The Ministry and the Message: What Americans See and Read About Their
by Joyce Smith
In "The Ministry and the Message," Joyce Smith examines factual
and fictional portrayals of Christian leaders in feature films, television
programs, and newspaper reporting.
Drawing upon various film and television databases, the report inventories
movies and television programs that contained any representations of ministers,
priests, nuns, or other clergy in credited roles. While ministers, priests
and nuns appear in a small but steady percentage of films, peaking at
6 percent in 1993, the roles they play are almost always generic and anonymous,
with clergy primarily serving as stock characters in the background, presiding
at weddings and funerals or performing other rituals or sacraments. Female
religious leaders seldom appear and when they do, they are most likely
to be nuns.
In the world of television, Smith examines made-for-TV movies, mini-series
and regular series with clerics in central, recurring or cameo roles.
As with film, most clergy appear as only peripheral characters, but clerics
have been central characters in some television programming, such as Amen,
Soul Man, and 7th Heaven.
In her examination of news coverage, Smith notes that the events of Sept.
11, 2001, prompted at least a temporary increase in reporting on the Christian
community, particularly in the weeks immediately following the terrorist
attack on the World Trade Center. Comparing daily coverage at 24 local
papers for the month following Sept. 11 with the same period the previous
year, Smith finds that newspapers were quick to recognize the role of
Christian and Jewish leaders in the aftermath of the crisis.
In her conclusions, Smith notes an "interconnectedness" between
Christian leaders and those who create media representations of them.
Citing examples of shared stories and vocations, she says an "us
vs. them" model is not accurate. Likewise, news and popular entertainment
images of religious leaders are also inter-related, with each influencing
and reinforcing the other.
She contends the relationship among journalists, entertainment creators,
and Christian leaders has great potential for improvement. Some of the
most powerful and popular portrayals of Christian leaders, she says, are
those that are modeled on real people or created by or in cooperation
with real clerics,.
The report also includes responses from Kenneth A. Briggs, former religion
writer for Newsday and the New York Times and now a freelance writer and
adjunct professor of religion and English at Lafayette College; Stewart
M. Hoover of the Center for Mass Media Research at the University of Colorado
at Boulder, and the Rev. Dr. James P. Wind, president of the Alban Institute.
Briggs says the report is a very helpful barometer of the overall visibility
of ministry in the media, offering sobering evidence that clergy in America
have become largely nameless and faceless. Yet, he is puzzled about why
and how such overall visibility matters. Focusing on numbers alone, he
says, can tend to give all films equal value without taking into account
a given film's overall religious value.
Hoover addresses both the report's methodology and the significance of
its findings. He places Smith's report in context of various approaches
to media studies and says it makes good use of its sources, weaving them
into a humanistic/historical evaluation of the subject and providing a
rich background for other kinds of more focused studies. The report, he
says, establishes that religion and ministry are pervasive in media content,
more so than most would imagine, and such images change over time and
against social and historical conditions.
Wind calls the report one of the most comprehensive attempts ever made
to portray how Americans collectively see their ministers in the media.
Yet, the report is also incomplete, but understandably so. Focused primarily
on major media, the report does not take into account the growing impact
of niche media outlets. The total picture of how ministers are portrayed
in the media is in fact so large and complex that it is impossible to
capture, says Wind. Fuller and richer portrayals of ministry, he contends,
can still be found in literature.