5Q+1: Grossman’s faithful reasoning

If you’re not following Cathy Lynn Grossman on Twitter or include Faith & Reason & USA Today‘s religion stories bookmarked/on your RSS feed, stop whatever you’re doing and right that wrong.

Grossman might be one of the most connected religion reporters on the map, monitoring the news and staying in touch with religious leaders all over the country. She is a regular for GetReligion, as we are often reading her work and keeping in conversation with her.

Grossman studied journalism and urban studies at Medill at Northwestern University. She spent 17 years covering almost everything except sports, courts and business at the Miami Herald before moving to USA Today in 1989. Here’s her version of what happened next:

My claims to fame are simple: I had a “Pulitzer” at 23 by naming my dog after the prize; I covered the 1973 Arab Israeli War and the 1976 Entebbe rescue; ran feature projects for The Herald; discovered a passion I still have for survey research and finding stories in numbers; spent many years covering travel at USA Today before convincing bosses in 1999 that the inner journey was a better story than the outer one.

Check out some of Grossman’s provocative responses to GR’s 5Q+1.

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

I constantly follow wires, other blogs, social networks, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the major magazines–Christianity Today, Baptist Press, America, First Things, Commonweal, The Forward, Moment and more.

But in the end, my primary source is my own curiosity. Once you start looking for news that touches or expresses peoples’ visions and values, you see it everywhere. Every decision we–or our politicians–make about health, education, welfare, peace, justice or economics speaks to our worldview.

My dual life as beat reporter and as blogger allows me to jump in where I don’t have a story myself. I can delve into questions raised by reporting elsewhere and bring them to readers to puzzle over as well. The role of Faith & Reason is to create conversation.

Here’s a typical process for me. Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings are coming up and that revives a slew of questions:

“How did we wind up with six Catholics and, likely, three Jews on the Supreme Court? Could it be that both traditions place a high value on “works” or as much value on justice as on grace? If President Obama had appointed a mainline social gospel-focused Protestant to the court, would conservative evangelicals still have felt they were no longer “represented?”

(Note: I always have a slew of questions. It is impossible for me to ask only one. I am my mother’s daughter and 10 to 15 questions at machine-gun speed are nothing for mom.)

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

Actually, the story the mainstream media does get–and GetReligion doesn’t like–is the “meh” story, the “whatever” trend to the ever-climbing numbers of the Don’t Know/Don’t Care crowd.

The problem, in part, is the data. We rely on surveys that ask people clear choices like spiritual and/or religious but rare is the survey that lets people say they believe “nothing in particular” and do nothing about it.

Frequently, GR will critique stories for failing to get very religiously particular, slapping media around for failing to spell out what exactly is Tim Tebow’s theology, for example. I would argue that you can deal with it once, maybe, but not every time Tebow is in a story. You could spell it out in detail but readers by and large would not grasp where those views stand on the theological spectrum or how close or far these are to what they believe, because they actually know very little themselves.

We cover the beejeebers out of institutional fights, the sexual abuse crisis and the latest missteps or controversial quotes of high profile religious leaders. Yet we seem to miss that for all the preaching, teaching, Internet outreach, church planting and general rah-rah, the number of people who worship is the same small percentage it has been for decades. Are religions failing? That’s the story.

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

I track three major groups: People of faith who believe there is absolute truth; those who accept, even celebrate, that truth is pluralistic, relative and changing; and the Don’t Know/Don’t Care group. Almost every story I do stands on how one or more of these groups respond to–and often clash over–the news of the day. Their tracks can lead to a story on Millennials ditching religion or to one on the small but insistent traditionalist counter stream.

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

Religion news well done goes to the core of a story: How and why we think what we think, act as we do, dream as we may. If you don’t delve into these aspects–and attend closely for the flickering candle or incense whiff of belief behind someone’s ideas or actions–you haven’t really told their story, whether it’s on the front page, the sports page, entertainment or features.

I do, however, disagree with Ross Douthat that the mass media should be a forum for debating the truth claims of faith. Nor do I feel remotely guilty for failing to promote these debates. Books, journals and salons–and churches, synagogues and mosques–are the home for these discussions. You can have them next week, last week or never. I work for and delight in news–beliefs come to life.

But the stories and blog posts that work–that grab and hold readers–must be rooted in ideas. “Local” stories needs national context from the start. This is why I am wary of the hot trend now to hyper-local community news coverage.

In this age, people define their “neighborhood” by their community of interests and views–hobbies, politics, personal ties–not by geography. My 24-year-old will never read a Philly paper to find out what the news is in Center City because, in her mind, she “lives” in a network of college pals, in the design worlds of New York and London, in emo rock bands she follows. But she’ll read a debate on the death penalty or inter-religious marriage or a profile of a Supreme Court nominee.

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

Is there someone reading this whose first response to the unveiling of hypocrisy isn’t a self-righteous hoot of laughter before we recover our senses (and remember our own failings) enough to feel sorry for the person? Come on, be honest. Remember, Ted Haggard? Hypocrisy will always be news when religious leaders, like politicians or anyone who professes to offer a vision of truth to the world, is be caught stepping, or sneaking, outside boundaries they themselves defined.

