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? 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 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 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, the social media search engine. At one point over the weekend, it was the most tweeted story on, 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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Following faith, especially Mormonism

This year has produced no shortage of Mormonism coverage with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in the presidential race. If you want a continual source for Mormon news, be sure to follow the work of Peggy Fletcher Stack, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, located in Mormon central.

Earlier this year, the Tribune launched a religion blog called Following Faith, where Stack regularly updates national and local stories often related to Mormonism in the news. But Stack’s reporting goes much further back than the blog. Stack, who studied at the University of Utah and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., has been writing for Tribune‘s award-winning Faith section for more than two decades.

She spent four days following the Dalai Lama around Salt Lake City, two weeks following the late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley around Africa, and about a half hour interviewing Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the 2002 Winter Olympics. We asked Stack to talk about her interest in religion’s conflicts and cohesion for GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

How do you think your job differs from a religion reporter at another newspaper, maybe one in Florida or one in Massachusetts?

Because most Utahns belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I end up writing many more stories about that church, its teachings, programs and developments than about any other faith. While reporters in other regions such as the Bible Belt may spend the bulk of their time writing about the dominant faith in their area, this is also LDS Church headquarters and home to its hierarchy where all institutional decisions are made. Think Rhode Island’s Catholic majority but with the Vatican in the state capital and priests as legislators. We are also the only secular paper that writes extensively about Mormonism, which means readers across the globe are looking to us for a knowledgeable, even-handed approach to LDS news.

Has the nation’s increased interest in Mormonism changed your reporting or the stories you pursue?

Sure, it has put more pressure on us to be the first, the best and the most definitive source of Mormon issues. For example, the paper sent me to the opening night of previews for “The Book of Mormon” musical. I quoted a Mormon who went with me as saying the show was “surprisingly sweet.” I saw that quote and perspective repeated endlessly, even by playwrights Trey Parker and Matt Stone themselves. It humbled me to realize yet again that other reporters – and LDS members and critics worldwide – were watching what we do on Mormon issues, taking their cue from us. Obviously, we have made missteps in our coverage–which GetReligion is quick to point out–and each time we do, we go through rounds of self-analysis at what went wrong. But we remain committed to the ideal of fairness and balance. Now that there seems to be a bottomless appetite for reporting on Mormons, both for members themselves and curious outsiders, we feel it is important to be leaders in the field. At the same time, many of the stories other media are now exploring topics we have already printed and with which are readers are already fully familiar.

How do you balance coverage of other religions with high percentage of Mormons in your demographic?

Even though much of our reporting is on the LDS Church, I enjoy covering all faiths and feel a desire and responsibility to educate our readers on the religious diversity in Utah. We work hard to highlight events, issues and developments in smaller Utah faiths, despite their percentage of the whole. I think even our Mormon readers appreciate learning about other groups and spiritual journeys.

Are there specific challenges to covering Mormonism that you might not find when covering other religions?

Mormonism is such a closely knit community and all-encompassing experience for so many that it has spawned intense feelings of loyalty in believers and hostility among outsiders or former believers. It is tricky to maintain a reasoned approach, without tipping too far to one side or the other. I’ve been accused of being a Mormon church puppet on the one hand and the anti-Christ on the other, so I feel I am doing OK. About the only analogue I can conjure is Jerusalem, with its pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions, each looking for signs that a reporter is prejudiced against them. Too many readers know a lot about the LDS faith and practice and are ready to pounce if they think I got some detail wrong, while others know little or nothing. So I am always struggling to ensure my writing is thorough enough for insiders but not too detailed for everyone else. It can be exhausting. Sometimes I yearn for a good Jewish holiday story or a dicey exploration of ethics as a nice break from all the Mormon-created tension.

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

Though lots of reporters have written about the theological differences between Mormonism and historic Christianity — some thoughtful, others superficial — few really understand the broader differences and similarities in culture and community. That goes to my problem with coverage of other faiths, too. Many reporters treat groups like Mormons, Muslims, and Buddhists as monolithic, describing a simple set of beliefs and practices that they presume all follow. There is often little context, nuance or texture in that kind of religion reporting. In a word, Mormons may all be in the same faith family, but they can be as different as brothers, sisters, step-siblings and adoptees.

