Troubles on the Godbeat

Typewriter 02So a reader sent along an interesting story headlined “Burnout on the God beat — second top religion writer calls it quits.” Written by Reuters’ Tom Heneghan, the piece explains that Stephen Bates, who recently left his post at The Guardian, published an account of his time on the beat in an article for New Humanist magazine:

Bates announced his move back in September in another interesting article, this time for the website Religious Intelligence. Writing from New Orleans, where he was covering the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he said: “Writing this story has been too corrosive of what faith I had left: indeed watching the way the gay row has played out in the Anglican Communion has cost me my belief in the essential benignity of too many Christians. For the good of my soul, I need to do something else.” Bates, who says he still regards himself as a Catholic, said he was turned off by the intolerance he saw towards gays and the self-righteousness of Christians who “pick and choose the sins that are acceptable and condemn those — always committed by other, lesser people — that are not.”

Before we look at the substance of this story, it is important to note it appears in a relatively new blog that any reader of GetReligion will want to bookmark immediately. Reuters’ religion blog began in mid-October and features stories from their religion reporters around the world. Here is Heneghan, the religion editor, explaining the purpose of the blog:

This blog will let us reach beyond the news stories we now write about faith. With our global network of correspondents, we want to bring a new dimension to our religion reporting. Sometimes we’ll add more information to a story, especially by bringing you closer to the source with links to background material. Sometimes we’ll tell the reporter’s “story behind the story.” Sometimes we’ll point out someone else’s story if it helps readers understand the issues.

So a hearty welcome to the blogosphere, Reuters religion reporters, and we look forward to reading the posts at FaithWorld. Okay, now on to the issue raised in Heneghan’s post — is religion reporting hazardous to one’s faith? My heart goes out to anyone engaged in a spiritual crisis. I experienced a bit of that myself, though it had nothing to do with my profession, and it is a horrible thing to go through. So Bates has my sympathy — although I’m confused how he can claim both Catholicism and no faith.

I must admit I’m surprised, though, at some of the naivete of reporters covering religion. Is assuming benignity in humanity a good starting point for covering anything? I always joke that cynicism is one of the best traits I bring as a reporter. It seems that many reporters (and not just religion reporters) are biased toward viewing religion solely as a set of principles that people choose to adhere to. That’s why stories about morality and hypocrisy are so prevalent. While “moral code” may describe an aspect of all religions, there is so much more to religion, so much more that is transcendental about religion. And why would reporters be surprised that, if religion is important, it involves some pretty serious fighting? It seems like a basic requirement for starting on the religion beat would be an understanding that people take religion very seriously and doctrinal differences can be fierce.

Still, Bates’ piece is much better than this embarrassing piece by The Cincinnati Post‘s Kevin Eigelbach. In a column about the top 10 things he’s learned as a religion reporter, he writes about how he hates religious adherents because, well, they hate. Here are some of his top 10 lessons learned: Religion is not rational, people don’t like to have their religion challenged, the media are nearly always viewed as the enemy, sexual sins bother people more than anything else, and:

Christians often don’t act Christlike.

LosingReligionWait a minute. Christians often don’t act Christlike? Stop the presses! Newsflash! Christians often don’t act Christlike! This is one of the top 10 things this religion reporter learned from being on the beat? I am shocked, shocked that Christians failed to live up to this standard of literal perfection.

Anyway, he sums up by saying that his list reflects poorly on religion:

And truly, my experience writing religion stories has been a process of disillusionment. So, I finished with some good things I’ve learned. One is that it’s easier to hate in the abstract.

You don’t say. Anyway, even though I wish Eigelbach had learned better or more useful or interesting lessons on the religion beat, I don’t mean to say that I’m not sympathetic with the hardships of covering religion. It is tremendously difficult to do well, which is why we try to write posts here about good work as well as bad. And people can be just horrible to reporters. When Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune wrote up a very fair and straightforward story last week about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is making another significant change to the introduction to the Book of Mormon, a reader called her a sk---. But the fact is that even weather reporters (especially weather reporters?) get nasty mail and hateful comments. Should reporters question meteorology because of it? People can and will be nasty. This is a lesson most people learn by junior high.

