Imagine a pair of American teenage girls talking about what to wear on their first day in high school. Nothing unusual there, except they are Muslims and are debating whether to wear traditional head coverings.
Or maybe it’s another group of teens from various religious groups who are on the brink of rejecting their family’s faith.
Or a middle-aged minister struggling over his disagreement with his denomination’s official stance about abortion. Or a priest who must announce to church members next week that the denomination is closing their small, tight-knit parish.
Now imagine watching any of these scenes through a camera lens.
Those kinds of stories – high in human interest and rich in meaning – seem tailor-made for the quickly evolving media mix appearing every day on the Internet as text, video, sound, graphics and photographs.
So says Kelly McBride, leader of the Ethics Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalists based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“I can see kick-ass religion stories using multimedia tools,” McBride told me on Wednesday. “Religion as a topic should fare well if someone leads the way.”
I was attending a Poynter seminar designed to help college educators use and teach multimedia journalism more effectively, and that gave me an opportunity to sit down with McBride and talk about the connection of multimedia and religion reporting.
McBride, who covered religion for eight years before joining the Poynter faculty, thinks the new technology allows journalists to add layers of understanding to complex issues since it can present both compelling human stories and immense amounts of information and data.
“For instance, in a trend story, good storytelling will find people who play out the issues,” she explained. “A journalist could highlight theologies in different denominations or tell the tale of someone who is gay and Christian. A journalist can look for people at varying points of their journeys.”
A reporter can then use computer-based tools, she said, to produce dynamic images that illustrate a trend’s regional impact, for example, or create a data map to track, say, changing seminary enrollment.
But she rarely sees such in-depth coverage on the religion beat. One reason is money. Reporting is expensive work, and newsrooms around the nation are trimming (sometimes slashing) budgets and reporting staffs, and religion is often first to the chopping block. Even the Dallas Morning News, which produced what many observers considered the nation’s best religion news section, carved its treatment to the bone last year.
“Newspapers can’t even cover the school board,” McBride said, “and religion is the low man on the totem pole.”
But tough financial decisions, McBride said, are made easier by readers’ lack of interest in religion as a news topic.
“I don’t hear anyone complaining anymore about lack of religion in the news or about the media who don’t understand religion,” she said. “For instance, religion was one of the subtexts of the election, covered badly and sporadically, but very few people complained.”
Some specialists keep their eyes on mainstream media’s religion coverage, such as the Get Religion Web site and a new book critiquing religion news, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” (Oxford, 2008). But McBride thinks they are the exception.
“Nobody seems to care anymore,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s because so many newspapers can’t do it, but religion is not clearing the expectation bar.”
Just a decade ago audiences wanted robust religion coverage. What happened?
“Clearly an engine in the 1990s was the sense that people of faith felt alienated from the mainstream,” McBride said. “But as a society we got over that. I don’t believe they feel alienated, not more than 30 percent of the population. Now anyone can find a forum and can be heard.”
But a more immediate problem, she said, is that religion stories can be … well, boring.
“No one reads them,” she said. “Text can allow you to get away with a lame story. Not every story is worth telling.”
That’s where multimedia comes in, since it requires telling a real story to work well. Few readers will thrill to policy reports or announcements, but most will attend to the narrative of a person’s life.
“Religion lends itself to multimedia,” McBride said. “But you can’t sit at the desk and talk to wonks all day. You have to ask, ‘What does our audience want?’ They have so many choices. It’s a brutal reality for editors to deal with.”
First published 14 Feb 2009 in the Johnson City Press.