Nobody knows how to handle religion news?

Anyone who has followed religion coverage in the mainstream press in recent decades should be familiar with the byline of Don Lattin.

While he is best known for his years of work at the San Francisco Chronicle, he has also done consulting work with the news pros at CNN, ABC, NBC and elsewhere. GetReligion readers may also be familiar with some of his books, such as “Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today” and “The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America.”

In other words, the guy has been around. He’s a God-beat veteran, any way you want to look at it.

Just the other day, Lattin dropped in on the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature, which was meeting in, as he puts it, “Baghdad on the Bay.” This leads to the following weblog commentary on one of the sessions that certainly would have been of interest to GetReligion readers.

… I made the mistake of stumbling into a panel of (except for KQED’s Michael Krasny) East Coast media elite telling the assembled professors how to get their bright ideas picked up by what we used to call “the popular press.” That was back in the day when people still got their news in the form of something called a “newspaper.” …

I was somewhere between bemused and enraged when Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, the ultimate inside-the-Beltway celebrity journalist, explained how she looked across the vast media landscape five years ago and discovered that no one in the news business had figured out that Americans really care about religion and that there are a bunch of great stories out there just waiting to be told.

As someone who covered the religion beat for 25 years, I thought I’d gotten used to the fact that leading newspaper publishers, managing editors, network television producers and others who claim to speak for the “news media” rediscover the religion beat about every five years.

I almost raised my hand to remind the assembly that there has been something called the Religion Newswriters Association. It’s been in business since the 1940s and has over the last few generations given awards to hundreds of fine journalists who have produced lively, informative, heart-felt stories about religion in America and elsewhere on the planet. And, no, they were not all hacks writing the Sermon of the Week for the Saturday church page. And — unlike myself — many of them are still plying their trade at big, medium and small newspapers across the country, even more overworked and underpayed and underappreciated than ever.

But I kept my mouth shut.

I would assume that, as a matter of timing, Quinn’s remarks that day were similar to those she offered to “On Faith” readers in an online meditation about what she has learned in the five years since the launching of this Washington Post commentary and (increasingly) news content site. Her commentary begins like this:

It was five years ago this month that we launched On Faith. The idea was to inform and educate about all faiths (and no faith) and to initiate an on-going discussion about the role of religion, values and ethics in our daily lives. I hoped that after learning more, people would become more accepting of those who held different beliefs. Pluralism was the goal.

I have never been so enthralled, learned so much or been so fulfilled by any subject so much as this. It has totally changed my perspective on life. It was clearly what I was meant to do. …

What follows are her thoughts on five subjects related to the commentary side of this sprawling website. The bullet points will surprise few readers who are familiar with her work.

1. Nobody knows.

2. All religions are the same — and not.

3. Everything is about religion.

4. We are all looking for meaning.

5. Why there is suffering.

Lattin may have been able to keep his mouth shut, but I cannot.

First, please read her commentary because I think, on one level, that it speaks for itself. It also helps to know that Quinn used to refer to herself as an atheist but, after face-to-face evangelism by Jon Meacham (the original co-founder of “On Faith”), she has decided to simply call herself a “learner.”

Her personal remarks are interesting. Nevertheless, it’s impossible for me not to read her commentary in a journalism context. All along, my questions about the “On Faith” project have been journalistic questions, questions rooted in my conviction that all kinds of journalists — believers and unbelievers — have done exceptionally good work on the religion beat. However, their goal was journalism. It has always seemed that Quinn’s goals are not essentially journalistic — they are educational and therapeutic.

Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that the Post employs several professionals who, as a rule, do an good job of writing about religion as journalism. This was true before “On Faith” was born and that continues to be the case today. The fact that their journalism appears in “On Faith” in various forms is a journalistic plus. Readers can only hope that trend continues and expands.

Meanwhile, “On Faith” has tweaked its commentary-driven approach to include other hard-news content, including extensive space for the work of the professionals at the Religion News Service. I think that’s a big plus, as well, since GetReligion is pro journalism.

The key question, once again, is why Quinn is convinced that religion — as opposed to dozens of other complex and mysterious subjects covered by journalists — must exclusively be viewed through a lens of feelings, emotions, opinions and, thus, commentary. Is religion, in effect, too dangerous to cover as news? Trust me, I know that religious doctrines, traditions, beliefs and emotions, when combined, can be volatile and hard for journalists to handle in an accurate, balanced and professional manner. However, this is not a valid reason to flip a switch and assume that this journalistic task is impossible. Quite the opposite.

