5Q+1: Joshunda Sanders on sacred and secular

Today I remembered why I like Joshunda Sanders’ Of Secred and Secular blog so much. She often teases that local angle out of a national issue, or finds something fresh locally.

For instance, she posted something today about how University of North Texas professors are studying the faith of Katrina survivors. This was no press release re-write; She interviewed the professors about how factors like age, previous religious experience and church attendance play a role in the faith of the survivors.

Sanders is the religion reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, where she has worked for five years. The Bronx, NY-native began her newspaper career in 2000 after she graduated from Vassar College as a Hearst Fellow with the Hearst Newspapers Corporation. During her fellowship, she moved every six months for two years and worked at the Houston Chronicle, The Beaumont Enterprise, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle.

She was a features writer at the San Francisco Chronicle between 2002 and 2005. She returned to Texas to write for the Statesman and to attend library school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a master’s of science in information studies in 2009.

She has covered the public safety/cops beat, education, and breaking news at the Statesman before she was promoted to the religion beat in 2009. She has been visiting area churches, speaking to local church leaders about trends, and blogging up a storm since then.

Joshunda also writes creative nonfiction and her essays have appeared in several Seal Press anthologies, including “Secrets and Confidences: The Complicated Truth about Women’s Friendships,” “Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time,” and “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also a lecturer at the University of Texas School of Journalism this semester.

Sanders will join the flock of religion reporters headed to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver September 23-25. Anyone else going?

If you haven’t already, you should add Sanders’ Of Sacred and Secular blog to your bookmarks/readers and follow her on Twitter. We asked her to weigh in on our usual 5Q+1.

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

I have over two dozen RSS feeds in Google Reader that range from Reuters’ FaithWorld, to Spiritual Politics to more obvious choices like USA Today, Washington Post and the New York Times Religion pages and blogs. I also check the Associated Press wires daily and look at the daily roundups from the Religion News Service to see what’s happening around the country and around the world. I also love magazine writing, so when I have time, I scan some of the religious magazines, like Christianity Today or Tablet, along with the more secular ones, like Newsweek, to get a sense of whether there are trends happening that I’m not necessarily looking at, but need to file away for the future.

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

It’s hard to say. I have compassion for mainstream media outlets at a time when blogs and micro blogs keep changing the print and web landscape for writers and readers, exposing us to constant deadlines, competition to have “attitude” like blogs and the expectation that we will also be fair, breaking news and absolutely correct 100 percent of the time right out of the gate. That said, I think the identity crisis that Christian denominations find themselves facing is something we’re not quite getting at, probably because it’s such a vast story. From the Catholic Church’s rising immigrant population to mainline denominations figuring out how to retain young members as older ones die in what seems to be an increasingly non-denominational church world, the identity shift is one that we’re still in and who knows how long it will last. But, like I said, I think that’s a challenging to story to write and stay on top of with all of the expectations for reporters to produce across media platforms.

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

I’ll be looking closely at the issue of clergy health locally to get a sense of whether national denominational efforts have trickled down to Austin, which is known as a fit town full of runners and cyclists and people who are concerned with their overall wellness.

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

I used to be a cops reporter, a features writer and for a very short time, an education writer. Each of those positions sometimes offered trend stories that affected a large audience in theory, but in practice, none of the stories I’ve worked on up to this point (10 years as a reporter, five years at the Statesman) seem to have resonated with readers in the same way as stories about belief, non-belief, tradition, faith and spirituality. I think religion resonates for people because folks in our society have been trained only to talk about religion in private (kind of like their ideas about sex or money, I suppose) but the web and the 24/7 news cycle gives people an anonymous forum for discussing their thoughts about faith. That’s a good and a bad thing, but the best thing about it is that people have access to so much information about all kinds of things that allow them to put in context the things we experience on an everyday basis. Insofar as religion or faith or agnosticism affects the way that people live their lives or conduct themselves as public officials, this is tremendously important for journalists to understand in as nuanced a way as possible.

