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Problems, Opportunities Face Online Religion News, MU Expert Says

August 26th, 2010

Story Contact: Nathan Hurst, 573-882-6217, hurstn@missouri.edu
Debra Mason, professor of journalism studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and director of the Center on Religion and the Professions.

Debra Mason, professor of journalism studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and director of the Center on Religion and the Professions.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The recent economic decline has caused many newspapers across the country to make significant cutbacks in staffing and coverage. An MU journalism expert says one area of news that has suffered from these cutbacks is religion news. Debra Mason, professor of journalism studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and director of the Center on Religion and the Professions, says that religion news, which was once routine in many newspapers, has now been relegated to websites and blogs.

Mason says journalists are searching for ways to fairly, efficiently, and effectively cover important religious topics on a web-based platform. In a recently published book chapter, Religion News and the Age of the Internet, Mason says news organizations are running into trouble when posting often polarizing religion news online.

“All media outlets are facing the problem of how to have open conversation among the public about religion because much of it becomes quite virulent,” Mason said. “While there is a great desire among media outlets to open the conversation, which the public expects and demands, when it comes to religion, public comments create huge problems.”

Mason has dedicated much of her research to exploring these problems and helping journalists overcome these issues when reporting religion news. She says that one of the biggest questions facing online religion news is how to make it profitable.

“Finding a way to become economically viable is not a problem unique to religion news, but religion news does have its own challenges,” Mason said. “With a different topic, such as medical news, there are groups like pharmaceutical companies who will support medical news with online advertising. There aren’t many big corporations that will advertise on religion news sites.”

While Mason is researching ways for journalists to overcome the problems facing online religion news, she believes there are many positives from religion news’ shift from print to web publishing.

“The elimination of a specialized religion beat at many media outlets presents great opportunities for every journalist,” Mason said. “Many meaningful, excellent faith and values stories are waiting to be told for the smart journalist who knows where to look. It also means opportunities for new, online niche religion site startups.”

Mason hopes to continue supporting religion-centered online startups through her research and creation of resources. Her chapter, Religion News in the Age of the Internet, was published in the 2010 book Faith, Politics, and Press In Our Perilous Times.

Debra Mason has more than 25 years of professional reporting, research, and teaching experience. Her major religion and media research work includes a content audit of religion news spanning 50 years and the largest telephone survey of religion journalists. Mason also serves on the editorial board and is book review editor for the Journal of Media and Religion. Mason holds a doctoral degree in mass communication from Ohio University in Athens, a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and a master’s in theological studies from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

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