Faith on obituary beat: Paul Vitello’s shift at the NYTs

One of my first assignments during a newspaper internship in college was obituaries, fairly tedious writing with no byline for a much desired clip. I will never forget how my editor emphasized how people really do read them and if you get something wrong, family members, already distraught by the loved one’s death, will confront you pretty quickly. Pressure, much?

When a prominent leader dies, we often notice obituaries that either miss or misunderstand the religion side of a prominent figure’s life. But in recent months, I began to notice a new name on the obituary beat at New York Times: Paul Vitello, who used to cover religion.

The Times‘s Public Editor Arthur Brisbane recently wrote on the obituary process at the newspaper, noting the process for how Vitello would cover someone like a lady in Iowa who sculpted cows out of butter.

I talked with Vitello about the idea of the capturing someone’s life in an article, especially when people might expect too much from an obituary. “Obituaries, as the Times presents them, are not necessarily efforts to capture the totality of our subjects’ lives,” Vitello said in an e-mail. “The focus is on capturing the aspects of their lives that most affected history, or the culture, or the fabric of a profession in which they were highly regarded.”

If you can’t necessarily capture every detail, then, how might an obituary writer treat the faith of a public figure’s life?

“If religion was part of a subject’s public life–if he or she made it known that religion was the driving force of the thing they did that affected history, or culture, or the other fields of endeavor I referred to above–then religion is part of the obit,” he said.

Vitello is not on the religion + obituary beat or any other specialty, but based on his religion beat experience, he has covered a few religion-related obituaries. For instanced, he covered the deaths of Vatican Envoy Archbishop Pietro Sambi and “The Death of God” theologian William Hamilton. But not everything necessarily warrants a mention of faith, he said.

“If on the other hand, say, the subject was a deeply religious person, whose values were informed by his or her religious faith, but who was private about it and acted in the public realm without bringing that fact to bear — then it is much less likely to be part of the story,” he said.

There are exceptions to the rule, though. For instance, Vitello wrote about novelist Doris Betts, who did not call herself a Christian writer but wrote with a deeply religious sensibility. He noted that she suggested once that she was frustrated at how little book critics ever said about the religious themes in her work.

Vitello told me his experience covering religion makes him a more alert to uncovering just how much religion played in someone’s life than he otherwise might have, had he come from another beat.

On the other hand, as a writer and reporter you have to weigh to what extent religion is relevant to the story. An example that comes to mind was an obit about a woman who was the daughter of the unmarried Loretta Young and Clark Gable, who was married to someone else at the time.

Young, who was Catholic and refused to have an abortion; adopted the woman, named Judy Lewis, and only later in life acknowledged her as a natural daughter. Gable never acknowledged her. I received mail from readers on that story complaining that I had not made ‘enough’ of Loretta Young’s decision as a Catholic not to have an abortion. In the context of the story, it was certainly a fact worth mentioning, which I did. But it was not a story about Loretta Young. It was about her child, and the strange life into which the child was born as a result of the social mores of the time, which made it impossible for Young to have her baby openly.

I imagine that a religiously-inclined writer could have made poetic use of the fact that Judy Lewis might not otherwise have travelled the long strange trip she successfully and fruitfully travelled, except for her mother’s decision. But that would not have been an obituary. It would have been something else.

Obituary writers, he says, could learn from religion writers in how to find invisible threads of religious tradition sometimes beneath the surface of extraordinary acts and public lives. In reverse, religion writers could learn from the obituary beat about a common sense of purpose that extraordinary people seem to have.

“Sometimes it is driven by religious sensibility, sometimes it is not,” Vitello said. “But in the lives of many of the really great people I have written about, I get a sense of a desire they all share to reach across every line of ‘identity’–religious, ethnic, gender, age–to achieve some kind of beachhead in the universal heart.”

Given that death often conjures up curiosity over what one believed about the afterlife, it’s nice to hear how a reporter might work through whether faith is relevant to every obituary.

Image of newspaper stack via Shutterstock.

