.

Jason Pitzl-Waters