Dan Gilgoff departs CNN, with a message

It’s always hard to see people leave the Godbeat, even while you wish them well. Dan Gilgoff has been a religion news writer for as long as I’ve been here at GetReligion and his most recent work — at CNN’s Belief Blog — has probably been my favorite.

But now he’s abandoned us for a fancy job as director of digital news at National Geographic! At least we’ll still have Eric Marrapodi there.

As he left, he wrote up the five things he learned from his three years of editing CNN’s Belief Blog. It includes the explosion of “nones” in the religious landscape. My favorite was this one:

3.) Religion reporting shouldn’t be an inside game. “We believe that understanding the role of faith in today’s world isn’t optional or nice to know,” we wrote in our inaugural Belief Blog post, in May 2010. “It’s need to know.” That was true again for many of 2012’s biggest stories, for which understanding forces of faith and faithlessness were crucial to understanding the nominees for president, reactions to July’s deadly Aurora, Colorado, shooting and Whitney Houston’s funeral. You don’t have to be religious to think religion stories matter; you just have to be curious about the way the world works. I believe that more now than I did when we launched the Belief Blog.

You just have to be curious about the way the world works. Exactly. And then he cautions people who sense an anti-religious bias in the news media:

4.) The news media isn’t anti-religion. You hear that from some religious people, particularly those on the political right. Truth is, news organizations such as CNN are fascinated by religion because it yields stories brimming with meaning, controversy and powerful characters. But the religion beat can scare off reporters because it can be so daunting (if you’re a non-Mormon, try wrapping your mind around the Mormon practice of posthumous proxy baptism in time to meet a 5 o’clock deadline). And yet so many CNN Belief stories were born when CNNers across the organization asked basic questions such as, “Will the Catholic presidential candidates don ashes for an Ash Wednesday debate?” and “Why don’t we explain why some American Muslim women wear the hijab?” Many other religion stories came from CNNers who volunteered ideas from their own religious subcultures. CNN forces working against religion coverage? I never encountered any.

You know, I enjoy this answer but it reminds me of something I’ve desired to see more of in general. I wish that we’d see much more reflection on and self-analysis of why, exactly, it is that some religious folks (even if I disagree that this sentiment is only expressed by those on the political right) sense a hostility from the media toward religious views or people who hold them. I think there is value in more reflection on and less dismissal of complaints against us as journalists. But that’s what I’d put on my list of five, so I should just move on.

Finally, and I’m glad to see this from someone who did so much to advance digital journalism as it relates to the Godbeat, we get this reflection:

5.) In the world of digital journalism, your voice matters more than ever. With the proliferation of reader comments, social media and instantaneous metrics on what our audiences are clicking and how they’re responding, your choices and opinions are shaping our coverage more than ever. Some of our best content from the last year was more about conversations happening around the news than about the news itself. We choose to do certain stories and skip others partly based on whether you’re engaged in those stories or not. Use your power wisely.

I love it. I also love the generally positive take Gilgoff has throughout his piece. We see so many people lamenting the demise of journalism and not enough journalists embracing the way digital media change what we do. I absolutely love that Gilgoff doesn’t just remind readers of their power, but encourages them to use this immense power prudently.

So best wishes to Gilgoff as he heads off to National Geo — I’m sure they’ll be very pleased with their hire.

  • tmatt

    The key, for me, is that the press is comfortable with faith, but not with claims of permanent doctrine.

    The journalist William Proctor once told me, when discussing the NYTs and religion: http://www.tmatt.net/2001/05/02/the-gray-ladys-gospel-crusade/

    Proctor (says) … critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns “the sin of religious certainty.”

    “Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”

  • Jay

    Good commentary. Agree with the points you made, especially number 4. It comes across more as dismissing complaints against journalism dealing with religion rather than sufficiently addressing those complaints. He’s basically saying that because he didn’t encounter hostility towards the idea of talking about religion from coworkers in the newsroom, that means that the majority of reporters do not convey animosity or disdain towards particular religions or beliefs within their news reporting.

    I’m a Catholic who believes all the teachings of the Catholic Church. Do all Catholics believe the teachings of the Catholic Church? Do some Catholics have disdain for the official teachings of their own faith? I think you know the answer.

