Top editors at The Los Angeles Times met one afternoon a few years ago with three reporters who specialized in religion news to talk about enhancing coverage of that delightful but daunting field—one that is now receiving more media attention than ever.
The L.A. Times gave good space to religion stories over the years. But the three of us were grumbling a bit. We worked in three different sections of the newspaper then, a situation we believed limited our ability to move fast on big national and regional stories. However, the only decision made that day was a letdown: On Easter, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, and other major holidays, we were to make sure the Times had a story about it—to spare them a spate of reader complaints! Running a related article days ahead was fine, they said, "but write one to run on the actual day as well."
Writing holiday stories is a dreaded task for most experienced religion writers. We'd rather be explaining some new religious trend or scandal, profiling a new religious personality, delving into a religious-medical dilemma, or announcing a breakthrough in interfaith cooperation—events that stir our journalistic calling.
But the editors' discomfort over angry holiday complaints was not as trivial as it sounded. It reflected an important function of the news media—validating the religious (or political, ethnic, racial, economic) identity of readers who feel they and their values are noteworthy aspects of community life. People of faith want to see the media recognize via news coverage that religious expression is a significant American trait. "They want to see religion mainstreamed in the newspaper," said Stewart Hoover, a University of Colorado expert on religion in the news.