The late, great Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell noticed a striking pattern as he dug into a 1981 survey of journalists in elite newsrooms such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, ABC, CBS and NBC.
In the space marked "religion," 50 percent of these elite journalists wrote one word -- "none."
"They wrote 'none' and many even underlined that word," said Cornell, in an interview conducted for my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Parts of the interview were included in my 1983 cover story on religion-news coverage for The Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In the religion slot, he noted, they "didn't just say 'none.' They said 'NONE.' "
Other numbers jumped out of that controversial report by researchers S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, such as the fact that 8 percent of the journalists said they attended worship services weekly, while 86 percent said they seldom or never did so. In contrast, the Gallup Organization has consistently reported that about 40 percent of Americans claim to attend services each week.
Ever since then, I have heard clergy quote those numbers as evidence of a deep chasm of hostility between journalists and religious believers, especially religious traditionalists. I have returned to this topic many times during the 24 years -- the anniversary was this past week -- that I have written this column for the Scripps Howard News Service.
In response, I keep quoting commentator Bill Moyers, who once said many journalists are "tone deaf" when it comes to hearing the music of faith. I'm also convinced we're dealing with a "blind spot" that has two sides, because leaders on both sides of the First Amendment simply do not respect each other and the roles their institutions play in public life.