Intrigue in the wide, wide world of the religion-news beat?

For several days now, I have been very curious about an item related to mainstream journalism work on the religion-news beat.

The following appeared in the online column by Dr. Debra Mason of the world-famous University of Missouri School of Journalism, who is also the executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association of America.

The state of the religion beat in mainstream newsrooms is a subject of great concern at GetReligion.org, for obvious reasons. Since day one, one of the major themes here is that — while it’s always possible to argue about issues of content, balance, etc., — the simple fact of the matter is that reporting on the religion beat is almost always 90-plus percent better on average when it is handled by professionals with experience and training covering this highly complex topic.

Don’t get me wrong. There is fabulous work done on topics linked to religion by a wide variety of reporters who take the subject seriously. All of that fantastic work at The New Yorker by the great feature writer Peter J. Boyer leaps to mind. Ditto for the work of veteran foreign correspondent Pamela Constable of The Washington Post.

Still, the wise editor strives to improve work on the religion beat by treating it like politics, science, sports, arts or any other serious news topic worthy of respect. A key part of that is seeking and hiring reporters who have demonstrated excellence on covering the beat in question — like religion.

So the state of the religion beat and the state of the tribe of religion-beat professionals is crucial. The state of the RNA is one piece of that puzzle.

That’s why Mason’s column — posted for RNA members — is so interesting.

It’s a good news/bad news letter. For example, there’s this:

Some of you may not know that earlier this year, a group of journalism students applied and were officially approved as a University of Missouri student organization called Mizzou RNA. It became the first student RNA chapter in the world and it’s thrilling to have it at this great School of Journalism.

A smart student from another university is exploring the potential of starting a second student chapter. If you are an educator member, please let me know how we might help you create a student RNA chapter at your college or university. Fueling a passion for the beat among today’s journalism students is vital if we are to continue the gains in professionalism and practice made in the past three decades.

Second, our membership committee, led by RNA member Sarah Pulliam Bailey (Religion News Service) with heavy lifting from RNA Board Member J.D. Kaleem (Huffington Post), held successful mixers in New York City and Washington, D.C. Some 90 people attended each of the mixers. The energy and outreach of these “under 40-year-olds” is inspiring.

Enthusiasm for the beat remains. The drive for new members breeds hope in me for the security and future of the beat and for RNA.

And the bad news?

There is this:

But we need to do more. We have new competition that operates on the sly, quietly inviting elite journalists to a lucrative fellowship in tandem with a well-known international group stoked with an army of fundraisers. That group receives at least one-third to one-half of its funds from the U.S. State Department (as is clear on their 990s). Rather than being collaborative or collegial, the new religion journalists’ group operates in deceptive and exclusionary ways. It is fueled by bitterness over RNA debates more than a decade ago, debates they lost.

Regardless, we must continue to do what we have always done better than anyone: Our contests, our Annual Conference, our Lilly Scholarships for Journalists, our collegial networking and friendship. But we also need to improve some areas that have lapsed in recent years as our energies focus on new pursuits.

Whoa. Now, I realize that I’ve been locked up in my Capitol Hill office quite a bit, with my head under a rock-sized stack of academic work, for a decade or two, but this has caught me off guard. This is important information. I have written Mason and a few other Godbeat pros and have heard nothing in response.

I’m not interested in gossip, but I am interested in knowing if there is another organization that is directly competing — especially in the North American market — with the veterans at the RNA.

Thus, if readers know what is going on, please simply provide a URL and basic information on any other groups that might fit this profile. Keep it calm and factual. But what is going on?

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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.

  • Darrell Turner

    Terry,

    Debra Mason may be referring to the International Association of Religion Journalists, which was formed a year ago. Here is a link to its website:

    http://www.theiarj.org/

    • tmatt

      That certainly is a possibility and I have met a leader from that organization, during a conference last year in Kiev.

      If this is the group being discussed, the main question for me, then, is its presence and role in the North American context.

    • Jeff Finley

      That would make sense for why the funding would be from the State Department.

      • tmatt

        What in the world? What’s the logic of that comment?

        • Jeff Finley

          I was perplexed when I read that this unnamed group allegedly receives funding from the U.S. State Department. I find it odd that any journalism organization would take money from the State Department. It’s hard to understand the State Department’s motives in giving this kind of funding (if the allegation is accurate), and it potentially raises First Amendment issues.

          I posted my comment to express my gratitude to Darrell Turner for offering a possible explanation. It makes sense that the State Department might want to give money to a group that encourages religion coverage in other countries, because that coverage might lead to greater religious freedom or at least provide valuable information. The State Department’s website states that it develops “foreign media engagement strategies in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy priorities.” I’m not defending the funding if it exists. I’m merely trying to express appreciation to someone offering a potential answer to this mystery.

          Thanks for the work you and the other Get Religion writers do. As a journalist of faith who spent a decade working for a Chicago newspaper company (and co-writing the company’s religion blog during part of that time), I share a desire for accurate religion coverage by the news media. Terry, I’ve been following your career closely since you spoke to Bob Briner’s “Roaring Lambs” class when I was a student at Greenville College.

  • Matt

    I can’t read the original, as I’m not an RNA member, but what you’ve quoted here strikes me as quite proprietary. If I had a long history with RNA and cared deeply about its future as an organization, then I suppose this news might alarm me. But what really is the effect of this organization on the quality of religion journalism? Might it even be good? So what if they’re discreet and well-funded? The accusation of “deceptive and exclusionary” is not substantiated, and the admission of “bitterness over [past] debates” raises the prospect that Mason herself is hardly impartial. I’m kind of looking for the beef here.

    • tmatt

      Matt:

      I recognize that this post is rather inside baseball. But the structures that interact with religion-news work are crucial to what we do here and what we think matters, in terms of the long-range health of religion-news coverage in mainstream media. It’s that simple.

    • tmatt

      I am not saying that another organization would automatically be a bad thing. I am saying that the RNA has done and is doing important work, and I say that as a person who (as opposed to someone like former GetReligionista Sarah Bailey) who has been close to the core of that organization.

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