‘Nightline’ examines evangelicals

The Baltimore Sun, June 19, 2003

On screen, Eric Stanley, a freshly scrubbed kid with closely cropped hair, fights fiercely for his high school baseball team. But, as he tells it, his greatest battles occur off the field.

“I first felt called to preach when I was 14 years old,” Stanley says on the first of a two-part Nightline series beginning tonight on ABC stations. “And I really contemplated whether that’s what God wanted me to do because I was so scared to get in front of public groups.”

Now 18, Stanley lives in Odessa, Mo., and is one of three young evangelical Christian ministers featured in the program. Documentary makers followed the youths from their schoolyards through the state trials to the final rounds of the National Evangelical Preaching Competition at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C.

In many ways, the show resembles a religious version of Spellbound, the recently released documentary film about spelling bees. It is also a form of journalistic penance. “We looked at this this way: This is a great story. And this is something we don’t do a lot of,” says Leroy Sievers, Nightline’s executive producer.

Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst who publishes the Tyndall Report, says that the three nightly network newscasts typically dedicate fewer than five minutes weekly to religion. None of the three major broadcast networks have a person devoted solely to the subject. (During much of the 1990s, ABC employed a reporter with that assignment. She no longer works for the network.) “As a beat, you’d say that religion is down at the bottom end,” Tyndall says. “It gets large coverage only when there’s a scandal – or when it’s flaky.”

Conservative leaders have long complained that the media fails to reflect the strength of religion in American life.

Diane Winston, recently appointed to an endowed professorship for studying coverage of religion at the University of Southern California, says the press often relies on a lazy shorthand to characterize different denominations and faiths.

The problem is particularly acute for evangelicals, says Winston, a former religion writer for The Sun, the Dallas Times-Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. “The mainstream media usually typecasts them as Southern and right wingers – people who sophisticated urbanites wouldn’t have much in common with.”

Other faiths are discomfited by their media image. Since the Sept. 2001 terror attacks, U.S. Muslims have found themselves periodically depicted as sympathetic to extremists; Jews have long objected to coverage of religious conflict within Israel; Catholics have protested stories portraying scandal in the church.

Yet observers, including Winston, say the situation has improved, to some degree, over the past decade, especially in public broadcasting and the print media. The Religion Newswriters Association counts 240 journalists among its members – almost entirely from newspapers and wire services. Debra L. Mason, the organization’s executive director, estimates that there are another 300 to 400 U.S. reporters in the mainstream media who are assigned exclusively to write about religion.

“Coverage of religion [in print] is much better than it used to be. There have been great strides in the complexity and diversity of the kinds of coverage,” Mason says.

Discussion of any religious doctrine can quickly become contentious, journalists say. Unintended implications or innocuous oversights can cause grave offense.

The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, says he doesn’t believe that evangelical Christians are singled out for worse coverage than other sects or religions. But he says this diverse group that includes millions of Americans is poorly represented by the nation’s largest media outlets.

“You can’t understand the breadth or the depth of the evangelical movement by television’s exposure to a television preacher, whoever that is,” he says. Yet coverage often lumps all evangelicals into the religious right, Cizik says. So stories might only focus on boycotts of Disney World over inclusion of gays, or the anti-abortion movement, or the fight against teaching evolution in public schools.

This week’s Nightline pieces, reported and crafted by George Griffin, a producer for the program, and Matt Kaufman, a free-lance producer, attempt to bridge that gap. The two episodes are presented largely without narration. The young competitors – intense and earnest – are allowed to speak for themselves.

“Many times I do feel a little different from the world ’cause I am not out partying on Friday nights,” Stanley says. “I’m not out drinking beer and smoking, I’m not out going to the movies.”

One preacher, Ben Shuler, sobs while contemplating the fate of those he cannot reach. And he avoids temptations – dating, for example – that could undermine his listeners’ faith in him.

As the series concludes, Isaiah Lewis, a preacher from Concord, N.H., says he asks God for forgiveness “for being so cold-hearted to men and women who are not saved.”

It’s the kind of remark that might be explored in a different kind of Nightline episode, says Sievers, the executive producer. But not this week.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday June 19, 2003.
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