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New York Times aside, religion makes news


Here at NCR we love The New York Times. We get two copies of it delivered daily to the newsroom, squabble over sections. The Times helps us keep abreast of national and international news, as well as news of science, technology and the arts. Newspaper editors around the country declared the newspaper the nation’s best in a survey published in the Nov./Dec. 1999 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

We also like The New York Times because an editorial writer for that newspaper once described NCR as “a brave little paper.” That’s because, despite a small staff and scarce resources, especially when compared to a giant like the Times, NCR takes on big issues and challenges powerful people, sometimes even the pope.

To prove how spunky we are, in the column you are reading, we are about to take on The New York Times itself.

What provoked us to this challenge is the Times’ Beliefs column that appeared Jan. 8. Its author, Peter Steinfels -- a distinguished Catholic journalist and, to some of us here at NCR, a friend -- led off with three sentences that we could hardly believe the Times found fit to print. We suspect we weren’t the only readers who felt this way.

This is what Steinfels wrote:

“The big news, in religion, is often that there is no news.

“That is a dirty little secret journalists writing about religion would prefer to keep from their editors and the people who sign paychecks.”

Steinfels went on: “To the extent that social science can measure religious attitudes and conduct -- rates of belief and membership, for instance, or frequency of worship and prayer -- what stands out is how glacial the changes are over decades. And maybe over millenniums.”

As evidence of this thesis, Steinfels reports that a list of the world’s major religions appears very much as it did 1,000 years ago. In other words, if I interpret Steinfels correctly, the longtime senior religion writer at the Times is asserting that because the statistical profiles of major faith groups remained relatively unchanged, religion didn’t produce much news.

Really, Peter.

I don’t want to overstep here. We are dealing with the Times, after all. But having spent more than 20 years in newsrooms -- most of those at a major daily newspaper -- I think I have a fair grasp of what constitutes news. In fact, I’m confident enough to give a little lesson to Steinfels and the editors who let his column run.

News, as most of us understand it, is information that gets someone’s attention. It’s the sort of stuff people in small towns or rural areas used to pass on over the fence, or when they met at the local tavern. It’s information people need to know (the British are coming; the bridge is out on the main road), or information that evokes emotion: anxiety, fear, concern, anger, sadness, happiness or even joy.

What’s newsworthy is often debatable, of course, subject to personal interests. Such debates go on every day in newsrooms. Debates aside, however, much of what has happened in the world of religion over the past century -- not to mention the millennium -- certainly classifies as news, even if Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are still around.

Among highlights that must have slipped from Steinfels’ memory, there were those events that members of the Religion Newswriters Association voted the most important of the last 1,000 years.

Among the newswriters’ choices:

-- The Reformation of the 16th century and the Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed;

-- The Crusades to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslims;

-- Islam’s expansion in the 12th to 15th centuries, culminating in the fall of Constantinople;

-- America’s innovations in religious liberty, leading to the Bill of Rights.

NCR readers, like readers of the Times, are a highly educated lot. They can decide for themselves whether these events might be characterized as news. It won’t take more than a little knowledge of history and a bit of imagination to appreciate the volumes of articles any one of those events might have produced -- not only over days, but also over centuries.

As for more recent times, it would seem that by the interest-equals-news standard, Steinfels would have recognized more than the general population rather than less. Surely it was news when the first non-Italian pope in centuries was elected in 1978. In the 20 years since, newspapers with a fair understanding of what makes news have produced volumes of articles about that same pope. Most newspaper editors have considered it news that women are demanding official roles in the church after 2000 years of exclusion. Most, too, have found something to say about the rise of fundamentalism around the world and its political consequences.

There are lots of places readers can go for news of religion, to NCR, of course, and to the many daily papers around the country. Most employ religion writers who work diligently to report on what’s happening in that world, and to illuminate the often critical role that religion plays in their communities and in so many national and international affairs.

Maybe, though, readers with strong interest in religion shouldn’t go to the Times, in case Steinfels’ mindset represents that of the editors at that otherwise great newspaper.

Come to think of it, when the topic is religion, I rarely read it first in the Times.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR’s special projects editor.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000