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5Q+1: How Kate Shellnutt’s technophilia meshes with religion

We have lamented the Dallas Morning News‘s near departure from religion coverage, but almost simultaneously, we’ve noticed the growth of another religion hub down the Texas road at the Houston Chronicle. Nearly every day, the editor of Houston Belief posts a religion news story on Believe It or Not, as she directs the rest of her team of bloggers in other religion-related coverage.

The lady behind the site is Kate Shellnutt, a religion reporter, blogger and web producer for the Chronicle whose work has earned honors from the Society for Features Journalism and Religion Newswriters Association. Before her time at the Chronicle, she studied religion and journalism at Washington and Lee University and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Shellnutt says her academic background, focusing on religious communities and the Internet, plays into some of her philosophies about Houston Belief as well as her approach to engaging with religious groups on social media. Her thesis was on the digitization of the Bible, and she conducted a sociological study on religious rituals on the web, particularly online confession.

Naturally, you can also find Shellnutt on Twitter (personal & professional) and Facebook, or RSS feed. We asked her to weigh in on how she handles the mix of responsibilities, especially in a climate where the traditional religion reporter’s role could be changing.

You’re editing a mix of opinion and news for the religion site Houston Chronicle and writing news posts. How does religion coverage compare online to what goes in print? Is online a better outlet for the mix of coverage you do?

HoustonBelief.com offers more stories and represents a broader range of faiths on a day-to-day basis than our weekly print section, Belief. The site is newsier and has a social component, with about 20 blogs from community members and active commenters.

Much of what we do on the web feeds into the print section, which typically includes one of my best blog entries from the week, one of our readers’ best entries, a couple wire news stories and a local religion feature story.

Since you probably know exactly how many hits a story sees, how do you see analytics impacting the future of religion news? Do you see numbers that show religion news does well on the Chronicle’s site? Is there a temptation to cover stories just for hits?

I do pay attention to site traffic, and luckily, Houston readers care about religion. Big names like our own Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes always draw in clicks, as do stories about celebrities and faith, news-of-the-weird, the culture wars and certain religious groups, like atheists, Muslims and Mormons. Rather than cover a shallow story solely to draw up site traffic, I try to present thoughtful reporting or timely aggregations in ways that are particularly enticing for online readers—striking headlines, buzzy framing, strong images, etc.

As you assign and edit a mix of opinion, blogging and reporting, do you find yourself managing writers who could turn into sources? Do you think religion reporters at mainstream outlets will fill more of an editor/aggregator role?

The volunteer bloggers for Houston Belief come up with their own story ideas and write their own posts, and they do a great job. I’m here to provide general direction to the group about topics they might want to address or to help with the technical side of the site, but I don’t have editorial control. I try to avoid quoting Houston Belief contributors in my coverage, but I often ask them to recommend friends, leaders, organizations or events for stories. They’ve been very helpful connecting me with their religious communities.

Like many others covering religion for a newspaper, I split my time between this beat and several other tasks. Bringing in community bloggers and aggregating news stories when possible make my job more manageable. For religion reporters who work on the web (or are responsible for a web component), I think these strategies allow them to keep readers interested and updated in a time-efficient way.

The Dallas Morning News once had a robust religion section, which turned into a robust religion blog before the paper decided to focus energies elsewhere. Is there something about Texas that makes religion coverage tricky?

This change happened years before I lived in Texas, but I would assume the decision to scale back on religion coverage wasn’t because of the religious landscape in Texas, but the financial situation of the paper. Religion sections can be hard to maintain ad-wise because often the most interested parties—churches, non-profits, schools, etc.—aren’t dropping as much money on advertising as companies may spend in other sections. At the Chronicle, our Belief section in print has gotten a little smaller over the past few years, but HoustonBelief.com is getting more traffic than ever.

Several journalists seemed to resonate with Steve Buttry’s post “Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon…” Do you think religion reporters could become a bit more open to new media? How would you recommend they start harnessing newer technology better?