Speaking of junior high, Sally Quinn wrote a rather unimpressive piece for the first anniversary of her On Faith project. (On Faith is The Washington Post/Newsweek big blog devoted to religion.) Anyway, her essay is curious. John Podhoretz described it as being like Augustine’s Confessions, if Augustine’s Confessions had been written by a combination of Helen Gurley Brown and Britney Spears. Ouch! Quinn’s essay is about how little she knew about religion a year ago, how she’s not really certain why she launched a religion site and how (after a three-week trip around the world to study the world’s religions), she learned the basic tenets of all religions were the same. Back to Podhoretz:

Remember: This is the woman who is the co-editor of a religion website co-managed by one of the nation’s two most important newspapers and one of the nation’s two most important magazines. Neither organization, it’s safe to say, would allow a person as gleefully ignorant and simultaneously archly portentous as Quinn to co-host a site about, oh, sports with the level of knowledge and interest she possessed before taking on “On Faith.” And who, after a year’s thin study, feels herself competent to speak with surpassingly confident banality about the differences and commonalities of the world’s major religions.

Indeed. I’m sure Quinn is a delightful person and her writing is lively and engaging. But why, contra almost every other beat, is religion considered something for amateurs and the uneducated? When religion reporters and editors are well educated, curious and competent, the payoff is tremendous. I would encourage editors to take note of that.

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  • William

    But why, contra almost every other beat, is religion considered something for amateurs and the uneducated?

    Actually, the science beat is often treated in the same way. There are some good science writers but the majority seem to be science illiterate.

    There is good article on bad science reporting at the Guardian: Don’t dumb me down.

  • William

    By the way, the Guardian column suggests:

    It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science.

    Replace science with religion and the overall point remains true. Journalists often parody religion (and science) and then critique the parody.

    So much reporting could be improved by employing “well educated, curious and competent” reporters for every beat.

  • Martha

    Well, Sally Quinn does describe quite well how she was comfortable as an atheist thinking she knew all about that religion stuff, then when challenged finding she didn’t know as much as she thought.

    That’s honest of her, and good on her for broadening her horizons and being willing to investigate without preconception.

    But the conclusion – oh, dear. Just more of the same old ‘when you boil it down to its essence, religion is all about being nice, so why can’t we just get along?’

    Now that’s bad, after a year.

  • Sara

    I’m really sorry to be nit-picky but Cincinnati is spelled incorrectly in reference to the Cincinnati Post. As a Cincinnatian, it’s just a pet peeve of mine :-)

  • Chris Bolinger

    But why, contra almost every other beat, is religion considered something for amateurs and the uneducated?

    How many people in positions of authority at newspapers and magazines:
    * Are devoutly religious people?
    * Respect devoutly religious people and believe that they are as intelligent and thoughtful as others?
    * Believe that serious coverage of religious issues will attract readers and advertisers?

  • Don

    Surprised that many religious people being covered by the news are skeptical (or even seem hostile) to reporters? Perhaps these articles give a clue to the reasons. After years of covering religion news it is obvious that these people never ever once really understood the people they were talking to.

    I know literally thousands of Christian people – including hundreds of pastors, seminary professors, and denominational leaders. I have met only a handful that are driven in any way by hatred. Certainly many, even most, are willing to discern whether certain actions are right or wrong – but that’s not exactly reserve to Christians or religious people, is it? Try violating the eco-commandments or speaking eco-heresy and see what reaction you get.

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  • neil

    Seems to me that the subject of religion is relegated to amateurs due to what Father Stephen calls a two-storey universe. In this country, it seems that Christians and those are who aren’t see faith as a personal thing that takes on a pie-in-the-sky fantasy aspect, because we see it as not practical and not something as real and in our face as the food we eat and the clothes we put on. Father Stephen talks about this much better than I do; check his blog out if you haven’t already.

  • http://www.ReligionWriter.com Andrea Useem

    RE: “On Faith.” Might need a little fact checking here. Sally Quinn is not a co-editor of the site — she’s a co-moderator. While she doesn’t have a background in religion, what she did bring to the project is an incredible amount of convening power and a very deep Rolodex. See my interview with her where she talks about how she got the likes of Desmond Tutu, Karen Armstrong and Martin Marty to sign on to the project.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    I’m confused how he can claim both Catholicism and no faith.

