MIAMI, Fla. — As many religious people can attest, national journalists sometimes have a hard time getting religion coverage right.

The New York Times faced pushback for a headline that called churches a “major source of coronavirus cases,” when 650 cases out of 3 million were linked to churches and religious events. A study of 250,000 articles revealed that Islam is often portrayed negatively and framed as a violent religion. A reporter for The Washington Post once called evangelicals “poor, uneducated and easy to command,” triggering an uproar from readers and a correction.

As Andrew Walker, a professor of Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote: “Journalism has a religion problem.” In Walker’s view, journalists are “either unaware or unwilling to admit that their own views, presumably untouched by ‘religion,’ are nonetheless passionately held convictions grounded, well, somewhere.”

And journalists, like all of us, sometimes have blindspots. Yet with shrinking newsrooms and a decline in the number of reporters who write about religion full time, most journalists will have to cover religion at some point.

So how do you get the elite journalists at top mainstream publications to care about religion and take it more seriously? One idea: You invite them to an all-expenses-paid, two-day retreat at a four-star resort in Miami to mingle and discuss with scholars and experts the biggest questions on society and religion that Americans are wrestling with.

This is how I found myself on the patio of the Palms Hotel & Spa in Miami having dinner with about 20 other journalists. The group was carefully curated and consisted mostly of political reporters from publications like The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Politico and Vox, many of whom were repeat attendees. On the docket for the retreat, called the Faith Angle Forum, were panels titled “Journalism, Religion and Hope,” “The State of the American Church” and a debate about the institution of marriage and its future.

During the dinner, I sat next to Adelle Banks, a reporter for the Religion News Service. Near us were Nicholas Kristof from The New York Times, political reporter Ashley Parker from The Washington Post, Adam Harris of The Atlantic, and Matt Kaminsky, Politico’s editor in chief.

Josh Good, wearing a plaid blazer, welcomed the attendees. In six years of hosting Faith Angle retreats for journalists, Good has become a master convener and a professional curator of big conversations, and a passionate advocate of “thick pluralism,” the idea that Americans of various ideological viewpoints should actively work together toward mutual political goals.

Josh Good runs the Faith Angle Forum for journalists as part of Aspen Institute's Religion & Society Program. The Faith Angle Miami 2024 Forum was held March 17-19, 2024, in Miami, Fla. | Denis Contreras, Art Deco Photography

For 25 years, Faith Angle was part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative D.C. think tank, but this month marks a new chapter for Good and the forum. Good and Faith Angle are joining the Aspen Institute, where Good is taking over Aspen’s Religion and Society program, previously led by educator and author Simran Jeet Singh. The forums for journalists will become “a media spoke of the wheel,” which also includes racial justice and religion fellowship programs, Good said.

Along with his colleague Nicole Noyes, Good hosts similar retreats in other dreamy locations: one at the Four Seasons in the South of France with European journalists and one in Napa Valley for West Coast journalists. By fostering a kind of ecosystem of relationships between people who “bear witness to enduring things,” Good hopes to help journalists tell more nuanced and ultimately better stories about religion. “Religion is always in the room,” Good told me, quoting religion journalist Liz Kineke.

“If you have no sense of any traditions in Judaism, or Islam, or Protestant Christianity — you’re missing out on what (these groups) are actually saying, and doing, and what motivates them,” Good said. “You shouldn’t have a blind spot when it comes to persons of a different political party, and you shouldn’t have a blind spot when it comes to religion either.”

Is there a problem with religion in public life?

Engagement with organized religion has been decreasing over the years, and so has religion’s influence in the public sphere. About 80% of Americans say that the role of religion in public life has declined, and they’re not happy about it, according to Pew Research Center’s 2024 data. And 41% of respondents say it’s best not to discuss religion with someone who disagrees with you — an increase from 33% in 2019, the same Pew survey pointed out.

Some religions are viewed more favorably than others. Americans tend to view Catholics, Jews and mainline Protestants more positively than Muslims, Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints, according to another Pew Research poll from 2023. These biases often trickle into media coverage. A global study showed that 64% of faith-related coverage has a negative slant.

The Faith and Media Initiative, created by the Radiant Foundation of Deseret Management Corp., recently took a close look at the way that faith is portrayed in the media. The initiative’s global study of about 10,000 respondents in partnership with HarrisX showed that 63% of participants believe that much of faith content is controversial and 43% said that the media’s religion coverage creates unease and anxiety.

