The God(s) Beat Expands on the Internet

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It’s no secret for those who’ve been paying attention that traditional media outlets (ie newspapers) have been cutting back on their coverage of religion. This was confirmed by a Pew Forum study that analyzed news coverage of religion for 2009 and found that new media (blogs, web sites, podcasts, etc) were taking up the slack, and becoming the primary outlet for religion news, debate, and discussion.

In 2009, religion attracted significantly more attention in new media sources than in the mainstream media.in a sample drawn from millions of blogs and social media finds that religion was a top story in nearly a quarter of the weeks studied (11 out of 45 weeks) … The blogosphere and other social media tools have grown over the past few years. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 51% of internet users post online content that they have created themselves. Eleven percent of all adults use blogs. The use of Twitter has tripled since 2008. At the same time, the number of reporters assigned to the religion beat in the mainstream media has been shrinking. According to Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or abandoned their religion beats since 2007. At the same time, she says, online newspapers such as The Huffington Post and Politics Daily have increased their religion staff. “We’re in the midst of growth of the [religion] beat online,” Mason says, “but newspapers haven’t kept up with the trend and have instead let religion coverage languish.”

This year we’ve already seen the launch of the Huffington Post’s religion section, joining sites like BeliefnetPatheos, Religion Dispatches, and the Newsweek/Washington Post-supported On Faith in expanding religious coverage on the Internet. Now they are joined by CNN who has just launched their Belief Blog a few days ago.

“The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day’s biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers’ lives. It’s edited by CNN’s Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, with daily contributions from CNN’s worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.”

With CNN joining the fray, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more mainstream news outlets (MSNBC, Fox) launching their own religion sections online. This is an encouraging trend, the more religion coverage, the better, in my mind. What is in question is how diverse will their coverage be? In other words, will they cover minority religions and modern Paganism beyond mere tokenism? So far it’s been hit-or-miss with Internet religion sections. It took Beliefnet years to give Pagans a consistent voice on their web site by finally recruiting Gus diZerega to blog for them, and the HuffPo Religion section hasn’t really recruited any consistent Pagan columnists at this point, relying on religion-tagged Pagan contributions from other sections. So far Patheos has been the most Pagan-friendly with a dedicated Pagan portal helmed by a Pagan and filled with Pagan content.

But it isn’t so much that I’m demanding sites hire Pagans or develop Pagan sections per se, only that minority faiths get the attention they deserve when a story breaks concerning them. In this sense Religion Dispatches has excelled, giving us academic and knowledgeable commentary on issues most news sources skim over. Their coverage of Vodou in the wake of the Haitian earthquake is to be commended, and I can hope more dedicated religion sites follow their lead. After all, on the Internet you have limitless space, and few time constraints, so there’s no reason to shy away from in-depth reporting or insight. Here’s hoping CNN makes the most of their new section, and really gives it the attention it deserves. As for Pagans we need to continue doing it for ourselves, so we can continue to participate and influence the conversations over faith on the Internet and in the news.