How Important Is It to Have a Religion Reporter Covering the Atheist Movement?

Todd Stiefel, through the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, has made a huge difference in our movement. You could argue that his contribution helping make the Reason Rally a reality was his crowning achievement so far. Or you could make the case that his donation to the Secular Student Alliance allowing them to hire a staffer to focus solely on high school groups will have the biggest impact.

But I would say his best move was donating $50,000 to the Religion News Service so that they could hire someone to write specifically about atheism-related issues. Todd wouldn’t select the stories or offer his opinions on them — they could approach the journalism however they wished. The only restriction was that the stories would cover subjects relating to atheists/atheism.

For years, whenever I read stories in any given newspaper’s religion section, they were so often about random things happening in churches. Reporters just didn’t know anything was happening with atheists. And we didn’t do a good job of reaching out to them.

Kimberly Winston, whose articles I’ve referenced many times on this site, wrote a bulk of these atheist-focused stories for RNS. They’ve been published all over the country — including USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Huffington Post — allowing our stories to reach a huge audience.

It’s been one year since that grant was given and RNS wrote a report for the Stiefel Freethought Foundation summarizing what has happened because of his generosity. With Todd’s permission, I’m reprinting that report here, just so you can see the impact of having a journalist dedicated to covering our issues (emphases mine):

Stiefel Freethought Foundation
Grant to Religion News Service
Year One Report Summary
July 19, 2012

This first of a two-year project, made possible through a generous grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, had two underlying assumptions:

  • An ever-growing circle of nonreligious people is no longer content to sit quietly on the political and social sidelines.
  • Vigorous journalistic coverage is needed to inform the public about this rising social movement and document its progress.

The $50,000 first-year grant called for Religion News Service (RNS) to produce 20 stories and at least 10 shorter news roundups during the grant year.

In the first year of this project, RNS published 42 stories about nonreligious people and the issues affecting their lives. Nine of those 42 stories were shorter-length briefs, typically breaking news stories about court rulings or articles about upcoming events.

The remaining 33 stories covered a vast array of issues. Readers learned not only about lawsuits seeking to redress unequal treatment of atheists, but also about how atheists deal with grief after the death of a loved one. In addition to stories about atheist rallies and public service campaigns, our stories also told readers about unacknowledged black civil rights leaders who were nonbelievers.

Some of the stories highlighted counterintuitive trends: Jews who don’t believe in God but attend synagogue, magicians who create seemingly supernatural feats but have no use for religion. A few stories addressed a phenomenon rarely talked about: clergy who have lost their faith.

Kimberly Winston, a widely published freelance writer based in San Francisco, wrote the majority of the stories.

The 42 stories in Year 1 of the project were reprinted in dozens of media outlets that subscribe to RNS. Secular news outlets such as The Huffington Post, USA Today and The Washington Post picked up many of these stories. They were reprinted also in religious publications, such as The Christian Century, a leading news and feature biweekly for mainline Protestants, and other religious publications.

Other newspapers that published the project’s stories included The Salt Lake Tribune, The Kansas City Star, The Columbus Dispatch, The Charlotte Observer, the Houston Chronicle, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate and The Times-Picayune.

These media outlets represent a combined readership in the millions. They often featured these stories prominently.

Many of this project’s stories drew lively comments from readers. Indeed, one article broke an RNS record. The story about the April 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., which was republished in The Huffington Post, drew a whopping 10,093 comments.

Finally, one measure of the impact of this project is the degree to which our competitors have tried to replicate our stories. We see this happening frequently. A story we wrote about a former Methodist minister who came out to a group of American Atheists was also featured on NPR’s All Things Considered evening news program. CNN wrote a story on a former Pentecostal minister who lost his faith after our original story was published.

Clearly, the stories produced this first year drew the attention of both news organizations and general readers.

And there’s still another year left to go in the original grant. That’s great news for our movement.

Hopefully, we’re getting to the point where we don’t need a “dedicated” reporter, and religion writers in general just cover us because we’re the ones doing things worth covering. But until that day comes, this is a great investment.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • dangeroustalk

    This is a lesson in what money can do in the hands of people of reason. Religious believers throw huge sums of money and get a mere fraction of the result. Still, money is important. Just think of what would happen if every atheists donated a small sum of money to various atheist related projects. I’m not even talking about the big organizations, but just various bloggers, artists, youtubers, writers, etc. We have a ton of talent in our community, but most of that talent is unfunded. 

  • Heidi

    This is something I never would have considered as important. Good for Todd seeing and funding the potential. He’s done a good thing, and should be very proud.

  • Rebecca Hensler

    Winston’s article about secular grief support network, Grief Beyond Belief, which ran in the Wahington Post, Huffington Post and USA Today, had a tremendous effect on the membership of the group.  Over a thousand people joined in the weeks immediately following the article.  In particular, nonbelievers who do not read atheist blogs, who had been grieving in isolation, often surrounded by believers, found the page and reached out for support.  I am profoundly grateful to Ms. Winston and to Todd for making her work possible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cari.park.7 Cari Park

    Thanks to Todd–and to Hemant for telling me about the 50K grant. I wholeheartedly second ‘dangeroustalk’ in his suggestion that atheists should do more to support atheists monetarily. I am the tour manager for Sam Singleton Atheist Evangelist, performance humorist and satirist.  While he has a strong fan base, and many readers who follow him, donations and purchases do not reflect that. I don’t look for a 50K donation, but a $1 donation from 50K atheists would tell him-and the rest of the citizens-that his work is worthwhile.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, who listens

    30 pieces for 50 grand? man, i’m in the wrong biz. ;-)

  • Dusty

    Great!  I’m off no to check her out on RNS!

  • Agnostic

    It appears to me that atheists and anti-theists do have religion as well. Theists find order and wonder in everything and come to the conclusion that there is a higher power above and beyond who created everything and so put their faith in that power. Atheists see randomness in everything and is of the view that intellect can reason out everything and so their believe is that the intellect is the highest power and place their faith in the intellect.

  • Agnostic

    Atheists seem to think that wrongs done in the name of religion is a result of the religion even if the religion teaches nothing that encourages that sort of behavior. Claiming to be a believer does not necessary make someone a true believer. With my limited knowledge of the bible, I do know that the Jewish leaders who believed that they were authorities in their religion were rebuked by Jesus many times. Some who call themselves theist appear anti-theists and critise God. There are so many horrendous atheists who have also done very bad things. Since I am not as brilliant as the atheists and can’t depend on my limited intellect to understand whether simple things like even whether dinosaurs that I see in the museum were actually put together as they should be, I have to remain agnostic.

  • Lee McCauley

    Religiosity is waning in the US – down to 60% according to a recent Gallup poll (http://redcresearch.ie/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/RED-C-press-release-Religion-and-Atheism-25-7-12.pdf) compared to 73% in 2005. It is efforts like this grant that put the rationalist ideas out for everyone to evaluate. Rationality and evidence will win out when given a fair opportunity to be considered.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X