What does Quinn mean when she says that the first lesson she has learned through “On Faith” is that, “Nobody knows”? On one level, this is a simple truth about a wide variety of topics — politics, fine arts, economics and sports leap to mind — in which it is impossible to nail down many crucial variables in a laboratory.

As I have stated many times, it’s hard to write a simple declarative sentence stating that “prayers can heal.” There is fascinating evidence on both sides of that debate, some of which has been produced in settings such as the Harvard Medical School.

Journalists who want to cover that story must strive to accurately quote authorities and believers on both sides. No one knows, after all, that prayers have no impact. We do, however, know that millions of people believe in the power of prayer and that these beliefs help shape their lives and actions. That’s a fact. We know that. We also know that different religious traditions have very specific doctrines, traditions and beliefs about prayer and that it would be bad journalism to confuse them or to mangle the factual details of those teachings. That’s a fact. We know that.

If “no one knows” is the guiding principle, then right-wing blowhards are telling the truth when they say that they think that President Barack Obama is actually a Muslim. It is a fact, of course, that he walked down an aisle in a liberal Christian congregation and made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. It is a fact that he has shared his Christian testimony in a wide variety of settings. But, hey, no one knows. Right?

Think this through. The first thing we know is that no one knows. The one fact we know is that facts do not matter. Thus, religion is a subject that is best addressed through opinion and commentary, not journalism.

This scares me, quite frankly. This belief about beliefs could lead major journalists to conclude that there is no need to attempt balanced, fair, accurate journalism on topics linked to religion. Is that right, Bill Keller?

After an earlier “on Faith” mini-storm, I summed up my journalistic convictions this way:

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people — left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call “fringe.” Facts and doctrine matter to religious people, even to people who are very specific and highly creedal about the doctrines that they reject. I have interviewed many an atheist who had more doctrines in his anti-creed than I recite in the Nicene Creed.

This isn’t about emotions and feelings. It’s about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion.

I still believe that. I know many other mainstream journalists who still believe that, too. And that’s a fact.

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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.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Bravo, tmatt.

  • Bob Smietana


  • Jerry

    it’s impossible for me not to read her commentary in a journalism context. All along, my questions about the “On Faith” project have been journalistic questions,

    Your points about journalism are accurate. But your inability to read and comment on what she wrote from the frame-of-reference she wrote in is unfortunate because that conflation between what she wrote and what you extracted distorted her views.

    No where in that posting did she denigrate the journalistic coverage of religion and say that facts don’t matter. She was not writing about journalism but instead about her own personal and quite intimate reflections on what she’s learned. Those are obviously separate things.

    And simply listing her five points as you did distorts them because it removes what she wrote about those points. Listing them simply in and of itself distorts the meaning so I’m glad you suggested we read her musings on what she’s learned.

    1. Nobody knows.

    2. All religions are the same — and not.

    3. Everything is about religion.

    4. We are all looking for meaning.

    5. Why there is suffering.

    #1 “nobody knows” can sound totally dismissive but she did not discuss it that way. I would have loved to have asked her about such luminous figures as St. Francis, who, according to history, did have the knowing that goes beyond faith.

    #2 is a classic statement which many subscribe to as a search on essential truths of all religions illustrates.

    #3 I’m sure you agree with since it’s a statement that there’s a religious, moral, component to everything in life.

    #4 is my experience as well. Even if we have a strong religious faith, we look for meaning in events by, for example, searching in scripture.

    #5 is a classic statement about theodicy so you should be nodding your head yes when she brings it up.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Yeesh. Has Sally Quinn ever attended a Religion Newswriters Association conference? (On Faith’s Elizabeth Tenety is a regular presence – and hey, she and Quinn won third place in one of the recent awards.)

    In related news, there are TWO events coming up in New York City that will provide more insight into the fact-based side of faith-based news – 11/30 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, 12/14 at the Huffington Post. Good opportunities for religion reporters and other interested parties to compare notes on this issue.