    Simply because a news reporter is willing to discuss their own faith does not mean they agree with the official teachings of their faith. Willingness to talk about faith tradition doesn’t mean that there are no biases within major news outlets towards particular religious views and standpoints. Look at the way the majority of news media sources covered the actions of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and the actions of Nuns on a Bus during the presidential campaign. Significant bias from many news media sources. I don’t believe the MSM is “anti-religious”. Many news media sources have absolutely no problems with religion so long as the religion someone professes fits into their idea of what religion is supposed to be.

  • Chuck

    He lost me when he implied that the funeral of Whitney Houston somehow was important.

  • Julia

    There’s a significant proportion of Americans who think Whitney Houston’s funeral was important. They were interested in how it was conducted, who was there, what was said and sung, and why it was held in that particular church.

    I’m sure you wouldn’t think the recent funeral of my area’s long-time sheriff is important, either, but our newspaper rightly gave over half of the front page and more inside to coverage of his funeral. It added a lot to understanding his roots and who he was.

  • Darren Blair

    For those that don’t know, I’m an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. I also deliver newspapers for a living, meaning that I’m sometimes privy to what goes on in the newsroom. Additionally, (due in part to my job) I’m a local-level public affairs representative for the denomination.

    That being said –

    I’m actually pretty slow to allege religious bias in the media. If I see something that doesn’t come off properly, I’m more inclined to presume that the writer made a mistake in their research or otherwise dropped the ball. I myself actually had a press release I submitted somewhere get mangled by a junior editor who tried to turn it into a “news story” and in the process obliterated several key facts (which is why I now hand-carry everything I type up to the senior editor at that institution).

    It’s only when a reporter or writer does something that cannot be rationalized as a mere oversight or flub that I get involved.

    For example, a few years ago a World Net Daily editorial accused the church of institutional racism; Sen. Reid had come out against the prospect of Justice Thomas being made Chief Justice, and the writer tried to argue that Reid’s opposition was race-related. Thing is, the newest “evidence” the guy had was from the 1960s; when I e-mailed him about the matter, he *literally* admitted that he didn’t know about the about-face in the 1970s or the thriving African-American community within the church. Scratch WND as a “reliable” source for me as far as religion reports go.

    Then you have ABC’s antics over the past summer. First was the report they did that alleged Romney embezzled from Bain Capital in order to give money and stock to the church. The $$$ and stock actually represented Romney paying a regular tithe, but by saying he “funneled it” and taking some time to explain matters, a layperson could reasonably come to believe that something questionable – if not illegal – took place. They then followed it up with an episode of “What Would You Do?” set in Utah that played on several negative stereotypes about the church and seemingly picked the crowd responses that best fit an anti-Mormon perspective.

    Or you had Bloomberg Businessweek’s monumental flop about the church itself, wherein they went to length to report on what companies the church supposedly owned but *never once* thought to ask why the church owned them. If they had, they’d have realize that they were originally started / purchased to fulfill an extant need in the community and were allowed to grow on their own from there. For example, Deseret Book was originally meant to be an in-house publisher for scriptures, religious manuals, and “uplifting” fare. Bonneville Communications, meanwhile, was meant to broadcast key church conferences and later “Music & The Spoken Word” to the church membership. Couple this critical oversight with a cover that mocked a portion of church history, and BBW essentially declared that it was taking sides in the greater religious debate.

    Yeah.

  • http://bigpulpit.com/ Tito Edwards

    Um, this is the same CNN religious blog that offers “atheist” commentary?

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    OK, I’ll accept Mr. Gilgoff’s idea that news organizations are “fascinated” by religion instead of hostile to it. But I think a far more common problem and one he doesn’t address is not hostility, but ignorance and apathy. Would it be tough for reporters to get their minds around the practice of Mormon postuhmous proxy baptism by a 5 PM deadline? Yes it would. Would it be far more likely that reporters would simply be ignorant of that rite, at least beyond the level needed to make jokes about it, and not care whether they learned more about it because they felt it either a) bizarre or b) irrelevant. I believe the answer is again, yes it would.

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  • http://www.juliaduin.com Julia Duin

    Dan’s a major talent and his leaving is a big loss for CNN. His parting essay, though, leaves open this question: Why did CNN take so long to come to the party? Until 2-3 years ago, there wasn’t much – if any – organized religion coverage at CNN. Most newspapers and magazines had religion beats by the 1980s. Other than Religion & Ethics Newsweekly (PBS) and ABC-TV’s late 1990s hire of Peggy Wehmeyer (who was then let go), TV has been very slow on the ball. It it isn’t outright anti-religious discrimination, then it’s not-so-benign neglect.

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