I think all reporters should be more open to new media. For religion reporters, it’s especially essential because (as I mentioned at the Religion Newswriters Association panel on social media) our sources and our readers are online. America’s most influential pastors, churches and religious leaders—for the most part—are blogging, tweeting, Facebook-ing and Instagram-ing. If we’re unplugged, we miss the chance to follow them, learn more about them and pick up on news stories.

If you’re hesitant or consider yourself technology-impaired, it’s fine to start by “lurking,” that is, tracking online activity without engaging just yet. Start following blogs and social media accounts relevant to your interests or your beat. Take note about what you like about the best ones (what info they shared, how often they posted, tone, etc.) and keep that in mind when you do decide to begin your own.

Where do you get your news about religion? Do you seek out sources for watching news different than religion reporters have in the past (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)?

I absolutely rely on the Internet for religion news and story ideas. I follow local and national religious leaders and organizations on Twitter and Facebook. Because they’re updated so often, I can get more news and context than I would from a press release, bulletin or even a quick conversation with a pastor.

Every day, I read popular personal blogs written by people of faith, blogs by religion reporters and articles in religion journal and publications, in addition to following wire stories. There’s a huge amount of information out there, and I’ve become a filter for sharing, retweeting or contextualizing what’s most relevant and interesting to the HoustonBelief.com audience.

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5Q+1: Mark Oppenheimer on belief & skepticism

We usually stay away from critiquing columns here since we focus on mainstream coverage of religion news. Occasionally, though, a columnist will use reporting to make claims about the state of religion.

Along with many others at the New York Times, we regularly read Mark Oppeneheimer, who writes a regular biweekly religion column for the Times. For the past few years, we’ve read and discussed his work, so we thought we’d talk to him about where he’s coming from and what he hopes to accomplish in his writing.

Oppenheimer holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Yale and has written for Books & Culture, The Christian Century, The Forward, and Tablet (the Jewish one, not the Catholic one), among other publications. He also authored three books: Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, and Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate.

He, his wife, three daughter and two dogs live in New Haven, Connecticut. You can find him through his columns, on his blog, Twitter and Facebook. Here’s what Oppenheimer had to say about his role in religion coverage.

What kinds of issues do religion columnists navigate that might be different from others kinds of columnists? How can religion columnists cover old ideas in new ways?

First off, I think it’s weird that I am a “columnist.” At the Times, that largely means that I am freer to write stuff that has no obvious news peg. But I still believe in reporting, and in striving to be fair. I have a point of view, but I try not to be polemical or argumentative.

But to answer your question, I think we have one huge problem: we often are describing beliefs for which there is no evidence of the traditional kind. That does not mean those beliefs are stupid or to be scorned, but if they were new beliefs we’d often treat their holders as quite mad. Religions gain respectability with age, for better or worse. Believing in a messiah who died two thousand years ago is okay — so is believing in one who is yet to come — but believing in one who stands outside your building with a sandwich board is ridiculous. Those are the terms of the discussion. Even a religiously observant and devout reporter has to admit there is something queer about that. There are good reasons the discussion is held that way, but it troubles me sometimes.

How would you describe the advocacy or point of view you’re trying to get across in your columns?

Wow! What a loaded question. Advocacy? I advocate for good journalism. I am often writing short profiles of people, and so in 900 words I try to portray them fairly and accurately. I hope they would recognize themselves in my portraits. I also hope people who know them well would recognize them.

When you profile individuals, is there a temptation to portray them too positively?

Of course. I like most people, so I am often seduced into portraying them more positively than I should. Journalists are supposed to be skeptics. If someone says “Christ died on the cross,” we should say, “How do you know?” We should want to know what happens to the money in the collection plates; whether priests who preach against masturbation have ever masturbated; whether rabbis sneak a snack on Yom Kippur. Especially with clergy, there is a temptation to think them better than other people; as one example, we give them honorifics: “Father,” “Rabbi,” “Monsignor.” I’d prefer “Mister” and “Ms.” They are people. Any time a journalist gets too reverent, we have a problem.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media are having a hard time grasping?