When I was still covering travel full time for USA Today and sneaking off to do religion stories as often as I could, I found the perfect best-of-both-worlds story: A flight attendant was fired. She said it was because she was reading the Bible on company time and someone objected. The airline said she was proselytizing on flights including leaving tracts in the bathrooms. She lost. But who won?

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

If you are a reader of religion stories and blogs, make your mark–put a civil comment on the post or story and help keep these kinds of stories in our common civic conversation.

If you are a religion reporter, take a little heart and a little action. The Internet revolution in news delivery may be doing one great favor for religion reporters. At last, we have proof of the high, responsive readership we always knew was out there. The editors know what your metrics are. And if you want to keep this beat alive, you’ll find out, too. What you’ll probably find is that week after week your stories or blog posts draw more eyeballs and keep them longer than many other topics. So go make friends with the numbers people at your company and find out how well you are doing.

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  • Kyle

    I track three major groups: People of faith who believe there is absolute truth; those who accept, even celebrate, that truth is pluralistic, relative and changing; and the Don’t Know/Don’t Care group.

    One of these verbs is not like the other. And, as someone who has Faith and Reason in his RSS feed, but reads it with decreasing frequency due to the manifest slant to the “questions” against those who, well, believe in the law of non-contradiction, I don’t think the difference is accidental.

    As a Catholic, I’m struck by the fact that Grossman can’t find a single major Catholic publication that’s not left of center.

    All in all I’d give this Q&A a “meh.”

  • Jerry

    A funny thing happened to me on my way here, I saw today’s USA Today piece and was going to recommend it to the people here. http://content.usatoday.com/communities/Religion/post/2010/06/beliefnet-stephen-prothero-religious-conflict-common-ground/1 I positively swooned over the questions you asked at the end of the piece because I think they’re very apt:

    How do you defined “news” in the world of religion? Conflict? The “Good News” of the gospel? or changing expressions of belief in American daily life?

    I also liked your critique of GetReligion because I agree with it :-) The writers here are very interested in doctrinal issues and thus see news stories through that lens. I do agree that it can be an important part of the story, but I think they have the dial a bit too far in looking for doctrine when that is not the story.

    Also, historically speaking what used to be great doctrinal fights between mainstream protestant denominations has become less and less important. There are very different views now, to be sure, but they are on much larger bases than previously. If this goes on, we’ll see three groups left: right wing protestants, left wing protestants and Catholics.

  • http://faithandreason.usatoday.com Cathy Grossman

    Kyle, I’m sorry you’re disappointed in my work because I can really use sharp, critical readers such as you. It was, in face, unintentional that I said “accept” instead of “believe.”
    Those words are not parallel construction, although that was what I had intended in my own mind. But readers don’t know what I intend — only what I actually present.
    So this is my error and I appreciate that you called me on it. Stick around and challenge me often, please! Cathy

  • Kyle

    Cathy, thanks for the kind response – kinder than the one to which you were responding, alas – and I appreciate the clarification.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    GetReligion is very pro-coverage of factual material of all kind, including the sharp rise in the post-denominational age, the rising percentages of secular and vaguely religious people and, most of all, the religious left. We’ve stressed the validity of those stories since day one. The contrast between the world of the doctrinal and the non-doctrinal is the religion story of our age.


    The key for us is not merely doctrine, but when doctrinal facts/history hooks are reported inaccurately or the views of only one side are reported. One of the major themes of this blog is INFORMATION NOT LABELS.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Cathy, love your last two paras in question 4 — can we send that observation to, oh, 500 some odd editors and publishers please? Hyperlocal is not hypermyopic, and it’s an insult to our neighborhoods and associations to assume that a self-directed microscope is their monocle of choice.

  • Julia

    How do you have non-doctrinal religion?

    Is such a thing limited to feelings?

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/ Ted Olsen

    You could spell [Tim Tebow’s theology] out in detail but readers by and large would not grasp where those views stand on the theological spectrum or how close or far these are to what they believe, because they actually know very little themselves.

    I resonate in part with Cathy’s critique of GR (She’s right that this site sometimes assumes that people are acting out of a set of consistent beliefs that the reporter has not explored), but am uncomfortable with the suggested deference to ignorance. It promotes a view of religion as personal opinion that undercuts journalism’s mission to inform. Imagine a reporter on the politics, science, business, or any other beat who said, “I’m not going to get into the particulars very often because my readers don’t know the particulars.”

    Or imagine someone covering the NBA finals who, noting that far more people were NOT watching the games than were doing so, felt that their job was to track the Lakers and their fans, the Celtics and their fans, and “the Don’t Know/Don’t Care group.”

    No doubt the “don’t know/don’t care” phenomenon is worth reporting on (just as, for example, ignorance of markets and how derivatives work is important for financial reporters, or general U.S. ambivalence toward soccer is important for World Cup coverage). But that doesn’t let reporters off the hook in the jobs of informing and getting people to care. Financial reporters need to keep explaining derivatives (see “Planet Money”), World Cup reporters need to keep detailing, analyzing, and explaining the game, and religion reporters need to inform readers about what religions teach and what people really believe and do.

