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Ole Miss acquires blog that critiques media coverage of religion

Will also host related program each semester

A blog that critiques media coverage of religion has been taken over by a surprising source: a public university.

The University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics is bringing GetReligion.org in house, it announced last month. The blog’s founder, veteran religion columnist Terry Mattingly, also became a senior fellow at the Overby Center as of Wednesday.

The center is named after its chairman, Charles Overby, who previously led the Freedom Forum, a foundation devoted to freedom of the press. Overby was a reporter and editor across the South and at national chain Gannett.

GetReligion has been analyzing religion coverage by the mainstream press for 17 years, and that mission won’t change under a new owner, Mattingly told The College Fix in a phone interview.

The blog will continue to critique the good and the bad in religion coverage, such as the “new low” the media reached in analyzing Melania Trump’s Christmas decorations and outfit. Mattingly will also continue to write his weekly syndicated religion column.

Mattingly said the new partnership will also contribute one program a semester at Ole Miss. It will consist of discussions about topics including religion and politics, though Mattingly was not more specific.

He said he was “happy to be associated with an institution” that has common interests with GetReligion, by encouraging civil discourse and open dialogue on important topics. GetReligion also features other notable religion journalists, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Richard Ostling.

Overby called Mattingly “the premier religion columnist in the country” in the university’s announcement, and “a keen observer of how religion affects politics and public policy.” The center did not respond to a Fix request for an interview.

The center was the subject of a fall controversy when the Young America’s Foundation accused it of canceling a planned lecture by conservative activist Elisha Krauss. After a legal threat, the university agreed to host the event in a different campus venue.

Media guilty of ‘oversimplifying the role of evangelicals in American politics’

Mattingly has been studying religion in the press since the early 1980s as a freelance journalist. He told The Fix that the internet has affected the media in terms of funding, but it has also spurred a focus on opinion writing within religion coverage.

“People love to yell at each other about religion. We have very few people covering religion as a respected, factual news topic that deserves careful, accurate coverage of people on both sides of these issues,” he said.

Asked how the current political climate affects GetReligion’s material, Mattingly told The Fix that Americans are living in an “internet meltdown,” with political discussions on Twitter reflecting the public’s outcry.

The media have been “oversimplifying the role of evangelicals in American politics for the last four years,” when in fact “American evangelicalism is very complex,” said Mattingly, a former Southern Baptist who is now a practicing Orthodox Christian.

Evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump had mixed feelings about him and were conflicted throughout the campaign, he said, citing poll data by Christianity Today that showed half of evangelicals who voted for Trump didn’t want to. The Democratic Party has “all but buried its moderate and conservative wing,” alienating evangelicals and driving them to Republicans.

Mattingly’s main critique of political and religious coverage in the mainstream press is the failure to provide context for the political impact of religion. He sees more antagonizing and vilifying than courtesy and diplomacy.

GetReligion’s role is to respectfully reform this conflict into polite conversations, Mattingly said, so the public can understand how the American people became divided. “You can’t talk about American politics in the last three decades without noticing the importance of moral issues,” he told The Fix.

Mattingly sees parallels between the Overby Center and GetReligion’s material in Charles Overby’s history and work with the Freedom Forum. “GetReligion is very pro-freedom of the press and takes very seriously the debate about freedom of religion,” he told The Fix.

MORE: Mattingly calls out media for ignoring college’s religious liberty win

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About the Author
Aaron Cummings -- Clovis Community College