A religious journalist on religion journalism

I have often wondered whether someone who is personally religious would have the guts to uncover a Watergate-like story in his or her own faith tradition. When I read AP reporter Tom Breen’s analogy of a sports fan covering sports, it reinforced the idea for me that someone who is religious could indeed pursue religion journalism just as aggressively as anyone else.

At least one reader, though, was surprised that anyone could arrive where Breen did as he found his way towards the Catholic Church. Mediabistro’s Matthew Fleischer could not fathom how anyone could report on the sex abuse scandals and find faith.

Having covered elements of the scandal myself, this seemed too improbable for words. How could anyone come to believe in the divine sanctity of the Catholic Church while reporting about how, for years, it covered up the sexual abuse of minors and protected the priests who were guilty of these crimes? We emailed Breen to ask him for some clarification.

And here is how Breen responded:

“The coverage of the scandal was the motivation to learn more about Catholicism, and I really can’t overstate the extent of my ignorance at the time; I mean, I couldn’t even name all the sacraments, let alone explain them. So my desire to get up to speed wasn’t just a desire to learn about the context of the scandals, it was an effort to learn, basically, everything I could, from church history to theology to the formal name for that hat bishops wear. It was through that effort – which lasted for years, and took in everything from lots of reading to hanging around pilgrimage sites and talking to people – that I eventually decided Catholicism was for me.”

And back to Fleischer:

To each his own. The Catholic Church undoubtedly has a rich cultural tradition that draws many to the fold. And the Church is certainly bigger than Cardinal Mahony and crew. But it’s still tough for us to understand choosing to believe in the sanctity of any entity that has people like that under/holding its umbrella.

Even if you are not Catholic, you could see this response as fairly flippant. Fleischer doesn’t really take seriously the idea that people become religious through very different paths. Many know the pitfalls of a religious institution and its followers yet find the logic (or other elements) attractive.

But back to the idea of religious journalists cover religion, if you look back at the original post, you’ll see some additional contributions from our readers, including one from A. E. P. Wall:

Editors don’t assign reporters who are anarchists to cover the legal beat. They don’t assign Christian Science practitioners to cover the medical beat. They don’t cover baseball with a reporter who doesn’t go to games. Yet they sometimes assign atheists to cover the religion beat. Alas, newspapers are disappearing faster than churches.

I think an atheist could be an excellent religion reporter, perhaps someone who has personally studied religion. I have heard some journalists suggest that if you are religious, your objectivity could be called into question, but someone who has studied it can see how people take religion seriously and how it can impact every day decisions. Nicole Neroulias suggested the idea of Religion Newswriters Association hosting a panel on the idea at its annual conference.

I’d love RNA to hold a conference session on religion reporters losing or finding faith on the beat. Has that happened before? (I haven’t seen one in the past six years, but perhaps there was one in the early 2000s, around the time of the Catholic abuse scandal?) Breen and Lobdell could both sit on the panel, among others.

This could be a potentially interesting panel. Often journalists are so intent on taking themselves out of the story (for many good reasons), that we might neglect the idea that our own backgrounds shape the way we cover religion.

People who are strongly religious probably probably aren’t terribly excited about covering their own faith in a less pleasing light, but they are completely capable of doing it in a journalistic way or may even be the best person to pursue those angles. For instance, if you believe that expressing truth is a core tenet of your faith, then journalism is just one way of expressing truth, whether the story is lovely or not so lovely.

Warning label via Tom Scott.

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  • Theophile

    Hi Sarah,
    I guess Breen hasn’t read Foxes book of Martyrs, like most modern Christians. After years of study, I came to the conclusion that the Sabbath was not moved by God or Jesus, to the day of the sun god Baal, that happened 300 years after Christ, at the council of Laodicea, this is big news, just like December 25 is Tammuz’z birthday, not Jesus’s birthday, and the most repeated date in the Bible is Passover, completely ignored by the “church” to celebrate Pagan Ishtar(Easter), the day Herod celebrated while planning to kill Peter. When it comes to religion, religious people really don’t want to hear anything other than shallow tradition, or the latest scandal, and Atheists think they are all silly.

  • Martha

    Theophile, as any fule kno, December 25th is not the birthday of Tammuz, it is the festival of Sol Invictus and perhaps even associated with Mithra.