What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I expect I’ll be writing much more about Mitt Romney and his faith as the next year unfolds. I will also continue to follow the impact of such national attention on the LDS Church itself. Will it be just a fleeting moment, somewhat like the spotlight shown on the Utah-based church by the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, or will it bring about lasting awareness or shifts in perspective? How many times will I have to explain to a French television crew that the LDS Church abandoned polgamy a century ago? How will the relationship between Mormons and evangelicals change, if at all? What elements of Mormon history and doctrine will capture the journalistic fancy and be studied – and written – to death?

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

When I read a story about any religion, I closely observe what sources the reporter chose to quote. I realize it is tough to find authoritative Mormon sources, because LDS full-time officials rarely agree to interviews and a random leader in the local lay clergy may know little or nothing about the issue at hand. Mormonism doesn’t have theologians, per se, who can explain the faith in terms outsiders can grasp. Even finding Mormons wearing the title, “president,” (as in Elders’ Quorum president or Relief Society president), doesn’t mean their perspective is in any sense representative. I do feel that more investigative work on churches, particularly on money issues, would benefit the reading public. I don’t think religions should be either critiqued for their teachings and practices or exempt from close scrutiny. I also would like to see more exploration of ethical issues as they relate to business, social services and religion stories.

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Colbert’s chaplain on humor vs. mockery

A headline like “Pope charged for not wearing seat belt,” almost feels like a piece from The Onion, but sometimes truth is funnier than fiction.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and culture editor for America magazine, is a big fan of humor, as displayed in his most recent book, Between Heaven and Mirth. But he also wants journalists to understand the difference between funny and offensive.

Martin’s commentary has appeared in outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, FoxNews, and Time magazine, and comedian Stephen Colbert calls him “The Colbert Report chaplain.” Before Martin entered the Jesuits in 1988, he graduated from the Wharton School of Business and worked in corporate finance at General Electric for six years. Here, Martin discusses a twist on GetReligion’s 5Q+1, focusing on how the mainstream media covers the “funny side” of religion.

(1) What’s a journalist’s role in covering religion and humor? Are there stories the reporters are missing?
Part of the challenge for the journalist is finding the humor in religious organizations without crossing the line to mockery. Frankly, most “funny” stories about religion tend to be vaguely mocking–for example, stories that profess astonishment that a priest or a member of a religious order could start a website, run a business or do something athletic without breaking a leg. (I.e., “Meet a Nun who Surfs!” or “The Monks Who Blog!”) They tend to traffic in stereotypes that priests or religious order members are idiots, clueless or have no idea what the “modern world” is like. It gets a little tiresome. The challenge is to find humorous people and funny stories without mocking.

As for stories they are missing, I would say that the great unreported story is the optimism of hope of aging Catholic sisters, who have done remarkable work for the poor in this country. So many of them have great senses of humor and amazing stories to tell about overcoming hardships. Catholic sisters are among the cleverest people I know; and thanks to living through times when they’ve not always been treated well, have made no money, and are now facing diminishment, they often have very healthy–and bracing–perspectives on life.

(2) How can a journalist covering religion figure out when funny crosses the line into offensive?
As I mentioned, any time the journalist finds himself or herself shocked that a priest or a member of a religious order can do something that lay people do on a regular basis–run a corporation, make a joke, cheer at a football game–there will be an element of mockery. I mean, after all, priests and sisters have run (and often founded) universities, hospitals and high schools for decades. Also, even the best journalists occasionally write things that they’re not even aware are offensive, like, “Even though Jane is a devout Catholic, she enjoys her work as a science teacher.” As if once you become Catholic you check your brain at the door. You see that quite frequently in stories that are trying to be lighthearted.

(3) What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
The reaction to the new English translation of the Mass. I’m very curious how the people in the pews respond to this big change.

(4) If journalists are trying to prioritize, should they even spend much time finding funnier religion stories?
Well, I think it’s not as much about finding “funny” stories as finding stories that aren’t about scandal or sexual abuse or otherwise serious topics. There are a zillion interesting personal interest stories about religious types: stories about enterprising priests, ministers and rabbis who are doing creative things, as well as churches, synagogues and mosques that sponsor interesting programs, but you rarely hear about that. This is a reflection of the diminishing coverage of religion overall. And one reason for that is that the mainstream media has cut back on its religion coverage. Where in the past each paper would have a full-time religion reporter, that job is now farmed out to someone, say, on the “Culture” or “Arts” beat. One reporter said to me, “Well, I covered the Arts and my editor thought that was close enough to religion, so I’m covering that now, too.” As a result, there are only a handful of reporters covering religion full time, and they have to cover all religions. So the “funny” stories, which are considered less important, are few and far between.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
In Germany, someone brought a civil case against Pope Benedict XVI for not wearing a seat belt during his recent trip there. I thought that was just hysterical. I mean, the Popemobile goes about three miles an hour. It’s not exactly zooming down the Autobahn. When the suit was dismissed Catholic News Agency reported it as follows: “There will be no fine for the Pope,” city spokeswoman Edith Lamersdorf told German news agency Badische Zeitung on Nov. 30. “The charges were quashed.” It sounds like something out of a Monty Python skit, including the woman’s name.

