Veteran reporters who really, really get religion

Scribecomputerframe_2Last week, Father Kendall Harmon — an Episcopal priest who has had more than a few close encounters with the mainstream media — left a dangerous comment in response to my post about the Poynter.org debate inspired by Washington Times veteran Julia Duin’s comments on the role that experience and training play in quality religion reporting.

Harmon was probably winking as he typed. Here is what he wrote:

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?

There is no way that I am walking deep into THAT minefield. I have many friends on the beat and there are numerous people that I respect greatly. So how to comment without getting killed? Let’s stick with a very, very short list of people in the mainstream, as opposed to specialty publications and websites.

GetReligion has, of course, formally saluted one reporter as precisely this kind of professional gold standard — Richard Ostling of the Associated Press. I also think that Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s work at National Public Radio must be mentioned.

While many consider the New York Times a bastion of liberalism (with obvious reason), Laurie Goodstein is an amazing reporter who often wins praise from partisans on both sides of hot issues. And while Duin works for the Washington Times, anyone who has followed her career knows that she is constantly finding new information and voices on the left as well as the right. Both are experienced professionals and must reads.

One other short note. I was happy to hear that Mark O’Keefe has ascended to the top job at Religion News Service (even though he did not drop me a line to let me know this news at the time, dang it).

I also wrote a piece long ago — in blog terms — about the need for some of our major newspapers and wire services to do a better job of steering online readers to their religious coverage. What’s the point of having a top-flight specialist on any major beat, such as religion, if it is next to impossible to find that person’s work? I mention some other favorite reporters in that piece.

Which brings us to a fine piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by veteran religion-beat scribe Mark I. Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel, who is now as well known for his books such as “The Gospel According to the Simpsons” as he is for his work in daily journalism. The piece is called “Among the Evangelicals: How one reporter got religion.” Nice headline, don’t you think?

In terms of his own politics and beliefs, it is safe to say that Pinsky is not going to show up anytime soon on The 700 Club (although I have no doubt he would be a fabulous interview if he did). In his article, he describes the journalistic process — equal parts continuing education and snooping around — that helped him learn to understand and accurately write about the lives of the armies of evangelical Christians who are camped in and around Orlando. Here is a wonderful passage:

For the first time in my life, I was living in a sea of believing, faithful Christians, and the cold shock felt like total immersion. As on the West Coast, I learned a lot on the job, interviewing ministers, leaders, and lay people. I attended church services more often than many Christians — some months more often than I attended my own synagogue. But the most intense part of my education came from outside the job, apart from the mediation of a reporter’s notebook. At PTA meetings, at Scouts, in the supermarket checkout line, and in my neighborhood I encountered evangelicals simply as people, rather than as subjects or sources of quotes for my stories. Our children went to the same birthday parties. We sat next to each other in the bleachers while the kids played recreational sports. Our family doctor went on frequent mission trips and kept a New Testament in each examining room. In the process, I learned about the Great Commission, the biblical obligation of all Christians to share their faith with the once-born and the unsaved.

Evangelicals were no longer caricatures or abstractions. I learned to interpret their metaphors and read their body language. From personal, day-to-day experience I observed what John Green at the University of Akron has discerned from extensive research: evangelicals were not monolithic nor were they, as The Washington Post infamously characterized them, “poor, uneducated and easy to command.” Like Ned Flanders, they are more likely to be overzealous than hypocritical, although there is certainly some of the latter. They don’t march in lockstep to what Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or Focus on the Family’s James Dobson tell them, and they hold surprisingly diverse views on many issues. While making common cause politically, their theological differences range from the subtle to the significant. For evangelicals, religion is not just for Sundays — or Election Day.

It’s hard to stop there. Read it all. Friends and neighbors, this is what it is all about. Preach it, brother.

Personal note: The Rt. Rev. LeBlanc has been on the road for several days, searching for wardrobes in Los Angeles. Now, I am headed to Tinseltown myself and then to Cincinnati. In other words, posting will continue in the next few days — when we can sit still long enough to do so. Make sure you let us know of any really good or really bad stories that you see.

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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://bunniediehl.worldmagblog.com Bunnie Diehl

    Not that he has written long enough to be considered great, but I have consistently enjoyed Eric Gorski’s work. He’s with the Denver Post.

    His stories show an understanding of complex religious topics not usually found among mainstream religion writers.

    Also, Gary Stern should be commended. He’s at an upstate New York paper. Quite good.

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

    Gary Stern is a religion reporter at The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Here is an exchange tonight with Kendall on his blog.

    ***

    Who are the best Religion Reporters and Why do you Think so

    “kendall @ 9:10 pm

    Do not think leaving a comment on a blog does not have implications. Terry Mattingly has extended a response to my comment into a whole post on the subject of the better religion reporters. I would be interested in your thoughts on the matter as well.

    By the way, anyone else notice that Terry only answered half of my question?

    Just asking.

    The URI to TrackBack this entry is: http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net/wp-trackback.php/4526

    Anyone who has read GetReligion at all knows why the blog would rate a religion reporter highly and my post implies it.

    Fair and accurate treatment of people on both sides of tough and complex issues. Old-fashioned, American-model-of-the-press reporting and writing. What would Richard Ostling Do?

    On our site, click on Godbeat on the right sidebar and you’ll see precisely what I am talking about.

    This is the PURPOSE of GetReligion. Does Kendall need to restate his position on Anglican polity and doctrine in every post? ;-)

    Comment by tmatt “1/28/2005 @ 9:36 pm

  • Jill

    So Doug is a bishop now? Hmm . . . Didn’t realize that when he visited our church a couple months ago. ;)

  • john

    Jean Torkelson of the Rocky Mountain News writes on religion and seems to have her feet on the ground. Her current story concerns the dumping over time of aborted remains from an abortion clinic in Boulder into a catholic cemetery without the abortion clinic being aware and the remains having been blessed over.

  • Glynn

    Richard Ostling of Associated Press has a good story being published in newspapers today about the “Evangelical Bloc” not being the monolithic caricature it’s believed to be.

    I read Mark Pinsky’s article in the Columbia Journalism Review a couple of weeks ago — and it is a very, very good article.

    In my own hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (not exactly known for its deep understanding of religious issues and news), there is actually a good story today about the visit of a Rwandan Anglican bishop to two local Anglican congregations who separated from the Episcopal Church USA. The story is balanced and interesting (and I’m not an Anglican or an Episcopal.)

  • Brad

    Those interested in this subject might be interested in an article in the NYT today by Peter Steinfels:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/29/national/29beliefs.html


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