Sixty-one percent of respondents believe that the media perpetuates stereotypes around religious groups. ”Faith and media are both really important to society. They’re storytellers, they bring community together, they provide tremendous support and insight,” said Sheri Dew, the executive vice president and chief content officer for Deseret Management Corporation, in a lecture at Brigham Young University in April.

The Faith and Media Initiative has also trained more than 1,000 journalists at conferences held at the Columbia School of Journalism and the National Press Club. “The biggest worry is when the two sides aren’t at the table,” Dew said.

Is the media failing people of faith?

These changes unfold against a bleak journalism landscape where the number of newspapers shrinks yearly, and those that remain have fewer journalists. Most publications no longer have a designated religion reporter, and scarce resources make it hard to give time and attention to deep, nuanced stories about religious communities.

For instance, amid strong support among evangelical Christians for Donald Trump, the term “evangelical” often gets reduced to an ill-defined label.

“Sometimes people latch on to an identity label that isn’t thought through, developed or theological,” Good said.

The editor of the Texas Tribune, Sewell Chan, put it this way in his conversation with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: “To me it’s always about precision. Sometimes we reduce to shorthands, and people reduce themselves to shorthands that are actually not that informative about the actual nature of their beliefs.”

But covering religion with that precision often means putting anecdotes into a broader religious context. “It’s hard to parachute in on this beat,” Kineke, a religion journalist who was formerly a writer and producer for the CBS Religion & Culture series, told me. “It does take a while to get it. You have to ask: ‘What am I missing here?’”

McKay Coppins, an author and writer for The Atlantic, and a Latter-day Saint, would love to see more people of faith in journalism, he told Ben Smith for the Semafor Media newsletter, but that he’d “settle for more reporters who are just deeply curious about faith and who take it seriously.”

“You miss a lot of good stories when you treat religion like a niche beat, or an exotic, suspicious thing that only matters when it intersects with politics,” according to Coppins.

One of those stories, for instance, is the significant impact of the Pentecostals on empowering women in Africa by encouraging education, entrepreneurship and leadership positions among women in the church, Kristof, of The New York Times, shared in during his session. “That’s because you have women who are able to step up and speak up for God — you can’t look at some of these forces and not see the power of them,” he said. “And I don’t think we adequately cover that in journalism.”

He also noted that in his hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, it was the Latter-day Saint community that managed to avoid addiction and deaths of despair which afflicted the Methodist, Catholic and other religious communities in town, he said. “I think it was less a sense of what people were getting on the spiritual side, but more the sense of community and linkages that provided this buffer from the trauma of outside forces.”

The Rev. Charlie Dates, who leads the Progressive Baptist Church of Chicago, honed in on the relationship between righteousness and justice. He appealed to the journalists in the room: “I hope when you write about American Christianity, that you will look at the Black church’s deliberate management of injustice as another angle on hope…” He continued: “What you have a privilege of doing is giving America a truer sense of what actual Christians doing on the ground in some of our cities.”

Among other speakers were Josh Kwan, who leads a community of Christian philanthropists; Isabel Sawhill, an economist from the Brookings Institution; and Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Good’s intention isn’t to convince people of a particular worldview, he told me, he just wants to tee up important and interesting conversations.

“That can be done from a variety of perspectives, and if that enhances the journalist’s capacity to tell stories about religion as an integral part of what’s at play in our society, especially under the waterline — that’s a win.”

Christine Emba, staff writer at The Atlantic, speaks with Adelle Banks, reporter at the Religion News Service, at the Faith Angle Forum in Miami in March 2024. | Denis Contreras, Art Deco Photography

A master convener

During a break in the forum, Good and I sat in the hotel lobby and talked about his work. “I love journalists,” he said. “There is so much wisdom and insight and curiosity, humility and intellectual rigor.” Done right, journalism addresses the big questions in life, he told me, which is why orchestrating these retreats has been a dream job for him.

Good has always been drawn to big questions.

He grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, in a family of Christians, who became members of L’Abri, an evangelical Christian group founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer of Switzerland in the 1950s. According to the group’s website, its communities offer “study centers where individuals have the opportunity to seek answers to honest questions about God and the significance of human life.”

Good’s family was religious, he told me, but in a way that welcomed ideas and intellectual pursuits.

After briefly considering the Naval Academy, Good went to Covenant College, where he played soccer and studied history. There, he took a class taught by the late Michael Cromartie, an evangelical scholar and journalist, who served as vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founded the Faith Angle Forum in 1999. “He was always full of life, vivacious, kind of scrappy,” Good remembered.