I think we are always misunderstanding the connection between professed belief and behavior. I often read surveys that suggest that religious belief has almost no influence on key behaviors: premarital sex, abortion, crime, etc. The one exception seems to be charitable giving (although it’s unclear how the stats would shake out if we excluded church giving and tithing from charitable giving). But basically I don’t really know how coming to Christ, or getting deeply involved in a mosque, or whatever, changes people’s private morality or their citizenship. We haven’t even begun to figure out what questions to ask.

What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I don’t know. But I have been very interested in divorce lately. Annulments are given quite freely in Catholicism, the stigma is largely gone in evangelicalism, and Orthodox Jews are searching for a way to help women secure divorce rights (only the Orthodox Jewish man can give a religious divorce). Meanwhile, we have gay men and lesbians marrying, and we don’t know at what rates they will divorce. So a lot of interesting questions out there…

Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

It’s not skeptical enough. I blame myself, but I blame all of us. We either treat religion with reverence, or we treat is as a human-interest curiosity — but we rarely treat it as a vice-filled human institution in need of investigative reporting. And we all suffer for that, religious people most of all. Think how much pain we could have spared Roman Catholics if we, as the media, had investigated the behavior of a vicious minority of priests decades earlier. If we could crack Watergate in 1972-1974, maybe we could have cracked some scandals in organized religion, too. And one tragic thing is that many religious people think the mainstream media is too critical of religion, when the truth is that the mainstream media is not critical enough. It misunderstands religion, sure — but is still oddly hands-off and reverent. And again, it’s the people in the pews who suffer. It’s not the children of atheists who were being molested.

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Luo on Linsanity, faith and ethnicity

Linsanity is alive and well tonight as Jeremy Lin gave New York a nice Valentine’s Day present: a last-second three-pointer to nail the Knicks’ win over the Raptors.

As journalists are trying to capture Lin’s rise to popularity in the NBA, some might look to Poynter for tips for how to cover the phenomenon, potential pits to watch for and story ideas to consider. Naturally the organization offered some tips for covering the Linsanity phenomenom. In trying to capture the uniqueness of Lin’s story, Poynter urges journalists to avoid falling into stereotypes when covering an Asian American Harvard graduate who is a “devout Christian.”

When you think of “Ivy League grad,” what stereotypes come to mind? Brainy, elitist, arrogant? “Asian American man”– inscrutable, passive, reserved? “Devout Christian” — judgmental, moralistic, holier than thou?

There’s nothing like a “judgmental, moralistic, holier than thou” description to hammer down what journalists think of when they think “devout Christian.” Thankfully, though, the author pointed journalists to Michael Luo’s first-person narrative in the New York Times, where Luo compared his own background as an Asian American Christian who went to Harvard to give examples for why the basketball star has particularly resonated with so many people. Luo isn’t usually in first-person mode. He is an investigative reporter for the Times who has also worked at the Associated Press, Newsday and The Los Angeles Times. We looked at the piece a few days ago and saw a few pieces of background on his Twitter feed, but we thought it would be interesting to talk directly to Luo about religion and ethnicity, why he felt vulnerable writing his piece and the state of religion and the media.

You have gotten quite a bit of response to your first-person piece on Jeremy Lin. Do you think the media misses potential distinctions when covering religion and ethnicity?

Yes, the response on Twitter, Facebook and in reader emails has been pretty stunning. More than 1,500 people tweeted the story link, according to Topsy.com, the social media search engine. At one point over the weekend, it was the most tweeted story on nytimes.com, other than our Whitney Houston obituary. All this for a little essay than ran in the back of the Sports section in the print edition.

In response to your question, I grappled a good bit with what exactly I could say in my essay that was new and potentially instructive about Jeremy Lin. I thought about just explaining my emotional connection as an Asian American, which is arguably applicable to a broader swathe of people. But I realized writing about him as an Asian American Christian, specifically, could be illuminating, because it is a sub-category on the religious continuum that is not widely known. It is also a huge part of Lin’s identity. Understanding that he is an Asian American Christian, specifically, is important to understanding him, I felt. Of course, that is not what the entire piece was about. I was trying to explain this welter of emotions inside of me that he evokes and this multi-layered sense of connection.

