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CNN Producer: Audiences Want Religion News, but Journalists Reluctant to Cover it

When I called CNN Producer Eric Marrapodi last week to ask him about the network’s new Belief Blog, he was driving around Louisiana helping to cover the Gulf of Mexico oil spill — and seeing signs that religion is often the untold story behind today’s biggest news. Literally.

“It’s the sign on the side of the road in Plaquemines Parish that said, ‘Pray for Our Fishermen,’ ” the co-editor of the blog said. “Faith is always there in the stories we cover.”

The CNN Belief Blog highlights angles of faith in the news, such as the religious makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and the spiritual messages in the final episode of TV show “Lost.” It has some user-generated content as well, including the iReport “Your Church Sign Photos” (with snapshots of marquee messages such as, “Do not give up; Moses was once a basket case”).

Earlier this year, Scripps Howard religion columnist Terry Mattingly had declared that religion news was “on life support” because newsroom cutbacks have significantly reduced the number “Godbeat” reporters.

Is the Belief Blog, and other online initiatives like The Washington Post’s recently launched “On Faith,” a sign of a Web-based religion journalism renaissance? Have market studies shown a sudden surge of interest in religion among Americans?

Not exactly. Marrapodi maintains that audiences have always wanted more religion news, but mainstream journalists are sometimes reluctant to cover it as an issue in and of itself.

“It’s the conversation people are having outside of the newsroom, outside of the office, with their families and friends,” Marrapodi said. “Sometimes that’s difficult as a reporter to cover. You don’t want to appear biased.”

Journalism has often been stereotyped as an “unchurched” and even anti-religious profession. But I’ve had conversations with many religious journalists over the years who have told me they felt pressure to be “in the closet” about their faith or religious practices for fear that they might not appear objective enough to cover stories that address moral issues. Some say they had to bite their tongues as their colleagues made jokes about “Jesus freaks” or Muslim stereotypes in the newsroom.

So are we facing a lack of resources, or a lack of understanding?

Terry Mattingly

Both, Mattingly said in a phone interview. Though dwindling resources are a very real obstacle, the growing amount of content online is not a replacement for truly knowledgeable beat reporters.

“We’re running out of sites that actually report new information,” he said, echoing thoughts he expressed in a column, “State of the Godbeat 2010.” “And we have this tsunami of opinion-based writing coming along. The Internet does opinion really well. It does tiny niche audiences. What it doesn’t do is create broad-based neutral information.”

Mattingly praised the CNN Faith Blog (admitting to bias because he knows Marrapodi personally) because it does provide independently reported news content, while aggregating the stories on religion CNN already was running. (Though he noted the irony of CNN founder Ted Turner’s anti-religious remarks.)

I asked Mattingly, who has written his Scripps Howard “On Religion” column for more than 20 years, what he thinks are the most underreported or misreported stories on faith in today’s news.

Broadly, he said, the doctrinal, historical and political aspects of Islam. For example, the true theological roots and history of the Sunni-Shiite divide are rarely adequately explained, he said.

And few journalists writing about terrorism adequately address the importance of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb, whose philosophy “produces the violent component” of modern-day Islam, including al-Qaeda.

Instead, Islam is oversimplified in contradictory ways, Mattingly said. It is either a” religion of peace,” or a religion in which “fundamentalist Islam” promotes terrorism. “Islam has within its tradition a religion of peace. But there is a conflict among Muslims. And to call it one of fundamentals versus moderates is using a Protestant construction.”

No one in Muslim countries uses the word “fundamentalist,” Mattingly said. “At some point we have to admit to the complexities.”

But can a couple-hundred word blog post help explore these complex issues? If Marrapodi’s own career provides any answer, it seems to suggest more knowledge is always needed. He’s been a self-described “go-to guy” at CNN for religion issues even before taking on the blog, but he’s now getting a master’s degree in religious studies from Georgetown University.

As for Mattingly, he doesn’t accept the brevity that can come with Web writing as an excuse for avoiding complexity.

“The Web would have room to do it,” he said, “if you had the reporters to do it, and wanted to do it, and you gave them paychecks and health care.”

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