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.

[Read more...]

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RNS as a nonprofit + Patch-like religion hubs

As several media outlets consider the move towards nonprofit journalism, Religion News Service recently took the plunge with a $3.5 million three-year grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. RNS, the only nonreligious service covering religion and ethics exclusively, becomes a nonprofit tomorrow under Religion News LLC.*, a new parent company over Religion Newswriters Association.

Kevin Eckstrom says that while most religious subscribers have held on during recent cutbacks, about 25 to 30 percent of daily newspapers unsubscribed to the service in the last five years. The news service also dealt with reduced staff over the past 4-5 years, especially since Newhouse News Service shut down in 2008. Eckstrom says that while content will not change under the move, it will expand from three to four and a half employees and seek funding for multimedia journalism, Jewish beat coverage and theme story coverage of areas like Islam in America and religion and politics.

Eckstrom, who has been at RNS for 11 years and editor for five, will move to an office at the National Press Club while reporters Daniel Burke and Adelle Banks will work from home. I recently spoke with Eckstrom about RNS’ changes, future Patch-like religion hubs and what to expect from mainstream religion coverage during the industry changes.

How do you feel about all the changes?
It’s been a rocky ride. It’s been a good ride on the other hand because we have really good staff and we’ve had really good owners. It’s been frustrating to try to keep up the same quality and quantity with fewer people. By being forced to pick and choose the stories I think they’ve gotten better. Lean times force you to make choices.

Do you think more media outlets will try to move to a nonprofit status?
It doesn’t work for everybody. The scrutiny that the IRS conducts is extremely heavy. It took us much longer than expected to get approval. You will see more of it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a panacea for the industry.

How do you differentiate your service from the Associated Press or religious publications? Do you see the AP as competition?
Historically we have, but that’s changed last couple of years. The AP has resources and reach that we will never be able to have. If you’re an RNS subscriber, you can count on getting anywhere from 25-35 stories a week and you won’t find that consistent, knowledgeable coverage in other places. We’re trying to reach people on the Huffington Post, in USA Today, Christian Century, Christianity Today, so we have to write for a pretty broad audience.

People seem less interested in their particular region and self-identify more with maybe their hobbies or interests. Are people interested in broad religion stories simply because they are religious?
We never had a public following before, but that changed when we started to put stuff online. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, and we have the religion news round-up and an e-mail subscription. Judging from the subscription lists, readers tend to work in religion, have an interest in it, are religious themselves or they’re part of the new atheist crowd. Judging from the comments, Catholics tend to comment on Catholic stories and evangelicals tend to comment on evangelical and general Christian stories. We get a lot of people interested in ethics.

If newspapers are cutting off your services, what does that mean for religion coverage in the mainstream media?
You’re not seeing it regularly. Sometimes it’s in metro, sometimes it’s on A1, sometimes it’s in living. It tends to revolve around controversy, scandal or celebrities, and it gets superficial. When you’re not doing it all the time, you’re joining the herd on some big sexy story. That being said, there are a lot of people who are writing about religion online. I worry sometimes about the lack of professionalism where it can devolve into people in their pajamas spouting off. Their version of truth is different from everyone else’s but there’s no editor to tell them that. The online universe is a beast that needs to be fed constantly and is never satisfied.

Part of your plan is to create 20 local community-based websites for local/national religion coverage, which sounds like
It’s kind of like if and RNS got together and had a baby this is what it would look like. The idea is to create religion coverage where there isn’t anyone already. The entire state of New Jersey and places like Wyoming and New Hampshire do not have full-time religion reporters. Some of the content will filter up to RNS, and some RNS content will filter down.

Who will contribute to the sites or edit them?
Each of the seven or eight sites will be run by a full-time veteran journalist who will rely on freelancers edit the content, post it, do sales and marketing and raise support on the local level. We already have a person to oversee the whole thing. I don’t know if it’s public yet, but it’s someone who is well known to RNA and to the beat in charge of orchestrating the whole thing.