Then the Vatican responded as follows, according to CNA:

Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., said on Nov. 30 that the charges provoked “curiosity and smiles of amusement” at the Holy See, “beginning with the Pope himself.” He explained the need for Pope Benedict to not be restricted by seat belts during his visits, since he “turns continually to the right and to the left to greet and bless the faithful…Often he gets up and takes in his arms babies to bless, to the joy of the parents and everyone present,” Fr. Lombardi said. “All these gestures presume a certain freedom of movement.” The spokesman was, nevertheless, “grateful for the affectionate concern for the Pope’s safety.”

That’s funny on so many levels.

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

Today, there are only a handful of people covering religion full time these days, compared with, say, dozens and dozens just ten years ago. As papers shrink their staffs, you have fewer people doing real reporting. Much of the stuff on the web is just aggregating–or bloviating. And so much of the stuff on the web about religion is nasty, nasty, nasty. Overall, that represents a huge loss–especially for local coverage of religion. It also means that the few people who are still doing it full time now exercise a great deal more influence. But overall, it’s a great loss for a society that needs to better understand religion and religious people.

Illustration by Anita Kunz.

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How an AP reporter found religion

You might consider Associated Press reporter Tom Breen to be the anti-William Lobdell. Breen recently told me he eventually became a weekly Mass attendee after educating himself on the Catholic abuse scandals for his journalism job. His story is quite the opposite from Lobdell, whose work on the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times caused him to drop his faith and write Losing My Religion.

Instead of re-writing Breen’s story into an intro, I’ll let him tell you about it before he answers some questions about the religion beat:

I was baptized a Catholic, but never really in any tradition other than a vague understanding of Christianity coupled with a sort of tribal pull toward the Catholic Church. My mother died when I was very young, and my father had enough bad experiences with church growing up in an Irish neighborhood in Chicago that he wasn’t particularly driven to make sure my brother and I were raised as active members of the faith.

My father is a journalist, though, and it was his influence that steered me toward news. After college, I was working at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., at the time the most recent sex abuse scandals began to break in Boston. Partly because I had some Catholic bric-a-brac on my desk, my editor assumed I actually knew something about the church, and so I was assigned to cover a few local stories related to the scandal.

I quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about Catholicism, and so to avoid embarrassing myself and the paper I resolved to learn what I could. In addition to reading everything I could get my hands on, I started pitching stories on religious topics that had nothing to do with the abuse scandal, hoping to bring myself up to speed.

This continued after I moved to the Journal Inquirer, the paper in my hometown of Manchester, Conn. By now I had discovered that I was interested not just in Catholic stories, but in religion generally. It was not only a fascinating topic, but it was one that not many other reporters were interested in covering, so I could pursue stories without stepping on any toes. I also had tremendously knowledgeable editors who were hungry for religion news. One of them put it to me in a way I’ve always remembered: compare the amount of resources the press spends on covering primary elections, he told me, with the number of people who vote in primary elections. Now compare the resources spent on covering religion with the number of people who attend a weekly worship service.

So that’s how I became hooked on religion coverage. On kind of a parallel track, I eventually became a devout Catholic, going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and becoming a weekly churchgoer. Ironically, it was my work covering elements of the sex abuse scandal that led me to become an “official” Catholic; I learned all I could about the faith to make sure my stories were accurate, and my learning convinced me this was the truth.

I realize personal belief is a touchy subject for journalists, but in the religion beat it’s been a tremendous asset to my reporting. It’s an imperfect comparison, but if you grew up rooting for the Chicago Cubs you’re going to be a better baseball reporter than someone who’s never been to a game. That’s not to say I think active membership in a religious group is a prerequisite for the beat, but an ex-Cubs fan still knows the game even if she doesn’t follow the team anymore.

That’s probably far more than was necessary, and I apologize. On to the questions!

In your role at the AP, how do you boil down everything into a brief story and still maintain nuance, balance, complexities, etc.?

