How does a secular newspaper look at organized religion and address issues of faith and spirituality?
Readers and religious leaders tell me that the newspaper focuses more on institutions and on conflict and controversy within religious communities than on how people live their lives because of their faith.
This is a complicated topic and so the newspaper recently invited readers of different religions to talk with editors and reporters. The idea was to look at reporting on religion and faith from their perspectives.
That led to a fascinating discussion, but one that could only scratch the surface. I thought I should also ask for your thoughts on the topic of presenting faith and spirituality in the newspaper. I will publish many of your responses in future columns.
One clear message from our meeting was that if religion coverage is limited to statements from institutional leaders and stories on religious holidays, it is superficial and fails to reflect the thinking of many believers and the breadth of religious experience. Similarly, the ways conflicts are portrayed rarely acknowledge the range of attitudes between two extremes.
As Katharine Eastvold, a reader, wrote to me recently: "Coming from the evangelical tradition myself, I know that there is a wide and interesting spectrum of evangelical views on homosexuality that lie between fundamentalist gay-bashing and complete acceptance of the gay lifestyle, and that spectrum [is] hardly hinted at."
Looking at news reports, people might suspect that Muslim lives are devoid of fun and entertainment, said Ahmed Rehab, because "we tend to be covered through the myopic eye of conflict."
And Rabbi Barry Axler echoed that thought, saying he wished the media would recognize more "the joy, and less oy, of Jewish life."
Division among and within religious groups is a fertile field for reporters, especially if the news is about the pope and Muslims, about gay Episcopal bishops, scandalous and hypocritical pastors, squabbling rabbis or pedophile priests.
But coverage of religious issues extends well beyond scandal, of course, especially when faith intersects with politics, medicine and business. Religious questions are raised in areas of public policy from immigration to the conduct of war.
Margaret Ramirez and Manya Brachear, who both cover religion for the Tribune, told me that their mission is to make sure news about religion and faith is present throughout the newspaper, including on the front page.
While there is a religion page in Friday's paper, it reflects only a fraction of stories on faith. Soon there will be a new forum on religion on chicagotribune.com, including a blog where readers can post comments.
Another topic at our meeting was recognition of diversity within religions. Among Muslims in the United States, for instance, about 25 percent to 30 percent are of Arab descent, another 30 percent are from South Asia, mainly India and Pakistan, and some 30 percent are African-American. The remaining 10 percent or so are from a dozen other regions and ethnic groups.
The conversation with readers was wide-ranging, and Eastvold said that generally the newspaper relegates tales of personal spirituality to small feature stories.
A few days later, however, a remarkable and unusual two-part story by Tribune reporter Barbara Brotman appeared that examined the final days of a man dealing with his own faith and his impending death.
Belief is a difficult topic to explain on many levels. Ramirez reminded me of the importance of being exact and understanding terminology, such as that "evangelical" does not mean the same as "fundamentalist."
The readers also discussed how photographs often help perpetuate stereotypes. This is not new: Readers old enough will remember cliched pictures of barefoot nuns in black robes and wimples frolicking at the beach.
But photos of angry Muslims signal a more sinister stereotype. One of our guests recalled an article about the quiet and thoughtful reaction of moderate Muslims to the pope's statements about the Prophet Muhammad. The photo accompanying the story was a more dramatic scene of angry Muslim street protesters.
That illustration about a religious group prompted Rev. Andre Allen to recall how racial minorities continue to suffer from such negative stereotypes, contributing to racial polarization.
The readers also noted that print and electronic media often turn to the extremes in religion to define what people believe, distorting what the majority really thinks. James Dobson, Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Robertson, among the loudest and most political religious figures, do not necessarily speak for the millions of Christian evangelicals in this country.
In that same vein, Pastor James King said neither do Rev. Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton speak for all African-Americans, yet they are most often quoted in the media to represent the opinion of black believers.
While some complain that perhaps the Catholic Church receives too much coverage, at least in the Chicago media, nearly 30 percent of the entire population in the Chicago area identify themselves as Catholic. At the same time, many Catholics bridle that their church is considered fair game for public criticism and for flip comments and jokes.
Timothy J. McNulty is the Tribune's public editor. He listens to readers' concerns about the paper's coverage and writes periodically about journalism issues. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are his own.