5Q+1: Reporter on the hot seat

flockwoodIf you do a search in Google Images for Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood you will find nothing that is useful. Zippo.

But if you use Google to search the whole Web, you will find all kinds of interesting things to read. Or Google “Lockwood” and “Jimmy Carter” in Google News for another interesting set of URLs. Go to the White House and mention the name “Frank Lockwood” and they’ll know who you are talking about, too.

To get the basics on the celebrated Lockwood interview with former President Carter, click here to flash back to a recent GetReligion post.

Let me cut to the chase. To celebrate this mini-firestorm, I went ahead and did what I was planning on doing soon anyway — I got in touch with Lockwood to ask him to do one of our 5Q+1 mini-interviews.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

AP and Religion News Service, Baptist Press, other newspapers, Christianity Today and Charisma, GetReligion.org and TitusOneNine, the Religion Newswriters Association‘s blog aggregator, visitors to my blog, church bulletins and newsletters, Christian radio and religious bookstores. Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen, the folks at the Dallas Morning News, Gary Stern of the Journal News and Brad Greenberg of the Jewish Journal are among the religion bloggers I monitor.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

flockwoodReligion coverage is a whole lot better now than it was a few decades ago. Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal sent me a story his paper ran on Jerry Falwell in Dec. 23, 1975. The writer begins: “Dr. Jerry Falwell, a husky, 42-year-old television preacher from Lynchburg, Va., took the pulpit at Louisville’s Beth Haven Baptist Church yesterday and delivered an old-fashioned, Bible-thumpin’, smoke-spewin’ sermon. Dressed in a conservatively cut brown suit, his face taut with grim emotion, Falwell unloaded a half-hour harangue on the excesses and decadence of modern society.”

Could you imagine that crummy story running today in one of the nation’s 50 largest papers? Probably not. Certainly not if a reporter like Peter Smith is covering the event.

So we’ve made progress. But there’s a lot of progress still to be made. There are far too few evangelicals (or Mormons for that matter) writing in America’s major newsrooms — and far too few writers who understand America’s largest religious bloc. As a result, you see silly mistakes in major publications.

Back to the Mormons: a major newsweekly last week had a picture of the Mormon Tabernacle and referred to it as the Salt Lake Temple. It wasn’t. They’re two very different buildings. A major West Coast daily a couple of years back botched the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in one of its stories — especially embarrassing in Oregon, where the LDS church is the second-largest religious body. Silly mistakes like these wouldn’t happen if there were a few more Mormons in big city newsrooms.

On a related note, I think the major media is figuring out that the Mitt Romney story is more complex than just, “Are Romney’s opponents bigots?” They’re looking at his faith — and his opponents — in more nuanced ways.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

flockwoodI really look forward to following the presidential election. I’m curious if evangelicals will stick together as a voting bloc, or whether they’ll fragment in 2008. My guess is that they’ll never be more homogeneous than they were during the last election.

By the way, I’m always somewhat amused when major publications “discover” born again Christian voters, as they did when Carter was elected in 1976 and in 2004 when President Bush won a second term. These evangelicals — tens of millions of them — didn’t immigrate to America during our bicentennial year nor did they go into hibernation after President Carter’s victory. They’ve been here all along and they’re not going anywhere — at least in the near term. They’re only “discovered” at election time because that’s the only time some journalists pay attention to the territory between LA and Manhattan. We’ve seen a series of books and a documentary or two recently warning that “religious extremists” are taking over America.

Well, polling doesn’t back that up. Gallup’s polls don’t indicate that the America is turning into a more conservative or more religious society or that Americans are shifting to either the far right or the far left.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religion isn’t going away and it’s not getting less important. You can’t understand the world if you’re spiritually illiterate. Does that mean journalists need to be able to quote [theologian] Paul Tillich? No. But they should know basic demographics. They should be able to tell the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. They should know the differences between, say, Catholicism, mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity. They should be able to name most of the Ten Commandments and recognize most of the major U.S. religious denominations.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

flockwoodEasy. The Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Larry Flynt paying homage to Rev. Jerry Falwell. The two men were buddies, traded dieting tips, called each other to chat. Who’d have guessed? It’s a strange world.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Yeah, if you’re a new religion journalist or an aspiring journalist, you need to find out about an organization called the Religion Newswriters Association. These folks helped me tremendously when I first was assigned to the religion beat. They hold great workshops for newcomers and their annual convention is one of the highlights of my year — right behind Christmas. They offer scholarships so people from financially-strapped papers can attend and they bring together the very best religion writers in the country. This year it’s in San Antonio and it’ll be a blast.

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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://ochobl.blogspot.com BL

    Behind Christmas?

    When I was a religion reporter, I always got a lot more excited about the RNA convention, then I did about Christmas.

  • Tom Schaefer

    If you’re not familiar with the RNA’s Web site, stop by for a visit. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the wealth of information available to journalists and non-journalists alike.

  • Jerry

    There are far too few evangelicals (or Mormons for that matter) writing in America’s major newsrooms — and far too few writers who understand America’s largest religious bloc. As a result, you see silly mistakes in major publications.

    Does anyone else besides me see what’s wrong with this? Something like only Mormons can really report on Mormon issues (and so forth) if we want to minimize “silly mistakes”.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    I think you missed the second half of my sentence: “and far too few writers who understand America’s largest religious bloc.”

    I’ve never said (nor do I believe) that “only Mormons can really report on Mormon issues (and so forth).” I’ve only said that you better have somebody involved in the editing process (Mormon or non-Mormon) who thoroughly understands the subject matter if they’re writing about a particular religion for the nation’s largest newsmagazine. Otherwise, you increase the chances you’ll make mistakes — and pass along incorrect information to millions of readers.

  • Jerry

    Well, what I keyed on was:

    Silly mistakes like these wouldn’t happen if there were a few more Mormons in big city newsrooms.

    Maybe you did not mean that comment to have the impact it did, but it struck me strongly.