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

As a native New Yorker who once worked briefly in the World Trade Center as a college intern, I loved the Washington Post piece that interviewed apathetic New Yorkers about the Cordoba House/Park51 debate, which has become more of a political joust than a meaningful discussion about what turns a prayer room a mosque, how we decide what truly makes President Obama or anyone a “real” Christian or Muslim, and why it’s impossible for us to identify people as Islamophobes without being labeled socialists.

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

I think it’s amazing that mainstream media still has writers devoted to religion coverage and I think it’s a privilege to be counted among that group. In my case, I actually write on other topics as part of a slim staff, but most of the time my editors are gracious enough to let me blog and write about religion, which I have come to love. I don’t know that readers understand fully the statement that the presence of religion writers sends about the organizations that are still committed to the coverage–that religion is still worth talking about because it touches all of the important areas of our lives whether we are believers or not. I’m probably biased because I work for a newspaper, but while I think it’s important to give writers, editors and content producers at news organizations constructive criticism, I also believe it’s important to affirm the religion writers who get it right or try their best, and I think that’s the incredibly valuable service that
GetReligion provides. So, thanks for that!

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  • Jerry

    Thanks for the opportunity to get to know another media person. I found that Joshunda and I share a twitter relationship – we both subscribe to the Rumi feed:-)

    religion is still worth talking about because it touches all of the important areas of our lives whether we are believers or not.

    I have a small quibble: I’d say “even more worthwhile than ever before” rather than “still worth”. I think there are more religion stories in the news today than any time in the past 50 years whether it be stem cells, Islam, gay marriage, priestly crimes, denominational disappearance, intentional religious communities and so forth. Indeed, “The times they are a changing”.

    About #5 – You hit the nail on the head. We’re neck deep in irony these days. Just one example, Fox’s owner “News Corp. Executives Actually Recently Met With Saudi Billionaire In Mosque Controversy” And not only that, but we have a picture “of said executives, makin’ deals and dollars with the alleged Ground Zero Terror House Funder that everyone is supposed to be terrified of!” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/24/news-corp-executives-actu_n_692790.html

  • John M

    A wonderful piece on a journalist who “gets” religion.

    I second, Jerry’s quibble:

    With the rise of the emergent church and new growths in Christianity, the resurgence of Judaism (especially of the Orthodox variety), the meteoric rise of Islam, new religious identities being formed, and the many other stories of this type, I think “even more worthwhile than ever before” is definitely a more apt description.

  • Joshunda

    Jerry and John:

    Thanks for your comments and your quibble. I think you’re right! A year into the beat and I still have a tendency to err on the side of caution before I sound like I’m overstating an issue. But I agree — more worthwhile than ever before sounds more accurate.


  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks Jerry and John. I think if you look at Joshunda’s initial comment in the context that several papers have shut down sections and moved reporters off the beat, it’s safe to say “still worth talking about.” Also, I wasn’t around 50, 100 + years ago, but the history reading I’ve done tells me that have always issues with underlying religious questions in news stories (wars, for example). With all the reporting and media going on through the Internet and such, we wish we would see more coverage of it, though.

  • Dan

    I think I met her once, but she was wearing glasses. Must have taken them off for the picture here.

  • Passing By

    I was around 50 years ago, though I remember more from, say, 1965 to 70. The religion section of our local papers was larger and more prominently placed than today. Today it’s buried in the section that was, back then, called something like “Women’s News”. Religion has also been part of the Sunday “Opinion” section, but that is not reduced to two pages in the section “A”.

    I couldn’t you much about content, but people certainly were talking about religion and paying attention to it. The 50s-60s mythology being what it is, I am tempted to say the coverage was more narrow, focused on Christianity (Baptist Christianity, given the locale), and probably more upbeat. But it would be an interesting research project to see what people were actually reading about religion at that time. Obviously, we have a great deal more information, religious and otherwise, available now, but I wonder what newspapers were printing then versus what they are printing now.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Passing by, that’s a good observation. On one hand, we have all these blogs–pretty specialized ones–that offer information out there. On the other hand, newspapers seem to be seeing religion as a lower priority on the beat list. I see papers obsess over “local, local, local,” which is fine, but I’m not sure your average reader is rushing to their sidewalk to read about the last school board meeting. As we’ve argued time and time again, religion (or the absence thereof) plays a huge role on the local level.