Whenever I see Bruce Nolan’s byline, I think of Bruce Almighty, thanks to a post Bobby wrote back in June. On screen, Jim Carrey’s character Bruce Nolan acts as a television reporter who plays God for a bit.
In all seriousness, though, the real journalist Bruce Nolan has done some solid stories down at the The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In case you didn’t hear, there was this thing called Hurricane Katrina, and then another thing called an oil spill.
Nolan’s job has been to dig out religion angles out of what initially seemed to be a natural disaster story and a corporate blunder story. Here’s a sample: Katrina anniversary services as a litmus for the emotional status of the region, collective prayer as a response to the oil spill, seeing the spill theologically as a “sin” against creation, a Jewish social justice training program uses post-Katrina New Orleans as a laboratory, and Katrina radicalizes (and psychologically damages) an Episcopal bishop.
Nolan has spent his entire career at The Times-Picayune, something few reporters can claim. After stints as a reporter, suburban bureau chief and assistant city editor, in 1994, he asked for a six-month sabbatical to get back to writing and cover religion. “After six months everybody liked what was happening, so this long sabbatical just rolls along,” he said.
“Like other reporters of a certain age, I’ve done a lot of laps around the sexual abuse track; kept score in the culture wars and written a lot of clergy profiles and obits,” he said. “In August of 2005, however, I was aboard a Times-Picayune delivery truck that, having participated in a convoy ferrying employees out of the flooded city, doubled back and re-entered. That was the first day of the last story of my career–which story has lasted five years now and still insinuates itself into almost everything we do here.”
Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’ve asked him to answer our usual 5Q+1.
(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
From the usual places, probably. I have Google Reader, (an RSS feed reader) stuffed with colleagues’ blogs and wires, among them: David Gibson, Rocco’s Whispers, John Allen, Pew, RNA headlines, the RNS blog, Christianity Today, and more. I scan incoming newsletters from churches and synagogues. But the most fascinating stories are the ones that arise outside institutional structure-the ones you don’t recognize at first as religion stories: I mean the baseball Little League for Christian families; the medical school students’ organizing a year-end memorial honoring the people whose corpses they have dissected (true!) This is where you see religion working itself in the most innovative ways–which make for the most interesting news stories.
(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
A couple of things come to mind. It feels like 1) the whole culture is very near some kind of tipping point on gay marriage and 2) I sense a growing secularization, or at least a growing appetite to find meaning outside organized religion. But more basically, here’s something I think lots of colleagues may recognize: It’s the slightly awkward feeling you get when you tell an editor that in response to some community crisis–a drought; a devastating plant closing; a storm or a massive oil spill–people in the community by the thousands are responding by … praying. Think the evening of 9/11,–but also, much smaller events as well. In lots of newsrooms, that won’t make the cut.
(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
Since Aug. 29, 2005, we in New Orleans have had a lot on our plate locally, so brawls over sexual abuse, same sex marriage, Manhattan mosques and President Obama’s secret faith don’t get real purchase here. However, it has been immensely interesting to watch faith groups pitch in on the rebuilding of New Orleans, each following a command heard slightly differently, according to their tradition. We’ll keep watching that.
(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because faith-and everybody believes something–is the way we interpret the world, period. What was the meaning of the hurricane? Am I supposed to assist? Who shall I choose as a spouse? Who shall I vote for? Is this immigration policy just? How do I know? Basic stuff.
(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
So a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into this bar, and … Oops, wrong cue. Let’s give irony a try. This is Louisiana, home of U.S. Senator David Vitter, one of the most vocal family values champions in that body-before and after he was exposed as a regular customer in a prostitution ring. Perhaps you have someone similar near you. They seem to be proliferating, no?
BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Okay, these are hard times. The old struggle to get religion news in the newsroom hierarchy of values endures, with new challenges: not enough bodies; new technologies to learn, you know the drill. But there’s a lot of wisdom out there; some best practices worth studying; smart colleagues to consult. The hive is trying to work this out. If at all possible, try to make it to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver in late September. And one more piece of irony: I can’t make it this year. I’ll miss you, but catch you later.