This was how the Times-Standard began a story about the Jewish New Year known as Rosh Hashanah: “The blast of the ram’s horn marks the end to the summer season. Jewish people around the world are roused by the piercing sound of this ancient instrument known as the shofar. The sound of the shofar announces the beginning of the Jewish New Year 5764.”
But we are now in the year 5768. The paper didn’t make a mistake. I’m quoting from last time the Times-Standard ran a story about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the single most important time of the year for Jews. That was in 2003.
It wouldn’t be so egregious an oversight, even though some 80 papers around California ran Rosh Hashanah stories this year, except that every week the Times-Standarddevotes two whole pages to religion: Its “Faith” section. The U.S. Census doesn’t count religious affiliation, so it’s hard to know how many Jews there are in Humboldt County. But I counted seven Steins and six Goldbergs in the phone book, and those are just the ones listed.
But this column isn’t about slighting Jews. I haven’t been to a service in seven years, I spent Yom Kippur eating falafel at the North County Fair and I spent last Saturday at a Pig Pickin’ in Trinidad. It’s about how you measure the quality of a newspaper by the quality of its throwaway pages — the sections most people toss without reading. This is where they used to stick “women’s” news.
In 1989, I moved into a Midwestern town of 300 people. When I went to the town hall to get my water turned on the pleasant clerk handed me a list of the town’s 11 churches. When I moved my furniture into my rented duplex, the kindly man across the street invited me into his living room to play me an album his musician son had just recorded. It was gospel music, and he blasted out of speakers almost as tall as I was.
The world is now more religious than it was back then. The Humboldt County Yellow Pages has local church listings under 50 different categories. There’s a thriving Mormon population and a large number of Seventh Day Adventists. At a time when newspapers struggle to keep their circulation base and latch onto the new buzz word — “hyper-local” — I can’t fathom why our local papers do such a lousy job of covering the one thing most people care deeply about.
What’s on the Faith pages? Generally one photo profile of a church — a large photo or two over a a long caption that tells you where the church is located, who the pastor, priest, reverend or rabbi is, when services are held and whether it has bible study sessions and children’s programs. It also tends to give you a snippet of church history. And there’s one column each week written by a local religious leader. Then there are two much larger wire stories about some religious conflict from across the country and a bunch of briefs — some national, off the wires, and some local, off press releases.
In the 20 issues I scanned, there wasn’t a single story with original reporting. And that’s too bad, because the pages hinted at good stories. Did you know that Cindy Storrs replaced Kate O’Leary as reverend of the Arcata United Methodist Church? How’s that affecting the church? Or that the St. Innocent Orthodox church in Eureka has “acclaimed” gyros? Who makes them? Or that Easter and Christmas services are so popular at the Hydesville Community Church — some 800 people attend — that they have to have it in the River Lodge in Fortuna? I wonder about David Besanceney, the youth pastor there, and the challenges he has shepherding children and teenagers in such a rural outpost, where methamphetamines and marijuana are prevalent and immigration and the collapse of the lumber economy has transformed the community.
I’d like to know whether the churches are helping to integrate our increasingly ethnically diverse population here or whether they serve to segregate subsectors. These are the local issues the Faith pages should explore. I assume that’s why you have Faith pages in the first place. Instead, you can find out about the Hill Tribe Christians in Taiwan, the struggles of church bingo in Massachussetts and how, because of immigration, churches nationwide are recruiting clergy from Latin and South America. Are they doing that here in Humboldt? I don’t know, because when the paper rips off the wire story, it doesn’t bother to localize it.
Over at the Eureka Reporter, coverage of religion is left to reader submissions. That’s turned into an ongoing spitting match between a handful of people who each insist that the other writers are crazy and misinformed. It could be worse. Several years ago Channel 3 did a report on how local Jews celebrated Passover. Behind the newscaster was an icon of two palms held together in prayer, something you’ll never see a Jew doing.
Worldwide, there’s upheaval in the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church. We can’t pull our soldiers out of Iraq because of conflicts between Muslim sects. There’s a Mormon running for president and a born-again Christian who is president. Fundamentalist Christians helped put George Bush in office. School boards across the country are dealing with parents who don’t want their children taught evolution. If relevance is the key to survival of a newspaper, there is nothing more relevant these days than religion. The media is quick to report negative news about religion — child molesting priests, corrupt preachers, Holocaust deniers.
But mostly good comes out of most churches and temples, and that’s rarely and poorly reported. Under each church steeple you’ll find happy stories and tragic stories. Churches are about births and weddings, communions and deaths. They are potlucks, raffles and rummage sales, food and clothing drives, soup kitchens and human rights campaigns. They are the heart of a community. We need thoughtful, substantive coverage.
That’s my prayer for the New Year.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. You can e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or e-mail her directly at email@example.com.