And this just in: GetReligion has a worldview

mattbig2.jpgFor years, professional religion reporters have debated what to say when a source or newsmaker turns and asks: “Hey, reporter, what in the world do you believe?” A decade or so ago, the Religion Newswriters Association even held a workshop on the topic, allowing Godbeat veterans to talk shop on this prickly subject.

Some journalists refuse to answer, saying it is nobody’s business. This often creates tension.

A few journallists open up and, in the name of candor, pretty much spill the works. This often creates tensions.

Others try to find some middle ground or make a decision about what to say on a case-by-case basis. This often creates tension.

You may have noticed a pattern. Whatever a religion writers says in this situation is going to tick off somebody. The religion beat takes a journalist into territory that is both highly personal and very, very complicated in terms of history, doctrine, facts, titles, lingo, statistics and who knows what all. I like to tell people that it’s like covering politics and opera at the same time.

When I joined the Rocky Mountain News staff, I discussed this problem with my editor. He approved the following answer, which some journalist friends of mine jokingly called “Mattingly’s Miranda.” It goes like this: “Yes, I am an active churchman. I take my own faith very seriously and, because of that, I want to do the best job that I can to understand your faith and get the facts right.”

In the classroom, I often put it this way: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

I bring this up because of a new article by the RNA’s Dr. Debra Mason, which critiques the work done by Godbeat critique sites such as GetReligion and The Revealer. She isn’t surprised that people — in newsrooms and pews — care deeply about this subject. The blogosphere is a perfect place to carry on the discussion. At one point, her critique gets rather personal.

Although a member of the press, Mattingly has never been bashful about expressing what he sees as problems with U.S. secular religion coverage. The header on one of his websites includes the quote, “The press . . . just doesn’t get religion,” from a March 6, 2004[,] article by William Schneider, appearing in the Los Angeles Times.

Mattingly’s comfort as a columnist makes blogosphere a perfect place for him. So he and former Christianity Today Associate Editor Douglas LeBlanc have teamed up . . . Together they deliver almost daily — to your e-mail inbox if you want — a critique about where religion is done poorly, or missed opportunities for bringing in the faith angle. Less often, Mattingly’s comments include praise, and a few RNAers will find their names among these comments. is not a nonpartisan critique of religion news, however. Mattingly’s strong personal faith is infused throughout, even if subtly.

So far, so good. This is a commentary blog and I don’t think Doug and I have hidden the fact that we have a ancient, even premodern, approach to matters of faith. At the same time, our goal is to promote professional, balanced, accurate religion coverage — period. Thus, it was interesting to note Mason’s very next sentence.

A radically different tone and technique can be found on The Revealer. This is perhaps the best-funded religion-and-media blog around — The Pew Charitable Trusts gave about $1 million to New York University to run it.

Pew hired Jeff Sharlet, co-author of the book Killing the Buddha, who with his co-author Peter Manseau also created the online magazine of the same name . . . The Revealer describes itself as “a daily review of religion in the news and the news about religion. Nonsectarian, nonpartisan, no punches pulled.”

That makes it sound as if our site has a worldview and Jeff’s does not. Personally, I think we all have our angels and demons. The issue is whether we are pro-journalism. I wrote Sharlet to ask his opinion and this is what he said:

Yes, I’d definitely say that my own approach to faith is infused in my work for The Revealer, mainly because I don’t believe anyone ever really brackets their basic worldview without becoming so boring as to be unreadable. The question then becomes: What is my approach to faith? I’m not sure. My faith: “Radical democratic-empathetic-immersion, with a bias for brilliance, whether it’s that of Aquinas Martin Luther or Muhammad or just a great cantor, and a fascination with fundamentalism, properly defined, and religious violence, and a distaste for those who’d try to control speech.”

At this point, the key difference is that The Revealer contains the work of more writers and, thus, is more complex. I suggested that Jeff’s site is postmodern and our’s is premodern, but he didn’t buy that. The key, he said is that:

We’re both press reviews. I think the literary form that most captures what The Revealer and Get Religion are is 19th century letter writing, plus links.

