Poynter debate: Veteran help wanted on religion beat?

ScribecomputerframeA long, long time ago — a quarter century, to be precise — I was a copy editor and rock columnist at a daily newspaper in Central Illinois. Careerwise, what I wanted to do was write about religion, which was one reason I had studied the history of religion in America as well as journalism at Baylor University and then did a master’s degree in church-state studies, which combined theology, political science, history and some law.

I knew it would be hard to land that first job in religion writing. So I called up the late great George Cornell at the Associated Press and asked for his advice. I had a simple question: What does it take to be a religion writer in a mainstream newsroom?

Cornell’s answer had several layers, each of them relevant to the current Poynter.org debate growing out of Julia Duin’s “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat.”

The first thing you had to do, Cornell told me, was prove that you were a good reporter — not a religion reporter, but a reporter, period. That took time and, while you did that at an entry-level newspaper or two, you could try to build up some newspaper clips that focused on religion issues and news.

It also helped to have studied religion, formally or on your own. The beat was stunningly complex, he said, and it was hard to avoid mistakes. You had to know what you were doing and it helped if your editor was willing to stick with you and do some learning, too.

Once you had reporting experience and clips you could apply for a religion-beat job at a mid-sized newspaper and then, if things went well, you could move up to larger newspapers. But knowledge could not replace reporting skill and reporting skill alone was not enough. This was a two-sided equation.

The key was that the beat was important and worth it. He gave me a clue for arguing with editors about this. Just look at the annual list of the AP’s top 10 news stories. Year after year, the majority of them seemed to have some kind of religion hook. Look at the amount of time and money Americans dedicated to religion, compared with sports, he said. Surely newsrooms could find a way to hire a few skilled religion specialists.

A few years later, I drew on his advice as I researched my graduate project on religion news at the University of Illinois, which ended up on the cover of The Quill, and he influenced other articles after that. I was still quoting Cornell and a host of other religion-beat veterans — from Russ Chandler to Helen Parmley and beyond — when I spoke on some of these topics in 2003 at the Poynter Institute.

Call me old-fashioned, but I really believe that the best way for journalists to gear up to cover religion is the way they prepare to cover sports, opera, law, the environment and a host of other major beats. They need reporting skills, commitment and a broad knowledge of religion facts and trends, both national and global. It’s journalism, stupid.

That’s what I think Duin is saying, too.

Religion reporters must memorize a dizzying list of facts, 4,000 years’ worth of world religious history, and basic theology for more than a dozen religions. That takes time and experience. Yes, some of the novices to the beat have blossomed and done well. Others have not.

If they’re in the Bible Belt, they should. But the Nashville Tennessean, when it first advertised for a religion writer this spring, said in its ad “religion writing experience not required.” That brought to mind memories of The Washington Post’s famous November 1994 religion reporter job posting that, “The ideal candidate is not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

Now, I can’t find anywhere in her piece where Duin says that experience and knowledge are more important than reporting skills and talent. What has her fired up is evidence that the leaders of some major newsrooms seem to be opposed to hiring journalists with experience and knowledge. At best, some editors are indifferent, or nervous. They have sweaty palms.

This leads us, of course, to that infamous Washington Post job posting. Even Steve Buttry calls that ad “poorly worded,” which to me suggests that he still agrees with the principle that the “ideal” candidate for a religion-beat job is “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.” He then reads Duin’s mind and says she is saying that religion reporters must be religious reporters. This misses her main point, or avoids it. Now I think the issue of ideological diversity in newsrooms is important, but that is not Duin’s subject in this piece. She isn’t saying that religion writers need to be edgy Unitarians or Bible-quoting Baptists or some other brand of believer.

What she is worried about is that word “ideal” in that Washington Post ad.

Duin knows that people can learn on the job. She knows, as Diane Connolly emphasizes, that there are ways for inexperienced religion reporters to learn on the job and seek post-graduate training. But once Connolly’s “novices” have blossomed into skilled veterans, does that make them lesser candidates for jobs higher up the ladders of news organizations? I don’t think so and neither does Duin.

What Duin wants to know is why a lack of experience and training is a PLUS, for some editors, when it comes time to hire a religion reporter. She wants to know why the rules are different for this beat than for other complicated news beats. Is the lack of knowledge a virtue?

Why would an editor choose a novice over reporters with resumes like, well, those of Connolly, Buttry or Duin? Why have editors chosen suburban reporters and business reporters over journalists who have won national awards and can produce stacks of national-level scoops and features? Why is the “ideal candidate” for religion-beat jobs in some of our best wire, print and broadcast newsrooms a journalist who is not “an expert in religion”?

As for me, I am with Cornell. What we have here is a two-sided equation. This is a beat that requires knowledge and talent, experience and skill. The “ideal candidates” for the top religion-beat jobs need all of these qualities and editors should seek out these journalists. The beat deserves it.

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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.

  • http://wetzell.blogspot.com/ dlw

    So how about for trying to become a religion and politics writer?

    I used to be a terrible writer, writing way too long and complicated sentences. I still feel inadequate as a writer, even though my immediate telos is to become a religion and politics writer. I think it has more to do with the feeling that I have something of value to say.


  • http://blog.news-record.com/lexblog Lex

    As with journalism itself, a half-decent mind and a lot of life experience can make up for a lack of formal education.

    I took over the beat in late ’95 after more than a decade of reporting, having never covered the beat before or studied religion formally beyond Old and New Testament surveys in college. I did OK. Shoot, I did better than OK.

    Why? For one thing, I covered religion as hard news (and had an editor who let me do it). For another, I just SAW the religious angle in lots of stories the way a natural athlete sees the spin on a pitched baseball, so much so that my editors quickly gave me a shooting license to poach pretty much any story off pretty much any beat as long as there was a religion angle … and then were usually happy to run them on the front page.

    But also because I grew up in the church, because I came from a long line of ministers on my mother’s side (lawyers on my dad’s) and because I’d paid attention. My next door neighbors when I was growing up were Jewish, and I was naturally curious enough that by the time I’d graduated from college, I’d been in worship services from Appalachian snake handling to high Mass, from Conservative Judaism to Holiness tent revivals. Your typical fundamentalist (term chosen intentionally) might not consider me religious (or religious *enough*), but on a very fundamental level, I *get* it.

    One other thing it also helps to have (or develop): a keen sense of the difference between fact and belief, even when a belief is the functional equivalent of fact in a person’s life. If you let people say what they want about what they believe, challenging them only on verifiable factual claims, they will respect your reporting, or at least concede that you are fair, even if they know you don’t share their beliefs. They will give you the benefit of the doubt, which is all a good reporter needs.

    Any reporters reading this who think they haven’t been on the front page enough lately need to go ask to be put on the religion beat. Do it right and it’ll change your life even if it doesn’t change a thing about your faith.

  • http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net Kendall Harmon

    OK, tmatt, here is a challenge then–tell us whom you consider the three or four best religion reporters out there in America right now, and tell us why you think so. You had Cornell as a role model to follow, who should young people be following as sources of learning now?