The AP’s very talented religion editor once described the faith beat as “intimidating,” and I think that’s absolutely right, for precisely this reason. There is no government, economic philosophy or baseball team on the planet with a back story as rich, detailed and complex as, say, Judaism. Or Christianity. Or Islam. Or Hinduism. You get the idea. What we strive to do is work in our “pre-reporting” to identify the telling details, wise sources and most salient facts to make sure that even an 800-word story has enough nuance and balance to meet our standards. When writing about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the wide-ranging debate it prompted, for example, I knew in the earliest stage of the story that I wanted to talk about the Christian theologian Origen in the context of universalism. I hit the books, talked to some sources, and spent maybe half an hour boiling down what I learned into two paragraphs that I could then bounce off editors who are religion pros (to make sure it was accurate) and editors who don’t know Methodism from method acting (to make sure it was right for a general audience). Knowing what’s going to be important in terms of background and detail to augment the main news in the story is a huge help when it comes to “front-loading” our reporting.

Where do you get your news about religion? Have blogs, social media, etc. changed how you read and then cover religion news?

My news about religion comes from a lot of sources: newspapers and broadcasters, the denominational press, tips from sources, friends and acquaintances, press releases, etc. But the most important day-to-day aspect of covering the beat is social media and blogs, something that’s a huge change from when I started in daily journalism 10 years ago. Twitter in particular is a chance to monitor international conversations about faith as they happen, with everyone from Rick Warren to the person in the next pew pitching in. And for reporters looking to go beyond the usual pundits, officials, experts, talking heads, etc. and get deeper on a story, there’s nothing like social networking. On a story about American Catholics’ reaction to the beatification of John Paul II this year, I was able to write a story out of Raleigh with voices from all over the country thanks to finding folks on Facebook and Twitter and contacting them for interviews. Blogs have also changed the way the beat works, moving from commenting on stories or developments to breaking news; the questions about Ergun Caner’s resume being a good example of a story that was broken first by bloggers. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do a good job covering religion today without daily use of those resources.

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

Some of the tectonic shifts in American religion are being only dimly appreciated so far, I think. The U.S. has in all likelihood become a country without a Protestant majority for the first time in its history, a change with lots of implications, both in the short and long terms. The major inroads that Evangelical churches are making among first and second-generation Latinos in the U.S. is also a big story with major implications that I think too often gets lost in coverage of how Latino immigrants are providing the bulk of the Catholic Church’s new members. And the fact that growing numbers of Americans say they have no religious preference is interesting in ways that I don’t think are being fully explored – too often, that’s taken as a decline in religious belief, when I think a big part of the story is a change in how people are defining religion.

What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’ll be very interested to see how American Catholics receive the new translation of the Roman Missal, which has been getting a roll-out in some places for months, but which is going to “go live” on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s not on the same level with the changes to the liturgy that came at the end of the 1960s, but it’s altering parts of the Mass most American Catholics have known for their whole lives. People are going to have add the word “consubstantial” to their vocabularies! There’s been some pushback in Anglophone Europe from priests and laypeople, but so far we haven’t seen much of that in the U.S. I don’t know if that will change on November 27. I think it’s going to be an opportunity for some great stories about what people believe and why.

What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

I don’t know about funny or ironic, but a story that really provided me with a “Wow!” moment this week was the AP’s coverage out of Jerusalem on a small group of Muslim missionaries who spend their days trying to win Jewish converts to Islam, apparently a first in the history of Israel. Given the social, political, cultural and religious contexts, this is bound to be an interesting story, but what I especially liked was that it explored questions that can resonate with missionaries in any tradition: how seriously do you take your faith, and what are you willing to do for it?

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

I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’ve called a member of the clergy or a layperson for a story on a religious topic and as soon as I identify myself as a member of the press, they react like a babysitter in a 1980s horror movie hearing the words, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” One of my fondest wishes is that I will one day be able to make people understand that the vast majority of reporters want just two things: to tell a good story and to get it right. And the only way reporters can tell good, true stories about religion is by developing relationships with people who know faith and aren’t afraid to trust their story to someone.

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Whispering with Rocco Palmo

We usually examine mainstream media reporting here, but we also have our eyes set on non-mainstream sites that cover religion. Earlier this month, tmatt highlighted a piece from the Baltimore Sun on Rocco Palmo who runs Whispers in the Loggia, which regularly scoops mainstream press.

