Where to start? My name is Jay Grelen and, while I am not a religion-beat specialist, I may be the only reporter in the history of the journalism racket who has been ordered by a newspaper editor to put more God into a story for a major-market mainstream newspaper.
That story goes like this. As I was finishing up a feature I had written about a street preacher for the Denver Post in the mid-1980s, my boss ordered up a revised version of my text that was so specific the guy could have used it in his street ministry.
The young evangelist walked the 16th Street Mall in Denver, and he was a frequent passenger on the 16th Street Trolleys to Nowhwere. He was gentle, winsome, his brown hair longish but clean, often preaching but never yelling, and highly visible. A natural subject for the sort of people-centric stories that I prefer to write. So I visited with him over several days and at least one mighty fine fried-catfish po-boy (yes, in downtown Denver) and wrote a story.
As always you must when you write about God for a newspaper, you must be careful that you not include too many words about God.
So in telling the story of this apostle’s journey from his upper middle class home up north to his current mission, I was careful. Too careful, as it turned out. When my boss called me in to discuss the story, her primary question concerned one sentence I had written, which was that our young preacher had come from a church-going home but not a “Christian home.”
“How can that be?” she asked.
So I walked her down the basics on Romans and the road to salvation, virgin birth to resurrection, everything but quoting John 3:16.
To which she replied: You need to explain all of that in the story.
So I did.
What’s the point? In my 30-something years in the news business, since my antediluvian graduation from Louisiana Tech, I have found ignorance about things religious among my newsroom colleagues far more often than malevolence. Some co-workers have been hostile, which is not unique to the news business though more consequential; many more, however, simply are without a fact-based clue, which sometimes manifests as hostility in conversation.
More than one editor has told me that I put too much God in my stories, although none ever has redacted God once I had written Him into a story. (I still prefer to capitalize the pronouns.) You see, an editor who insists upon accuracy and thoroughness can’t very well argue that a writer should ignore the facts and language of faith if they are clearly part of a person’s life.
When religion is part of a person’s story, the reporter must note it. Otherwise the report is incomplete, if not dishonest. Facts are facts. Motives are motives. I should also add that never, ever has a reader of my work complained because I think that it’s important to “get religion” in news coverage.
My life and writing, of course, are informed by my life as a Southern Baptist — cradle-(and likely)-to-grave. I am genetically Texan (but never have lived under the Lone Star state) and grew up way Southern. My beautiful young adult daughters have enjoyed the same advantages — Southern and Southern Baptist.
I’ve worked as a reporter and columnist in a host of cities, mostly in the South, and I am currently busy on the copy desk of the Arkansas Democrat. The editors have approved me writing at this blog, but I will be avoiding — of course — critiques of my own newspaper (Hello Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood) and others in the immediate vicinity. In other words, I remain active in the mainstream.
When I’m not writing, I’m riding a bicycle or washing driveways and houses with high-pressure streams of water. My mid-life red convertible is a 4,000 psi power washing rig in a little sideline biz I call the Bigfoot Storytelling, Sweet Tea & House Washing Society. (Think Charles Kuralt washes America and I do have big feet — size 14.) I enter the GetReligion family at the invitation of Terry Mattingly, whom I have known since the days he worked for the other paper in Denver (which, by the way, didn’t survive Terry’s departure and has since closed).
I had read tmatt’s work as the religion editor at the Rocky Mountain News for four years before I actually met him. In October 1989, Madeleine “Wrinkle in Time” L’Engle visited Denver for a conference; for a reason long-forgotten, Terry and I interviewed her at the same time, an interview I remember for having met two writers I admired. Not only does Professor Mattingly not remember that meeting as our first, tmatt doesn’t even recall that I was there at all. (Editor’s note: The reality is a bit more complicated than that and there is a tape recording of the session. ‘Tis a mystery.)
But I’m here now, with fresh ribbon in Mama’s old Royal manual typewriter, to join in pleading the case: Journalists who want to thoroughly and honestly write about real people and real events in the real world need to get religion.