Cromartie recommended Good for a research job at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Good went to work for Elliott Abrams, a politician who was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration and was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. After working at the Center for Public Justice, Good got fired up about religious pluralism and went to study at Harvard Divinity School. Other jobs followed: a ex-prisoner reentry initiative, the American Enterprise Institute, where he worked with Harvard University’s happiness scholar Arthur Brooks, and the Kern Family Foundation.

The idea for the forum originated when journalists would call up Cromartie, asking “uninformed” questions about religion, Cromartie once noted. Among the inquiries were questions like “whether all evangelicals hate sex, or whether he could provide contact information for the author and publisher of the Book of Ephesians,” Christianity Today reported in 2013.

“Mike got increasingly convinced that a lot of journalists don’t understand typical religious Americans, certainly evangelical Christians in America,” Good told me.

Shortly after Cromartie died in 2017, Good took over the Faith Angle Forum.

Good is very relationship-oriented, his colleague Nicole Noyes told me. “He has a lot of respect for the legacy of Faith Angle and the journalism vocation,” said Noyes, who graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. “He wants them to steward their time well.”

Over the years, more than 200 journalists have come through the program, including New York Times columnist David Brooks and Jeff Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic. The program now raises nearly $900,000 a year, which so far has gone to pay for two employees — Good and his colleague Nicole Noyes — and the cost of the forums. Contributors include the Temple Religion Trust, the John Templeton Foundation and the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

Bringing on Good to lead the religion and society program at Aspen, and taking on the Faith Angle Forum, is an organic match, Elliot Gerson, executive vice president at the Aspen Institute, told me.

“The idea of convening people around important topics is fundamental to the Aspen method, it’s in our DNA,” said Gerson said. “We’ve brought people together representing different religions and some of no religion at all, and to see the excitement they feel about working together to solve particular challenges — whether it’s economic or strategic challenges, poverty or education — and discovering common ground and common purpose is always very powerful.”

Good is a believer in slow and deliberate change.

“Our hope is that this group of journalists who are working together, over time they can move the needle, maybe half of a millimeter. If they can move the needle half of a millimeter, that would be wonderful,” Good said.

The uncomfortable truths in a new survey on religion reporting

‘A creative minority’

The conversations at the Faith Angle Forum, held in March, modeled the kind of across-the-aisle talk that is seen as necessary to solve polarization in America.

On one panel, Wilcox, professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Get Married,” discussed the institution of marriage with Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings scholar who advocates less for marriage and more for stable and committed relationships, and a couple’s readiness to welcome a child into the family.

One of the participants, Will Saletan of The Bulwark, wrote about the value of hearing a perspective that differed from his own. “Wilcox describes himself as conservative, and some of what he brought to the table was hard for my liberal ears to hear,” Saletan wrote. “But that’s part of why I go to these forums: Smart people from the other side will tell you truths that your side won’t.”

There is also something to the relaxed and casual format — and yes, to the wining and dining — that fosters relationship building. “You don’t have to rush off to pick up your kids or mow your lawn,” Matt Lewis, a columnist for The Daily Beast, told me. “When you’re here, you’re here.” There are receptions with ample hors d’oeuvres and a sunrise walk on the beach. In the evening, journalists gather at the bar, where once, before his death, the atheist philosopher and author Christopher Hitchens entertained a debate about God. Through these casual encounters, Good hopes speakers can become sources and journalists can cultivate friendships.

At the retreat’s final dinner, I chatted with Maggie Phillips, who writes for Tablet, a Jewish magazine. She shared her experience of being a military spouse and navigating writing and parenting with her husband in deployment. We discovered that we both had kids in Catholic schools and our conversation turned to navigating the hierarchy of Catholic leadership.

Phillips told me that journalists sometimes have a tendency to downplay belief as they focus on more concrete things, like the economy. “Journalists don’t always understand that policy and culture are downstream of faith and religion, and that for many people, religious beliefs are the most important thing in their lives,” she said, adding, “We should take that belief seriously, both in private lives and in the decisions they make that affect culture and policy. Even if you’re not interested in religion, religion is interested in you.”

As church attendance declines, the story of faith and spirituality will continue to evolve. “I think the future of religion in America is more of us tasting, experiencing and living that we are part of a creative minority,” Good told me. And there can be hope in that, he said. “Religious diversity can actually have a strange way of inspiring us, of humbling us, of making us more curious about the other’s faith and less fearful about our own faith.”