I can say “Amen” to that. I also appreciate the fact that Mason’s article included the short document that lays out the goals of The Revealer — its “mission statement,” to use the current corporate and church jargon. The premise of the blog is this:

1. Belief matters, whether or not you believe. Politics, pop culture, high art, NASCAR — everything in this world is infused with concerns about the next. As journalists, as scholars, and as ordinary folks, we cannot afford to ignore the role of religious belief in shaping our lives.

2. The press all too frequently fails to acknowledge religion, categorizing it as either innocuous spirituality or dangerous fanaticism, when more often it’s both and in between and just plain other.

3. We deserve and need better coverage of religion. Sharper thinking. Deeper history. Thicker description. Basic theology. Real storytelling.

You know what? I can say “Amen” to that, too. Every word of it. Truth is, there are premodern believers, modern believers and postmodern believers. Hopefully, the goal of the Godbeat blogosphere is to urge journalists to do a solid job of covering what these believers are up to. So three partisan cheers (or three “Amens,” even) for accurate quotes, balanced coverage of hot issues and lots and lots of free speech.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe Perez

    Oh I don’t know. If you ask me, I like your description of GetReligion as premodern and The Revealer as postmodern better than Jeff’s conclusion. “Belief matters” sounds like a euphemism people dream up after they stop truly believing.

  • Joe Perez

    A bit more… I mean that when I hear The Revealer saying “Belief matters,” I sometimes wonder if by that they mean something like a doctor saying that “disease matters.” Yes, it does matter. Yes, it’s worth paying a lot of attention to, because if you don’t, it could kill you. But making religion the focus of attention is a diversion from truly worthy ends. If religion is the disease, what’s the cure? By what standard do you define wellness? The Revealer’s weakness is the same as postmodernism: lots of deconstruction, not much positive to contribute. There’s deconstruction from GetReligion, too, which is to say that your blog and Jeff’s both spend lots of energy on media critique. I think it’s right that your critique comes from a premodern, not postmodern perspective. I’d be interested in hearing more personal background or apologetics, because I don’t have a clue how to be premodern with what we know today, and I haven’t got much insight on that question from reading your blog/column, because I think you’re preaching to the choir without asking why are we still singing these old songs? My own view… is closer to Jeff’s than yours but not really sympathetic to his motto “belief matters.”

    I don’t think belief or religion matters much in

    itself. That seems to me a bit like the doctor saying “disease matters” while the patient is dying, the veneration of tradition or ancient beliefs as such without regard for whether they are valuable or true (and they very often are just the opposite). It seems to me that it’s not the disease, it’s the wellness that matters.

  • Phil Blackburn

    Belief matters when it results in action. Mother Theresa’s Belief mattered when she gave her life to help the unloved in India; the 9/11 bombers’ Belief mattered when they gave their lives to destroy American (and other) lives. South African church leaders’ Belief mattered when they spoke out and acted for justice, peace and reconciliation; East German church leaders’ Belief mattered when they spoke out and acted for freedom and peace; US church leaders’ Belief matters when they try to influence a US presidential election. Palestinians’ Belief matters when they support or encourage suicide bombers; Israelis’ Belief matters when they support or encourage the use of tanks and helicopter gunships in the Occupied Territories.

    Belief matters in large ways and in small ways across the world: it can matter in constructive ways, to affirm life, or in destructive ways. Sadly, destructive Belief usually brings bigger headlines.

    What about your Belief, Joe? Are you a builder-up or a knocker-down?

  • tmatt

    Thanks for the comments on this one. I really thought this would get more of a debate going about the actual issue of religion writing and religion news. You see, for professionals, the issue really isn’t supposed to be about the validity of what we believe or do not believe. The ultimate test is whether we can write about the beliefs of others. The ultimate test is whether we can find and report news. That’s the struggle. I know born-again reporters who are brilliant at this and others who are not. I know atheists who are brilliant at this and others who are not. It’s a journalism thing. That was the point of the post….