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SOLE RELIGION REPORTER ON NETWORKS ADDING NEW DIMENSION TO THE NEWS

Peggy Wehmeyer was a just a fledgling TV reporter filing routine stories on Texas train wrecks and homicides when she established a reputation as a breed apart.

"They send me on spot news, I come back with God," she said.It was 13 years ago that she first put a spiritual spin on a news story - a mother's faith after her son's death, a plane crash survivor's questions of mortality.

Now, Wehmeyer, a devout Christian herself, is ABC's religion reporter - the only religion correspondent in network television.

Wehmeyer was selected by anchorman Peter Jennings, who wanted to add a new dimension to "World News Tonight."

"The role religion plays in today's society needs to be fully explored," Jennings said when she was hired in January. He sent Wehmeyer out to "examine how faith, religion and spirituality interconnect with government and social policy."

She came back with an interview with President Clinton - one of her first stories at ABC - who said he considered himself "a person who has sinned as a child of God, who has sought forgiveness, searched for redemption and is struggling to grow and struggling to find the guidance of God in this job."

She also has covered stories about anti-Semitism, prayer in school and a Baptist minister's tormented life.

Media watchers say religion coverage on the major networks is something that has too long been ignored.

"I really wonder why all the networks haven't done it," said Robert O. Wyatt, a journalism pro-fessor at Middle Tennessee State University and author of a study about the media's coverage of religion.

"I think the general challenge is that all reporters recognize that religion is a potent force in American life," he said.

Wyatt's study, conducted last year for the Freedom Forum at Vanderbilt University, concluded that there is more ignorance about religion than bias in the average newsroom. It also concluded that the nation's newspapers and broadcasters largely refuse to take religion coverage seriously.

A study done by the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group that looks for liberalism in the media, found that only 211 of 18,000 network news stories in 1993 dealt specifically with religion.

"Peggy Wehmeyer is a positive step. But how many stories has she done so far? I would say less than 10," said Tim Graham, associate editor of the Media Research Center publication "Media Watch."

"You could argue that Weh-meyer's stories are better stories, but the number of stories are not going to increase greatly in 1994 vs. 1993," he said.

Wehmeyer's boss, ABC producer Sally Holm, said fellow journalists at ABC struggled with the idea of hiring a "Southerner, a born-again Christian."

"I think they're not used to seeing these kinds of stories on the air. They have to get used to using Jesus in pieces," Holm said.

Wehmeyer, 39, became a religion reporter at ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas in 1981, convincing skeptical editors that religion stories were hot news. She was considered a pioneer then - and remains so in her new job today.

Wehmeyer has studied the Bible diligently for 20 years and attends a nondenominational evangelical church. She also studied at the Dallas Theological Seminary and worked there as information director.

She considers herself a religious conservative but does not align herself with the religious right.

And she rebuffs a suggestion that her religious bent might make her biased.

"I'm not the religion police. I'm a journalist," she responds. "I have no agenda or need to convince people that my view of the world is correct. If you're a good journalist - whether you're an atheist, a born-again Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, you should be able to cover religion well. And I would say that someone who has faith has a good chance of doing it well."