Certainly, there is a danger in lumping all theologically conservative Christians, or “evangelicals,” together, because there are distinct differences in the histories, cultural milieus and general orientations of white, black, Asian and Latino evangelicals. Has the media papered over these distinctions? Sure. Part of it is our under-coverage of religion in general. The other part of it is just getting out there and covering these communities in thoughtful, in-depth ways.

When you tweeted that it was a vulnerable column, did you feel like you were risking something by writing about yourself? How do you think reporters who are open about their faith are perceived internally at their media outlets or externally as a reporter?

As a journalist, my instinct, in general, is to shy away from making myself the story in any way. The risk in identifying myself, as I did in the article, as one of these “every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the Bible-and-pray” types is on two levels. There’s the personal risk in terms of what others might think of me, whether they will instinctively try to put me in a certain box, or ascribe certain stereotypes onto me, which no one likes. There’s also the journalistic risk, in terms of whether it might affect my ability to do my job and be credible as an objective journalist. I weighed the latter a good bit with Joe Sexton, the sports editor, and Phi Corbett, the Times’ standards editor. Both thought that the piece did not cross any inappropriate boundaries.

A top-tier newspaper is like any other institution filled with a lot of highly educated people, many from elite schools. Religious belief is not the rule, but I would contend that there are more committed Christians and others who take their faiths seriously at the New York Times than you might think. I’m definitely not the only one. In terms of how reporters who are open about their faiths are perceived, I don’t know exactly what people think of me privately. Have there been times, with a comment here, or a remark there, when I have felt uncomfortable as a Christian? Yes, certainly. But I can also say that it has never been held against me at the newspaper. In fact, I think higher-ups at the paper consider it an asset, just as it’s an asset to have people of varying racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and life experiences at the paper.

You wrote, “I like to think of my approach to faith as nuanced and not fitting easily into anyone’s standard boxes.” Do you think reporters understand how to write about faith in a nuanced way?

I think newspapers and the media in general could do a better job on this front. We tend to write about religion from the perspective of conflict. It’s a general journalistic trope, not just in religious coverage. I think we could do a better job seeking out stories about how faith plays out in people’s everyday lives. That’s where nuance comes out.

In comparing Lin to Tim Tebow, you suggest that Asian American Christians are rarely culture warriors. If someone like Tebow might be considered part of the culture war, is that due to the way he acts out his faith or perhaps the way he’s portrayed by the media? Or maybe both?

I think part of it has to do with him and part of it—maybe even much of it—has nothing to do with him at all. Yes, as you pointed out, he did appear in a Focus on the Family television commercial. And, yes, there’s the way he “Tebows” and wears the eye-black with the Bible verses. He also has this in-your-face, warrior persona, not necessarily specific to the culture wars but just as a football player. But I think the manner in which Tebow has become such a polarizing figure is also, in large measure, because of how he has come to represent the stereotype of all evangelicals—specifically white evangelicals who are part of the so-called religious right. That’s partly the media’s fault. But that’s also partly just the way the word, “evangelical,” has morphed since the 1980s into a political term, synonymous with Christian conservatism, as opposed to a theological one, which is how it really began.

You are not on the religion beat per se, but your stories often overlap with religion. How do you decide when to follow a religion angle in an otherwise more general story?

I work in the investigations cluster at the New York Times, so I don’t really cover religion as part of my normal job at all these days. I spent the last year doing a series of investigative stories on gaps in gun laws. And now I’m working on political investigative stories. I did briefly cover religion for the metro desk several years ago. And I have been sometimes asked to lend a hand on certain religion stories, particularly when it comes to coverage of evangelicals. But I’ve also just stumbled upon religion stories when I’ve covered other beats, just because they’re there for the taking. When I was doing a rotation in our Baghdad bureau back in 2006, I did an article on the plight of Iraqi Christians. When I covered politics, I inevitably found myself doing various stories relating to religion, like one I did on Hillary Clinton’s faith. Reporters are always looking for something new and fresh to write about. Sometimes the most fertile ground that has not been trodden upon relates to religion.

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