  • Dan

    “Nobody knows”….what? There are modern philosophies that posit that no one can know anything (not even whether your own hand exists) but I do not think that is what Sally Quinn is referring to. She probably means that 1. no one can know with certainty whether God exists, or 2. no one knows what the nature of God is, or 3. no one can know the full truth about every mystery in the universe. Thomas Aquinas, with formidable reasoning, concludes that she is wrong about 1., and partly right about 2. (we can only say what God is not, although one can speak about God by analogy). Aquinas and the Catholic Church would agree with her about 3.

  • Bob Smietana

    I do think Sally has got point when it comes to lived religion. It’s very messy and individualized and often about the big questions suffering and the meaning of life.
    What’s missing is the corporate/historical/theological/brick and mortar system that religion is lived out in. It’s a very gnostic view of religion reporting faith — where the spirit matters but not the body.

  • Chas Clifton

    Yes, indeed. I am glad that I was too overbooked at the AAR-SBL to attend that session. Don’t know if I could have been as polite as Lattin was.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I appreciate the emphasis on reporting facts about religious belief and practice. When we are willing to settle for mere opinion, there are huge gaps of ignorance that are manifest. Much of the prejudice that leads to discrimination against minority religions arises out of ignorance, and sadly an ignorance that is purposely nurtured by some pastors who want to control what their congregants think about other religions. Apparently, many people don’t think lying about another religious group violates the commandment against bearing false witness against your neighbor.

  • Christine A. Scheller

    I appreciated this post tmatt because as a journalist who generally prefers transparency to “objectivity” that can easily veil bias, it’s good to read a reminder that the relentless pursuit of truth is a clear and achievable goal, no matter what style of journalism one prefers.

  • Julia

    Sally Quinn:
    1) Nobody knows

    The pope is an agnostic. We may believe but we don’t know.

    What?? Sally doesn’t understand the use of the term agnostic – it’s a self-description, not one that is imposed on others. The Pope would not describe himself as an agnostic.

    2) All religions are the same – and not

    I took a three-week tour around the world to study “The Great Faiths.” It was a remarkable, if exhausting, trip to Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, India (Amritsar on the Ganges), China, Tibet, Japan, India Again (the Sikh Golden Temple) Ethiopia, Albania and Turkey.

    Not even a semester class on comparative religions?

    3) Everything is about religion.
    Almost agree with her on this.

    4) We are all looking for meaning.
    Agree with her on the 3 essential questions:

    Who am I? Why am I here? What then must I do?

    5) Why there is suffering.
    After seeing her father’s photo of Dachau

    That’s when I stopped believing in God. I couldn’t believe that a loving God could allow such suffering. I never prayed again.

    This is the reason given by many as to why Europeans are becoming secular/atheists. They are tired of endless horrible wars and have become cynical. Why is she still interested in religion if she can’t believe there is a

    Her concluding statements:

    I don’t understand the concept of having no tolerance for the beliefs of others or the notion that there is only one true religion.

    People can have tolerance of others’ beliefs in all kinds of other situations without holding that there is no objective reality; why does she treat religion differently? Don’t journalists strive to report objectively? She is confusing reality with attitudes toward perceived reality.

    God is what you or I or anyone else says God is.

    Sounds like she thinks God is a mental construct to make ourselves feel better. But she plays nice with the poor benighted folks who actually believe in their mental constructs. I prefer the straight talk from my atheist friends.

    She is missing or ignores the ancient well-thought-out theologies of the great world religions and instead focuses on individual feelings and musings. Her knowledge of religion is superficial and anecdotal.

    Ms. Quinn does not take religion seriously. I get the feeling reading her comments that she thinks believers are amusing and quaint. I avoid “On Faith” like the plague and don’t understand why any believers would read it.

  • Robert King

    It has always seemed that Quinn’s goals are not essentially journalistic — they are educational and therapeutic.

    The distinction between “journalistic” and “therapeutic” is fairly clear to me. But I’m not as clear on the difference between “journalistic” and “educational.” That is, I recognize there are various differences and similarities between journalism and education, but I’m not clear on what difference you mean to emphasize.

    For example, both journalism and education seek to inform someone of something he/she did not know before. Both disciplines approach this task in a variety of ways, some of which overlap.

    Since I’m not a professional journalist, and have no formal training in the journalistic arts, I could be missing a distinction that better educated journalists take for granted. So I apologize if I’m asking a silly question.