Religion reporter, columnist, blogger?

crozier 2 smallGetReligion readers who want insights into religion news in Great Britain need to know that veteran London Times Godbeat scribe Ruth Gledhill has started writing a blog.

I think this is interesting because many will say that it further blurs the lines between the personal and the journalistic for someone who is still the reporter of record on the newspaper’s hard-news coverage of religion. You could, of course, make a similar comment about me (as many have). However, my weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service is precisely that — a column.

In the past, some editors have expressed discomfort about having reporters on a hard-news beat, such as religion, also serve as columnists who write material that blends opinion and news. It’s part of the whole “How can you cover religion if you go to church?” question. The blogosphere takes that question and turns it up another notch — 24/7.

However, let me be the first to confess that it is interesting to read behind-the-scenes material from Gledhill that fills in some of the cracks on major stories from the news pages. For example, she recently offered this straight news lead on a report about the explosive issue of female bishops in the already splintering Church of England.

The Church of England is to press ahead with the ordination of women bishops despite warnings that the move could tear it apart.

Then, in the blog she is able to turn right around and offer some personal reflections, such as:

One of the most thrilling aspects of being a journalist is being “leaked” information, being handed a report, a document, a “secret”, perhaps passed under a table in a smoky sawdust-filled bar in Fleet Street or, as was given to me once, in a Macdonald’s in Basingstoke. It doesn’t happen often to me, maybe once a year if I’m lucky. The latest document to reach me like this is the deliberations of Bishop Christopher Hill’s Guildford Group on women bishops. …

The document, stamped “restricted” or “strictly confidential” on every page, sets out how the new proposals for TEA, or transferred episcopal arrangements, would work.

Much of the content of the blog is precisely what newspapers in the cyber age must begin offering — especially links to the real documents, transcripts and other forms of information that let the most dedicated of readers go the extra mile. This also lets readers make some of their own judgment calls about the decisions made by reporters and editors. When in doubt, more information is amost always an improvement.

church 20050713 wed4artAt the same time, you have to wonder what the leaders of a traditionalist group like Forward In Faith UK — which opposes the ordination of women as priests or as bishops (photo by ENS) — think when they read a passage such as the following from the beat reporter who covers their organization. As it turns out, the Gillian Warr praised in this passage as a pioneer worker on behalf of women’s ordination was both a friend and the godmother of — wait for it — Ruth Gledhill.

But as for the bishops of the Church of England, well some of them must be hoping the lights will be permanently on red. That way, they will not have to cope with the consequences of what Gillian’s father Percy Dearmer fought for so bravely and so long ago.

In memory of Gillian, I urge them to go crashing through that episcopal glass window. They might even find that the only criticism, in the end, is that they simply did not open the door fast enough.

Believe me, I know how easy it is to find yourself making friends with the people that you cover on your beat. I have also had many a conversation with my editors about what happens when, as a reporter, you find yourself covering your own denomination or even your own parish.

When in doubt, I believe that as a reporter you have to level with your editors and let them help you make decisions about what you cover and what you do not cover (or when you need to share a byline with another reporter). Sometimes you simply have to pull yourself off a story or take the unusual step of writing about it in the first person, so that readers know your connection to the events. In the end, the crucial thing is that the people you are covering believe that you quoted them accurately and presented their views in a manner that was as fair as possible.

Anyway, I, for one, am glad that Gledhill has started a blog. It will certainly make for more lively, and better informed, discussions of her work at the Times. It will almost certain lead to more speculation about the sources of future leaked documents.

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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.

  • Ted Olsen

    Surely this is going to be less of a problem across the pond, where distinctions between news reporting, news analysis, and opinion pieces are considerably blurrier than they are in the U.S.

  • Ted Olsen

    Of course, that said, there are many religion journalists here who pull double duty as hard news reporters AND as opinion columnists. Cathleen Falsani, Kristen Campbell, Jim Jones, and Ken Garfield immediately come to mind. (Julia Duin writes the occasional op-ed too, if I’m not mistaken.) And then there’s Jeff Weiss’s interesting newsletter hybrid.

  • tmatt

    Excellent point, in the European concept of the press. I should have thought of that and mentioned that.

    Like I said, I see this as a step that has more positives than negatives.

  • prof B

    Re: ‘how can you cover religion if you go to church”– I was once released from a freelancing gig (Terry, you may remember this) for giving a statement, circulated in a press release, that I was a Christian. The gig (for a large metropolitan daily) was writing about Christian music. Who did they think was going to write about Christian music? There ended up being some shadow issues there, and a good deal of back-pedalling leading to a reinstatement, but still . . . ridiculous.

    It is easy to become friends with sources–particularly when you’re covering a specialized beat/specific community. The Christian music community, which I’ve covered for 10 years, is a small one, and journalists and publicists, and even artists, are often on friendly terms. But my liking, or not liking, an artist or publicist doesn’t keep me from writing a objective feature, or a review that separates personal feeling from evaluation of a project. If that’s nto possible, you’re right–you don’t write it. That’s part of the job–at least as I was taught it.

    Of course it’s possible to write both news and opinion. What msm too often misses is that the former needn’t be drenched in the latter. Or maybe it’s only ok when it’s the right kind of opinion. –BB

  • Tom Breen

    As the token Catholic among the reporters at my place of business, I get assigned all the Catholic Church stories even if it’s far, far removed from my regular beat. This occasionally gets very dicey; I’ve been denounced, by name, by a bishop (although a bishop of a different diocese than the one my parish is part of).

    Personally, I’m glad the U.S. press isn’t like our European counterparts. I would never want to write a blog about the religious issues I cover, nor about what is ostensibly my regular beat (higher education). I think the readers deserve coverage from people who are trying to play it as straight as possible; we already have enough to worry about with people assuming we have hidden agendas.