You’re starting these in the coming year?
We’re hoping to have the first test run in Columbia, Missouri in partnership at the folks at University of Missouri as a laboratory, starting it by the fourth quarter of 2011. Ad revenue will be a part of what we do, but you can’t run a business off of ad revenue online.

As part of your online strategy, do you worry about competing for traffic with your subscribers when you post stories?
That’s a good question. We want to build an audience. When people are reading our story on Huffington Post, we’re happy they’re reading our story period. We wish people are reading it on our site. We know not everyone knows to find us and we’re not able to put everything on our site. We’re trying to build the brand, the audience and the visibility.

You’ve mentioned a push towards multimedia. Will you hire someone to do that or will you hope your current reporters do that?
The plan is to have a semi-full time multimedia editor to figure out how to tell stories in a visually and audio. The model would be NPR, the gold standard in how to tell stories in various formats. We’re not going to give our reporters a Flipcam and tell them to do video and give us an 800-word story because it’s not realistic.

What kinds of religion stories do you think people want to see through multimedia?
The way we’re thinking about it initially is not that there is print content, video content and audio content. There’s content and it comes in different forms as companion pieces. Maybe you pull together the best 2-3 minutes for audio excerpts from an interview. Instead of producing a fancy eight-minute piece, throw up a couple YouTube clips from previous speeches.

You seem to be producing more 2-300-word briefs instead of a few longer pieces.
Before, we had at least three pieces and it had to be at least 350 words long. We felt like it was a straightjacket. We’re able to cover more things and give it the length it deserves. I noticed that when I read the paper, the briefs were three paragraphs when our briefs were seven or eight. Shorter is probably what people are going to read anyway.

With your D.C. presence, are you concerned with a potential political filter?
D.C. makes a lot of sense because there are so many institutions here and so many stories that traditional media might not cover. For example, we were writing about the chaplains in “don’t ask don’t tell” six months before other outlets. Obviously CT did that, too. There are other stories here related to religion and international affairs, the Supreme Court and the budget. We’ll probably always have a Washington presence, but we’re so virtual that we’ll be in New York and we’re looking at possibly being in the Chicago area. It would be hard to write a lot about religion and moral values and national priorities from somewhere other than here.

*Updated per Ann Rodgers’ comment below.

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5Q + 1: Michelle Boorstein at her Post

Covering religion in Washington DC takes an extra measure of precision, and Washington Post reporter Michelle Boorstein regularly takes that level of care when covering the intersection of religion and politics. With all the scuffles over the economy, foreign policy and other current debates of the day (birth certificate anyone?), religion can easily get lost, but Boorstein keeps finding interesting angles that illuminate current political affairs.

Of course, Boorstein covers more than church-state affairs. She has covered everything from Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, to Muslim-American affairs to Anglican property disputes (and more). You can track her work through a nifty little RSS feed and over at On Faith’s Under God blog.

Boorstein, who has been covering religion for The Post since January 2006, grew up in a conservative Jewish home outside Boston and attended religious school until college. She lived in Jerusalem before she received her master’s in Near Eastern Studies. See what she has to say about GetReligion’s five questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I’m not the type who has a totally comprehensive, scientifically-conceived, superduper RSS feed. I try to scan a range of sources: Christianity Today and its blogs, Religion News Service updates, World magazine, Deepak Chopra and Oprah, The Forward for Jewish stuff, altmuslimah for Islam and gender/women’s issues. Love to read anything by Michael Gerson and Paul Vitello.

(2) What is the most important religion story the MSM doesn’t get?

I’m torn about this premise that the mainstream media doesn’t, as a group, “get” religion. In a climate where people can easily disappear into an information hole of the like-minded, I actually think the MSM is emerging as the most reliable, un-invested voice — no dog in the fight. (Now you can hear the sound of someone climbing off their soap box. Another sound of a chip being removed from a shoulder)

That said, two stories we should do much better on:

There isn’t nearly enough reporting on how governments from statehouses to the White House are using religion. Who are the most important lobbying forces? How are issues of faith driving campaigns in 2011? Does the Obama White House give real resources to their faith offices or is it more small-potatoes stuff?