    It confuses me a little, but I see this all the time. I have a dozen or so friends/acquaintances who will say they “don’t believe” in one breath, and claim to be “Catholic” with the next. What they usually mean is that they are culturally Catholic, and they don’t want to lose that identity for some reason, even if they aren’t going to church.

    It’s sorta kinda not really like being a secular Jew – only they’re secular Catholics. Sounds odd, but that’s how they self-identify.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    This discussion ends with a topic VERY central to GetReligion and its work.

    Please see:

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2116

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=551

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=222

    And many others are linked in those posts.

  • Jerry

    Sally Quinn is not a co-editor of the site — she’s a co-moderator.

    Good point. A moderator does not have to know the subject, but has to have skill in finding the right people and keeping the discussion moving.

    There’s a subtle difference between

    too corrosive of what faith I had left

    and

    I’m confused how he can claim both Catholicism and no faith

    Bates’ story reads like one who is having a “dark night” with faith almost disappearing rather than one who no longer has any faith whatsoever. Maybe I missed where he said his faith was totally gone?

  • Gary

    “Christians often don’t act Christlike.” Jesus came not to be our example but to die for our sins. The Christian Right and the Christian Left confuse Law and Gospel which results in the belief that Christianity is about morality, i.e abortion or global warming. Maybe if reporters would interview Lutherans and Reformed they would learn about Law and Gospel. Michael Horton was on 60 minutes, but Lutherans and Reformed are invisible to the media.

  • http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld Tom Heneghan

    Thanks for the plug, Mollie. It’s nice to know somebody out there is reading our output after such a short time. We’re excited about using the blog to give a different perspective on the religion issues we cover around the world.

    There’s one point I think I should clarify. Your post seems to give us more credit than we’re due. The phrases “Reuters religion reporters” and “their religion reporters around the world” seem to say we have a new army of reporters across the globe writing only about religion. I wish that were the case. Actually, the journalists writing these stories are regular staffers who have a religion story worth reporting on their patch. Our job is to report the news and religion has become an increasingly important element in the news. Journalists in countries where religion is prominent tend to bring prior knowledge (especially if they studied the language and culture before their posting) or learn a lot on the spot. But we could not expand our staff exponentially to post religion specialists all around the globe. So we had to expand the scope of stories that our bureaus normally cover. The journalists writing these stories are not religion specialists, something you’ve noticed now and then in the past. What usually doesn’t get noted (and doesn’t have to be, since it’s just them doing their job) is how often these non-specialists get it right.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Tom,

    Thanks for the clarification. I think it’s great to expand the scope of stories at your news bureaus and it can only be good for the company.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    Well, it’s good to see John Podhoretz taking religious expression seriously. Especially since his father, Norman Podhoretz, made his name condemming the Buddhist-Catholic sympathies of the Beat Generation as “know-nothing bohemianism.” It only took Sally a year to find different shades of meaning and commonality in among the world’s religions. It took the Podhoretz family about fifty. By that math, I’d say Sally still comes out ahead.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I wonder why no one does an expose on, say, Lee Strobel, a one-time atheist who was a Chicago Tribune reporter who came to faith partly because of the faith he observed in people he covered.

    Christians no being Christlike. Why doesn’t anyone claim Muslims aren’t Mohammed-like? Or Buddhists more Buddha-like? And what or who would Jews be expected to emulate and live up to?

    As far as the tenets of the major religions being the same, they are. Worship the true God, don’t kill others, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery. A major difference is that the Judeo-Christian (Muslim) Ten Commandments have the “Do not covet” commandment(s), which are thought-based rather than action-based, and adds to the scope of the tenet. And if Christianity is just another set of rules to follow, then we are all striving for the same thing. But if Christianity is about a God-man Savior who redeemed all from all sin, now you have an animal of a different stripe. As a seminary professor told me, most religions are “go” religions; Christianity is a “done” religion.