Kim Lawton is managing editor and correspondent for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS, where she has worked since 1997. She began her career as a religion writer by covering the fall of PTL’s Jim Bakker in the late 1980s. She has written for United Press International, Religion News Service, News Network International, Christianity Today and International Media Service.
She answered GetReligion’s 5Q+1 with characteristic self-effacing humor.
(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
I monitor AP and Religion News Service every day, along with skimming the highlights from the major papers. (I unabashedly steal news ideas from my fellow members of the Religion Newswriters Association-in the most ethical way, of course.) And I get deluged with news releases and “pitch calls” from religious folks all the time. Many of our viewers offer story suggestions on our website.
I also try to read the news services and publications tied to religious denominations and movements: Catholic News Service, National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today, Charisma, Christian Century, the Forward, Jewish Weekly, Tricycle, Episcopal News Service, Ecumenical News International, just to name a few. I make an effort to glance at the what-seems-like billions of religion-oriented blogs, but that quickly gets exhausting. The very best way I get news is by keeping plugged into a wide network of people who are plugged into what’s going on in the world of religion. (And sorry, I’m not going to divulge who all is part of that!)
(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
Sadly, there are many. I don’t think a lot of the reporters covering the conflicts in Iraq and the Middle East fully understand all the religious factors at play there. I also think much of the reporting about faith and politics here in the U.S. is too simplistic. So many political stories just don’t convey the complexity and nuances of the religious dimensions.
(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
I’m watching the seemingly-growing acceptance of religion and religious expression in public life. One of the most interesting manifestations of that right now is the 2008 presidential election season (see answer #2). Then, there’s also the seemingly-growing atheist-secular backlash!
(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Faith has an impact on virtually every area of life. As a religion reporter, I have covered institutional religion, spirituality and worship, but I’ve also covered wars and politics, natural disasters, human rights, philanthropy, music, pop culture, travel, business, and yes, even fashion and sports! If you don’t “get religion,” you don’t fully get virtually all of the best, most compelling stories of our times.
(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
Funny? It’s not exactly lately, but one of my all time favorites: In reporting on the Vatican beatification ceremony for Mother Teresa, a local news anchor said that she was being “beautified.” It made me want to check the tape for telltale Botox marks.
Ironic? A couple of weeks ago, a coalition of moderate and progressive religious groups held a Washington news conference to release a new poll saying that the mainstream media don’t cover their leaders as much as they cover religious conservatives. (Of course, my program had covered every event and person they cited as examples of how they are ignored. But that’s not my major point of irony.) Two days later, one of the groups wouldn’t let me bring a TV camera into a major event they were sponsoring because they had promised an exclusive to CNN!
And it’s not just the liberals. The following week, I had to push to be allowed to bring a TV camera into the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting . . . even though the meeting was theoretically “open” to the media. And I wasn’t allowed to have a camera in a lunch meeting with Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, even though print reporters were allowed to be there. It’s a two-way street, people. If you want the media to do a good job covering you, you have to let us in to do our jobs!
Bonus: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Although the basic journalistic principles remain the same, expanding technologies are changing the way we cover religion. Visuals and audio are becoming more important, even in traditional text media. This is actually a strength for coverage of religion.
This is the most fascinating, and at the same time, the most challenging beat in the world (see answer #4)!
Image: Kim on location in Turkey.