    That’s the job of the journalist. (And doesn’t it make good business sense, too? The Meh Post wouldn’t be a great investment.)

    I don’t think Grossman is celebrating ignorance. She has repeatedly demonstrated that she takes seriously her belief that “stories and blog posts … must be rooted in ideas.” But I think she’s wrong in her assertion that “don’t know/don’t care/whatever” is a big idea.

  • Dave

    Julia, Unitarian Universalism is pretty close to a religion without doctrins. It has set of ethics embedded in its by-laws but UUs can be, and are, Humanist, Christian, Pagan, Buddhist etc. (Sorry, not on the journalism.)

  • Jerry


    The key for us is not merely doctrine, but when doctrinal facts/history hooks are reported inaccurately or the views of only one side are reported. One of the major themes of this blog is INFORMATION NOT LABELS

    Terry, I should point out that you’re disagreeing with something I did not say. I was trying to make a different point.

    My point was that sometimes people want doctrinal coverage and sometimes I agreed that is warranted.

    But there have been reviews asking what doctrine stood behind someone’s action that assumed that doctrine was important in that story where I disagreed. And I further asserted that doctrine is mattering less as time goes on which tied back in with Cathy’s comment:

    Actually, the story the mainstream media does get—and GetReligion doesn’t like—is the “meh” story, the “whatever” trend to the ever-climbing numbers of the Don’t Know/Don’t Care crowd.

    So if you disagree with me on this point, you’re also disagreeing with her. If that’s so, I feel like I’m in good company :-)

  • Marcia Z Nelson

    I’m with Cathy on #2. By definition, journalists can’t report on people who haven’t said anything or aren’t articulate (not quotable), even though their numbers are growing. I’ll go farther: I’m sick of reading about the Episcopal Church, which has small numbers, loud megaphones, many blogs. Over-covering that phenomenon distorts the picture of religion in America. Keep up the good work, Cathy.

  • John M.

    With all due respect, I find that covering doctrines of subjects being profiled in articles is very important. In more sensitive situations this can bring attention to the differences/similarities between a particular viewpoint and the religious affiliation that it is most closely connected to. Also, it helps educate people about the beliefs and worldviews of their neighbors.

  • Kyle

    But I think she’s wrong in her assertion that “don’t know/don’t care/whatever” is a big idea.

    I agree. The analogy that keeps coming to mind about this is politics. There is a huge number of people who are apathetic about politics: don’t know the issues or candidates, don’t care, may or may not trouble to haul tail out of bed and vote. Even many who do vote don’t come at it with consistent thought but vote for a candidate who (Obama) makes them feel hopeful or whom (Bush) they might want to have a beer with. They are the political equivalent of “spiritual but not religious.”

    That’s an interesting – and most of us would say disturbing – sociological phenomenon. And political reporters do report on it, almost universally in the frame of speculating on how people who do take the world of ideas in politics seriously can/do/don’t engage those people who don’t know and don’t care, or how that mass of apathetic people affects elections and other things that have serious consequences. Political apathy is rarely reported on favorably or even neutrally.

    Now, many people may consider this sort of don’t-sweat-the-details approach to politics much different than the analogous approach toward religion. Some think that because they believe religion doesn’t matter or that it is some kind of fiction anyway or even that it is dangerous to society when people take it too seriously and so is better being treated apathetically. Others (and I would be in this camp) think they are different because we think the truth about God is even more important than the truth about domestic and foreign policy.

    I would be interested in hearing more of how Cathy understands the don’t know/don’t care group in this context, and whether/how she thinks critics of that way of approaching religion fit into the story.

  • Ben

    I just want to say I appreciate a reporter using the 5q+1 to say something that spurs debate and gives some interesting critiques of GetReligion.

  • Passing By

    …a passion I still have for survey research and finding stories in numbers.

    A writer after my own heart. Attempting to make sense of numbers raises a host of questions and opens interesting, potentially helpful thought processes. It also reveals biases.

    For example, my response to the news that the percentage of worshipers is constant over time makes me wonder how, in the rising tide of cultural materialism and secularism, that could be. Watch some TV: how many shows depict Christian believers as serious people? Edith Bunker went to church, if memory serves – who else? How many times a day do people freely fornicate (doesn’t that word sound dated!)and not just on soap operas? In my lifetime, culture has gone from the Ricardos and Petries in separate beds to this. So faith groups have, overall, held their own in the face of that barrage? This sounds like success to me; and that’s my bias showing.

    Which is not a criticism of Ms. Grossman; it’s a mere comment that what we bring to the table inevitably effects what we look at and how we interpret it. The keys are honesty about the issues – to look at all the facts – and honesty about ourselves.

  • http://russgerber@gmx.com Russ Gerber

    I, too, am deeply interested in the (rising tide?) don’t know/don’t care responders. No doubt there are many factors in play: market forces that didn’t exist decades ago, career demands, fixed-time services in an on-demand culture, etc. Must churches adjust, or society adjust, or should the market play itself out? Or will an aging generation eventually get religious when other institutions don’t garner their interest or meet their needs? A fascinating story indeed. God only knows. ; )