The contemporary American family is becoming increasingly a spiritual mish-mosh. When you take a bunch of seekers and mutts and mix them repeatedly, how does that play out in marriages? In parents’ ability to pass on a cohesive spiritual belief system to children? Religion and family.

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

The debates about Islam and government across the Middle East and North Africa by the next generation of Muslims. I am hopeful in this era of cutbacks that I, and other Post reporters, will be able to direct resources into this in a smart way. The subject is often described in a silly, black and white way when it is nuanced in dozens of directions. I’m also dying to see how this subject will play out in the 2012 elections in the United States.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
I’m going to skip this question because I think anyone reading this blog knows the answer. Preaching to the choir here.

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

A web site whose purpose is to organize factors that might help predict the end of the world (floods, Israeli peace, etc) had an ad for a 30-year mortgage. This came up with some reporting about the California-based ministry that believes the world will end May 21.

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Tables turned: Our Sarah on ‘ghosts’

When it comes to the day jobs held by your GetReligionistas, Sarah Pulliam Bailey is the team member who is probably in the most interesting, or even delicate, position.

One reason that she writes for us less than I would would wish, to state it bluntly, is that she already has a prime slot in the religion blogosphere through her work over in the wider Christianity Today online empire.

This is one reason that she doesn’t do many posts about topics about events in the evangelical world. She always has to ask a valid question, in the eyes of her CT editors: Is this a news story for the magazine or a blog critique for GetReligion (or a CT blog, now that I think about it). We’re just glad to have her time when she can spare it.

One of the duties that Sarah has latched on to, here at GetReligion, is our occasional 5Q+1 feature. For newcomers, the 5Q+1 feature in a slot in which we sent a series of standard religion-news questions to someone in the news business who either works the religion beat or, and we love these, journalists and editors on other subjects who have excelled at covering news in which they have a chance to spot the religion “ghost” in stories on other beats. We then print interactive versions of their answers.

So here is a twist. A website has just interviewed Sarah Pulliam Bailey and asked her some interesting questions, including a question about this website and its goals. I thought GetReligion readers would enjoy reading what she had to say when placed on the other side of the notebook. Here is a logical slice from that:

Trevin Wax: Let’s start with your work on GetReligion, which has recently become one of my favorite blogs. The tagline for that site is “the press just doesn’t get religion…” Why do you think this is the case? What are the main blind spots that the press has when it comes to religion reporting?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey: Reporters work really well with concrete data, numbers that prove some thesis or trend. It’s difficult to capture religion because you can’t always quantify it. Journalists don’t always know what to do when someone says they did something because “it was God’s will” or “God called me to do this.” We’re told to capture who, what, where, when, why, and how questions, but reporters often gloss over the “why” question. Why would people give away money, why would people volunteer their time, why would they hold certain beliefs about politics, money, sex, family, entertainment, etc. Sometimes reporters just miss one of the key factors in a story.

We often stumble across interesting stories that miss an underlying religion angle, what we call a ghost. Sometimes it might be skepticism (such as in sports writing) or sometimes it’s ignorance. A 2007 Pew report suggested that 8 percent of journalists say they attend a church or synagogue weekly and 29 percent of them never attend services. You do not have to be religious to report on religion or find religion angles, but your personal experience might impact how important you think religion could be in a story. Then we often see stories that just miss the mark, such as calling Jim Wallis a face of the religious right. Even for those data-driven reporters, there are several sociology, political science, history, etc. scholars offering research or “expert advice” on recent trends to keep reports accurate.