A former US correspondent for the London-based international Catholic weekly The Tablet, Palmo has served as a church analyst for many mainstream outlets since he launched the blog in 2004. A native of Philadelphia, he studied political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2010, Palmo received an honorary doctorate from Aquinas Institute of Theology, a Dominican school in St Louis, for services to the church’s interaction with technology. In April he was named as one of two chairs of the Vatican’s first conference on the blogosphere/social media. Get ready for an epic twist on 5Q+1 with Palmo, especially a bit of hopefulness in the bonus question.

(1) How would you describe the work you do: journalism, advocacy journalism, something else? What are you trying to accomplish?

These days, above all, I’m trying to accomplish not having to sweat the bottom line anymore. It’s been a great almost-seven years now: more fun (and, a lot of days, more exhaustion) than I ever could’ve imagined having in a lifetime. When you’re in a gig to write, though, having to double as CFO/development director/accountant, etc. is the worst energy-zapper there is. It’s probably lost me about four books’ worth of time and material by now.

As for the first part, I’ve never been one to conceptualize things too much — I’d rather just do the job and let others analyze it. (Not being terribly smart helps, to boot.) As my thinking goes, though, “advocacy journalist” is basically a euphemism for a lobbyist who likes to write, and there are still a lot of people out there who think that for something to qualify as straight-up “journalism,” it needs to read like Xanax and appear on dead trees (or look like it could). I’d like to think I do more of the latter than the former… even if one of my personal Commandments is “For the love of God, Never Be Boring.” Luckily, the beat never is, and I just try to give it that respect.

A big problem with classification is the tendency to keep thinking in terms of templates. To use a common Vaticanese term, the templates “have been superseded,” so with the freedom to approach the story from an unconventional vantage, attempts at pigeonholing can get messy, and sometimes even be unfair. Still, one of the commenters picked up on this, and it’s true: if there’s an analogy that best describes what I’ve always sought to shoot for, it’s “beat writer for the Red Sox” — not principally in the sense of Boston baseball, but as that’s what cardinals are supposed to wear under their full-dress robes.

I don’t mean to banalize faith here, but when you’ve grown up with the shadow of the ballpark to one side of your house and the parish on the other, they don’t seem all that different: there are rules, traditions, trades, wins and losses; a community, a spirit and, always, a long season. You can’t change any of them, nor should you even think of trying — that’s part of the magic. What transpires day by day either lifts people up or makes the winter that much tougher to get through. Yet beyond the result, you basically learn to roll with whatever comes down, you remember what’s fleeting and what isn’t, you rejoice and find comfort in those things that neither a run of championships nor a seemingly endless slump could, at its core, have any impact on.

When your team has lost more games over time than any squad in the history of American sports, all these distinctions come fairly naturally. In a word, you’re always a “fan” (i.e. a believer), but reporting that your guys won 12-2 when, in fact, the result was the other way around — or, alternatively, you confuse a seat in the press box with being the crew-chief on the field — should get you be banned from walking into a newsroom ever again, let alone running anything from it. Unfortunately, though, I worry that we’ve got some of that around now, and I’m admittedly envious that you can even get a salary and benefits to do it.

It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that — much as I love Baltimore — the Orioles aren’t going to the World Series this year, and as a reader, it’s pretty insulting to find the equivalent of stories that say, in effect, that they’re either headed for late October or even a shot of it exists. However much the fans might pine and pray for the postseason — it’d be more of a story if they didn’t — and packed the place out every night, if the standings show the dreaded “E” (eliminated), what else can you say?

To be sure, there are comparable things on both sides of the Catholic radar, where you’d essentially have to tear up 28 stadiums (or kill off most of the AL East) for them to merely stand a chance of living up to the hype. But if you hear about a high-school kid, “future Cy Young” written all over him, being scouted for the pros in a sandlot 10 minutes away, given the understanding, which one’s your story?

The context of the last ten years has only served to amplify the extent to which, in the general perception, Catholicism has a transparency problem: on one side, you’ve got the the abuse revelations and the impact they’ve had on people’s faith because of how allegations were (or weren’t) communicated in many places, and on the other there’s a surreal number of normally reasonable, perfectly well-meaning people who believe that the Vatican has a cadre of albino assassins at its disposal.

It might be more apparent in the former scenario, but both illustrate how the sharing of information isn’t without its consequences on significantly bigger fronts, and a challenge that, for the church, has largely been self-made. And when you see this, if the bigger stuff means something to you, you have to face the question of whether you can sanely keep relying on a 1985 — or 1965 — communications model of tone and content, or when you’ve practically got nothing left to lose, do you try throwing some new ideas at the wall and see what sticks?

What comes of it might not be everyone’s cup of tea… but, hey, it’s a big church.

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