So what is the new ‘On Faith’ about, in these early days?

Through the years, your GetReligionistas tended to offer rather mixed views of the “On Faith” project at The Washington Post.

First of all, it had tremendous potential as a religion-news hub, in part because of the presence of several writers in the Post newsroom — in a variety of departments — who clearly were interested in religion topics and showed ability when dealing with religious subjects. I mean, in addition to the obvious scribes, I would put entertainment writer Hank Stuever in that crowd, along with Hamil Harris, my long-time friend over in Metro.

Throw in the obvious resources of Religion News Service and you had a big head start on being a serious religion-news hub.

However, from the beginning, the “On Faith” project founders appeared to believe that religion is a corner of life that is dominated by emotion and opinions, not facts and reporting.

You do recall that first “On Faith” question to the commentators in its Parliament of Religions panel?

If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?

The basic question back then, for me, was this: Is religion a topic that, for journalists, is uniquely rooted in opinion? As I wrote in one rather urgent post called “On Fog — A Meditation,” back in 2008:

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. Amen.

Now, as most GetReligion readers will know, “On Faith” has left the Post world and been handed over to the FaithStreet project in New York. Here is the link to an opening PR salvo on the move. Also, here is a link to the current version of the new site. What do you think of the current topics and content?

Recently, a veteran religion-writer type send me a copy of a note that editor Patton Dodd at FaithStreet sent out, seeking contributions to the new site.

Here is a key chunk of the letter:

Starting in late January, OnFaith will publish one main feature each weekday — a reported story, essay, long interview, series of photos, video, infographic, or something else — organized around a Weekly Issue. …

Our range of topics will be broad and usually selected far in advance. Some issues will be tied to events on the cultural/political/religious/seasonal calendar, some to perennially intriguing religion topics, and some just to themes or questions that provoke our curiosity or that we believe will generate great storytelling.

That’s the main thing we want: great storytelling. Also: interesting ideas and arguments expressed in interesting ways.

Some of the initial topics include:

* Faith in the White House (religion and the U.S. presidency through history and now)

* God’s Football League (the religion-soaked National Football League — 5 takes on the spirituality of pro football in the week before the Super Bowl)

* The Ministry of Marriage (especially interested in interfaith marriage stories, including stories where that means just two distinct approaches to Christianity, Judaism, etc.)

* What Do Ministers Believe? (Those guys and gals who preach and teach the stuff — do they actually believe it?)

All very interesting subjects for news coverage, if the stories are actually built on hard reporting.

Any reactions out there, GetReligion readers? What is your take on the pledge to pursue “storytelling” as job one?

Meanwhile, I, for one, continue to wonder about the role of actual religion NEWS at such a site. Am I being unrealistic?

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.

  • Darren Blair

    Faith in the White House (religion and the U.S. presidency through history and now)

    In 2007, book publisher Covenant Communications published a work entitled Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America’s Presidents and the LDS Church by Michael K. Winder (ISBN 10: 1-59811-452-2). My parents have a copy, but sadly I’m behind in my own reading and so haven’t gotten around to actually looking through this one.

    I would imagine, however, that similar books are in print covering the interactions between the Presidency and other denominations.

    Perhaps a writer could follow Mr. Winder’s lead and go denomination-by-denomination? Even if the writer only does highlights, there should still be some rather fertile ground for material.

  • tmatt

    So no interest in On Faith at all?

  • Emma Gray

    I believe the editor’s name is Patton Dodd. If we want to talk about journalism, we need to start with correct names.

    When exploring the new OnFaith, I found it necessary to explore its new “mother,” FaithStreet. FaithStreet appears (at this point) blatantly Christian leaning. They’re “working on” adding these: https://www.faithstreet.com/multifaith. As it stands, that will make it very difficult for OnFaith to do anything journalistic that will not be critiqued for bias (real or imagined), since it’s “by FaithStreet.”

    However, it doesn’t seem to me that OnFaith aspires to be of strictly journalistic service. Dodd is looking for many different kinds of people to join the conversation, not just those that have been trained to leave bias out (whether they actually do is another conversation). One of journalism’s failings is its inability to see a subject from all sides, down to the very smallest of voices. Unintended bias occurs when one completely misses stories because they aren’t on the global radar. OnFaith seems to be wanting to inch closer to that kind of storytelling: hearing more and seeing more.

    It may be true that it is possible to report on religion without the bias and the emotions. I believe that. But by its name, it is a publication about “faith,” a much more complicated subject. Faith is not necessarily written in religious doctrine or based in fact. Faith has to have some emotion. Faith is a story best told by the one who has it, not through the lens of a journalist.

    It’s hard for me to say exactly where OnFaith is going since not much has been published. But if it doesn’t end up a strictly news service, I wouldn’t mind, as long as it stays true to finding those untold, small-voice stories. That’s a niche that we need too.

    • tmatt

      I am glad to correct the typo, honest.

  • Cassandra Farrin (Westar Insti

    I gave the pilot page for OnFaith a look when it was first shared on social media and agree with your initial assessment. There are some nice reflections, but I slotted it out of news in my mental categories into something more similar to Patheos, which presents a range of views where individual writers vouch for themselves. No big deal if that’s what they’re after, but that’s not news.

    While I don’t expect everyone to agree with the particular scholars represented by Westar, we do have guidelines for how to tell if someone is a critical scholar rather than someone building hype around an idea without testing it in a forum of his or her peers, and I imagine there is some overlap with best practices for news reporting around religion: http://www.westarinstitute.org/membership/westar-fellows/what-is-a-critical-scholar/

    When an organization speaks to its own crowd, it’s easier to slip into abbreviated statements without sharing sources, but when an organization seeks to communicate with the public, especially to alert us to problems/issues and correct misconceptions about something as sensitive as religion, we have to back up what we say more thoroughly. It doesn’t have to be an academic treatise to succeed at that, but we can expect something more than, “This resonated with me.” Again, posts that aim for resonance and feelings can be meaningful in their own contexts, but not where correct information–historical or newsworthy–is concerned.

  • Carlh

    I have only checked “OnFaith” every so often for quite some time, and have considered it to be a very “mixed bag” (when it has been enlightening at all).

    But I found Sally Quinn’s posting from January 19–“I was an angry atheist: Why I launched (and relaunched) OnFaith”–to be fascinating in many ways. First, even as an “angry atheist” she recognized that religion was a “huge story . . . that the media was not covering.” Second, and more significantly, IMO, through her experience in focusing on religion she “began to understand more” and “lost her anger” (and no longer uses the word “atheist” to describe herself).

    IMO, this says an awful lot about what journalism that seeks to cover religion and religious people carefully might do. What a sad state of affairs it is when more and more newspapers are doing away with their religion beat reporters–at a time when such understanding seems to be in very short supply, particularly within some of the media itself.

    I may even start reading OnFaith more often.


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