On the Godbeat at The Post

gen bigbuildingIn her weekend column, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell offered a gentle defense of the newspaper’s work on the religion beat. It is particularly interesting for her to take a look at the topic, because of her years working at Religion News Service and Newhouse News Service. To say that she has some authority on this topic is an understatement.

She starts precisely where these kinds of articles almost always start, with good reason:

Religion is a subject that many Post readers care deeply about, and they often don’t think journalists care as deeply about it as they do. Journalists are just like readers. Some are religious; some not. I don’t think that matters as long as religion and spiritual issues are reported thoroughly and sensitively.

While religion reporting has had a renaissance at The Post and in American journalism in the past few years, it doesn’t get anything like the resources devoted to coverage of entertainment, sports, and politics and government. I think that readers would not be so offended by an occasional story or reference they see as insensitive if they believed that The Post made religion coverage a priority.

She goes on to dissect the letters of a few readers critical of individual stories, while trying to explain who does what on the religion beat at the newspaper. This is fitting, since very few readers understand how a newsroom is structured. It helps to be able to say that your newspaper has two full-time professionals on the beat and is looking for a third.

It will be interesting to see if she doubles back to this topic in the near future, especially since it is likely that some readers will want to respond to one of her final thoughts.

I see nothing wrong with The Post‘s religion coverage; I would just like to see more of it — particularly in the A section, even if it is brief stories from RNS, the Associated Press and Reuters. I don’t think that incremental stories about denominations are all that important, but I don’t want The Post to ignore interesting stories, especially as the diversity of religions explodes in our area.

“I see nothing wrong with The Post’s religion coverage. …”

This implies, of course, that there are readers who do think that something goes wrong, from time to time, with the newspaper’s coverage of faith, culture and morality. It will be interesting to see if The Post lets us hear from these readers and gives us any idea how many readers care about the topic and, yes, whether most of these readers are on the left or right side of the sanctuary aisle.

I realize that there are people on the religious left who are highly critical of the religion coverage in mainstream newsrooms. But there are about 10 critics on the right for every one on the left, especially in an era defined by debates about abortion, marriage and sexuality. It will be interesting to see if Howell mentions all of that, the next time around. Didn’t some of this come up for debate at the New York Times not that long ago?

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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://shanewilkins.blogspot.com shane wilkins

    in an unrelated note: i’m surprised you guys haven’t picked up the story of josh hochschild, the prof who was fired from wheaton college for turning catholic. it was on the front page of saturday’s wall street journal.


  • http://thinkinganglicans.org.uk Simon Sarmiento

    The first link, to the Howell article, is broken. The correct link is

    (And this is the third attempt to get through your 4 digit code system….)

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Here’s another story about Hochschild, in the Chicago Sun-Times. (With a callout containing quotes from comments on Freerpublic.com, for some odd reason.)

    Hochschild’s a contributing editor at The New Pantagruel, so maybe he’ll write up something there. (Hm, Get Religion is in their blogroll, so you probably already know about them.)

  • Marie

    “Journalists are just like readers. Some are religious; some not.”

    Is this statement true? I would be very surprised if the percentage of journalists — particularly at The Post — who regularly attend religious services is anywhere near the percentage of its readers who do the same.

  • Michael

    Given both the Post and its readership are drawn from a similar demographic, socioeconomic group, and geography, I don’t see any reason to believe that the numbers wouldn’t be similar. They may go to different kinds of churches–probably more Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish and high Protestant–but I would imagine there are still church goers. The same goes for the NYT.