Tweaking the religion beat (2011)

The other day, I posted a few comments about the lengthy Deseret News feature about the fact that many mainstream journalists are still struggling to grasp that religion plays a major role in news at the local, regional, national and global levels. You could see how that kind of a story might interest your GetReligionistas.

Now, I apologize for the delay in posting an online link to the newspaper’s sequel to that important story. This one focuses on newsrooms that are trying new ways to cover religion and other projects (yes, GetReligion is one) that are striving to raise awareness of why it is so crucial for more mainstream scribes to “get it” and, thus, connect more readers to more valid stories.

Well, part II opens with what must be considered an archetypal anecdote about the gap between the lives and experiences of many or most journalists and the world of religion, as it is lived out by millions and millions of believers. The star of the anecdote is a friend of this weblog who, alas, was only able to write for us for a few weeks before he decided that the pace of blog work did not fit him.

This is long, but important:

On the first day of Ari Goldman’s “Covering Religion” class at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he likes to begin with a question.

“How many of you have ever been to a mosque?”

About two of the 16 students typically raise their hands.”How many of you have been to a synagogue?”

About half raise their hands.

“To a church?”

Almost all hands go up.

“In the last 10 years?”

Hands go down again.

Goldman’s first goal is to bring his students up to a level of religious literacy.

“Before I can teach (students) how to write about religion, I have to teach (them) some religion,” Goldman said. “I’m not just training religion writers, I’m training reporters who can see a religion angle in a bigger story and not just dismiss it as superstition or fear.”

A lot has changed in the 17 years since Goldman began teaching aspiring journalists about religion. The rise of the Internet and the shifting economics of news production have turned the journalism industry upside down, leaving graduating students — especially those who aspire to a specialty beat like religion — wondering about their future. And with massive changes in journalism, even veteran reporters live with uncertainty. News organizations are struggling to adjust and to cover stories about religion with fewer religion reporters. At the same time, they are recognizing new outlets for religion news and commentary on the Internet and are scrambling to keep up with growing interest in stories about faith.

The discussion then leads to some bullet points about a variety of people who are fighting the good fight, from veterans such as Kim Lawton at the PBS “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” to the Belief Blog team at CNN. There are shout-outs for the Ethics & Public Policy Center as well as the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The ongoing efforts to firm-up support for Religion News Service show up, as they should.

Please read the whole story and then name (and provide URLs) for some other efforts along these lines — but not those based in opinion sites — that could or should have been mentioned.

At the same time, however, let me stress that the earlier anecdote about Goldman’s classroom work may seem like yet another case of pointing fingers at the “secular,” “godless” media. If you thought that, please go back and read it again.

The gap is not so much one of practicing religion as getting the facts straight. Yes, it does help if journalists can at least acknowledge — at the intellectual level — that religious practice matters and, in fact, helps shape the beliefs and actions of a majority of people on this planet. Thus, a failure to “get religion” hurts journalism.

I just wanted to be clear about that, since this is a relentlessly pro-journalism weblog and we don’t like strawmen. Here’s how I stated that issue the other day, in my first post on the Deseret Newsstories.

I want to stress, as I have for decades, is that people who study this issue must hold two truths in tension.

Yes, it matters that journalists are, as a rule, more secular then ordinary Americans or that journalists tend to fall into the vaguely “spiritual” camp rather than doctrinally “religious” camp. But the key is whether the journalists grasp the importance of religion in shaping life in this culture and almost every other culture on earth, to one degree or another. I know believers on the beat who get that. I know totally secular journalists who get that and do fantastic jobs.

Here is Goldman again, making a similar point at the end of Part II.

As reporters become better versed in religion and cover religion stories well, they become educators, says Columbia University’s Goldman.

“They are someone who can raise the religious literacy of a newspaper’s readers,” he said. “You need people who can see the missing piece. And not everyone can. That’s why I’m trying to do that work and teach people about religion, so that they cover these stories more intelligently and fully.”

Ari would be the first to say that this process begins with respect for the religious views of a wide variety of believers and the ability to get the facts straight about issues of doctrine, ritual, history, etc.

Read the latest piece from Utah and then discuss.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    The statistic that the CNN belief blog is getting so many views should cause someone to wake up somewhere. At least it’s a gateway to decide what stories to cover on TV. That’s one use that had not occurred to me.

    I also have been visiting http://newstrust.net/religion from time-to-time. Maybe someday you’ll review how they’re doing?


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