    Moving on from loosely-veiled paganism, would Mr. Fleischer have the same attitude if someone asked how we can believe in journalism when characters such as Johann Hari and Jayson Blair were under/holding the umbrella of same?

    Everyone dislikes it when his own ox is gored.

  • sari

    Sarah, It seems that you’re saying that the ideal religion journalist is one with integrity, curiosity, and objectivity, and that these can exist independently of one’s religious beliefs. I agree.

    “Editors don’t assign reporters who are anarchists to cover the legal beat. They don’t assign Christian Science practitioners to cover the medical beat. They don’t cover baseball with a reporter who doesn’t go to games. Yet they sometimes assign atheists to cover the religion beat. Alas, newspapers are disappearing faster than churches.”

    These are poor analogies. The sports reporter who covers baseball games needs to *know* the game, it’s rules, players, teams, etc., otherwise s/he will sound like a moron (and soon be unemployed). And why shouldn’t an anarchist cover the legal beat? The ideal should be person willing to invest the time and effort to accrue a solid knowledge base in a given area, not a “religious” litmus test.

  • David Morris

    I think Andrew Brown of the Guardian would fit the part. As I recall, he lost his own faith in covering religion, and is now an agnostic. He is pretty fair.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Many know the pitfalls of a religious institution and its followers yet find the logic (or other elements) attractive.

    Exactly!
    My favorite professor in journalism school had covered all kinds of sports scandals as a reporter (Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, etc. etc. etc.), but he still got excited when the Cubs played :)

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I would like to delete Theophile but then Martha’s would stand alone. So enough of you have voted the comment down that maybe it’ll disappear. Thanks for the continued discussion.

  • jm

    I very much agree with much of what you say here about the weakness of journalism about religion, and am glad someone outside the reactionary fundamentalist camp is saying it. One can often sense an underlying set of prejudices in the journalist who has donned the mask of objectivity.

    One small correction, and one observation:

    The correction, briefly: in the following sentence, I believe the correct word would be “tenet,” not “tenant.” One’s faith may have tenets, but not, I think, tenants (as interesting as the image might be, and perhaps even worth exploring).

    “For instance, if you believe that expressing truth is a core tenant of your faith, then journalism is just one way of expressing truth, whether the story is lovely or not so lovely.”

    Now the observation: In support of your thesis, I’d suggest that the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick often likes to assume an apparently fair-minded and curious pose in his role as “critic at large,” but his profiles and discussions of Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton inevitably wind their way through a gentle, appreciative, cosmopolitan teasing out of ideas only to lay the groundwork for a really nasty swipe at personal character or ideology that casts everything that has come before into an entirely darker light. It’s a brilliant rhetorical trick, and surely plays well with some readers, but I find it rather nasty and reductive. The Lewis profile, which implied that he was really just a dirty little sadomasochistic pervert at heart, was a masterpiece of hatchet-work, at least to this reader.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    (Minor note: it’s “core tenet“, not “tenant”.)

    I’d say that the best course is to have journalists of many different backgrounds and attachments covering the stories. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see something important; and sometimes it takes an insider.

  • Julia

    Check out Donatism.

    The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. During the persecution some Church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over religious texts to authorities to be publicly burned.[citation needed] These people were called traditores (“people who had handed over”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority under Constantine I, and the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments celebrated by these priests and bishops were invalid.

    There is no guarantee that the people who run the church are saintly – just that the church and its truth will survive somehow until the Lord comes again.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donatism

    I’m not saying you have to agree with any of this, but it is the official explanation about why rotten priests, bishops and Popes don’t invalidate the mission and message of the church.

  • Julia

    I became a revert courtesy of a graduate level class on the Popes at a decidedly secular university where I was the only person in the class with any connection to the Catholic Church. After having quit the church for 10 years, it’s what I learned in that class that got me to take the church seriously, study actual documents and re-join. So I understand where this guy is coming from.

  • Theophile

    Hi Sarah,
    Having been labeled a tenacious apologist for Jesus, I can say that the reason no one has the “guts” to report on their own religion is the response they receive, just like Your response:
    Sarah Pulliam Bailey says:
    October 3, 2011, at 11:42 pm

    I would like to delete Theophile but then Martha’s would stand alone. So enough of you have voted the comment down that maybe it’ll disappear.
    BTW have You read Foxes Martyrs?


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