Trevin Wax: I wonder how detrimental this oversight is to reporting on other issues. I’m often amazed at how the Middle East conflicts are so often conceived of in purely secular terms, as if religion is not a key factor in the battles raging in other parts of the world. Stephen Prothero has pointed this out in God is Not One. Many Americans tend to think that religion is relegated to the realm of speculation and private spirituality, and many journalists appear to follow that pattern in how they report on news stories in other parts of the world. Do you think “not getting religion” hinders our ability to understand some of the world’s great conflicts?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey: Yes, I think your point is key: journalists often look at international events through a political or economic lens. I’m amazed at how many events are seen through election coverage (“Libya a political challenge for Obama“) and not through other factors, such as religion. …

And so forth and so on. Read it all.

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5Q+1: Adelle M. Banks at your service

We spend a lot of time here emphasizing the importance of considering religion when journalists cover a beat (ghost anyone?). But there are reporters out there who dig for and pounce on those religion angles, either in national news stories, denominational news or maybe in an entrepreneurial story.

Adelle M. Banks is one who uses words carefully, strives to be objective, and finds the next angle, among her other reporter qualities. She is the senior correspondent at Religion News Service, a Washington-based wire service owned by Advance Publications that covers religion and ethics for secular and religious publications. RNS’ staff also includes editor Kevin Eckstrom, senior editor David Anderson, and national correspondent Daniel Burke and international correspondents.

Before she started at RNS in 1995, Banks worked at The Orlando Sentinel, the Providence Journal and upstate New York newspapers in Syracuse and Binghamton. A native of Rhode Island, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She was a third-place winner in the Religion Newswriters Association’s Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year contest in 1997 and was a finalist last year in the association’s Supple Religion Writer of the Year contest.

We asked her to weigh in on our usual 5Q+1.

Where do you get your news about religion?

I read numerous sources, starting with The Washington Post. I usually check out USA Today, including the Faith & Reason blog, and The Gazette in Colorado Springs and its “The Pulpit” blog. I also read Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press. Articles in publications like Christianity Today, Charisma and Christian Century are also helpful, along with news releases from various organizations, both denominational ones and groups that care about religious matters. And, of course, reading Religion News Service’s daily roundup of news, which appears on our website, is a daily ritual.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Instead of one particular story, I’m more concerned about the sweeping generalizations and stereotypes that sometimes come with stories about religion. Despite our 24/7 news cycle, nuance is often needed to explain that groups of people ranging from evangelicals to African-Americans to atheists are not monolithic.

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

I’m curious about what will come of the new commission formed by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, following the conclusion of the three-year investigation of prominent ministries by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and his staff. It may be a little while before they come to any conclusions or recommendations, but I wonder if there might be some interim steps that lead to the so-called “self-reform” that Grassley was seeking. Though both the ECFA and Grassley say they want to avoid additional legislation, it would be really dramatic if this work ends with churches having to file more information with the Internal Revenue Service, as other nonprofits do.

Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religion touches so many of the topics journalists cover today–from the economy (houses of worship receiving less money even as more people seek their assistance) to the environment (the growth in the past decade in evangelicals going green) to education (the goal of some African-American churches to mentor youth and help them improve academically). Sometimes religion is the whole story and sometimes it’s just a piece of it. Even if journalists aren’t experts on religion–and most aren’t–it’s important to know who the go-to people are or how to find them.

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

The story I immediately think of is not funny but is ironic. As national leaders reacted to the tragic shootings in Tucson, Ariz., with calls for more civility, evangelical public relations executive Mark DeMoss announced that he had just ended “The Civility Project” he started two years ago because only three members of Congress signed on to its three-point pledge for people to be civil to those with whom they disagree.

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

I think good religion coverage is needed now more than ever. Despite the declines in newspaper staffs and the loss of some excellent reporters at our nation’s publications, we need to continue to support and improve this beat–whether it’s online or on the printed page.

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5Q+1: Elizabeth Tenety, On Faith’s new editor

Last month we told you that David Waters had transitioned out of his role at the Washington Post‘s On Faith website to return to Memphis.

Waters still blogs for Under God, On Faith’s daily religion blog, but the site has gone under some recent changes and will continue to adapt under a new editor. Former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is no longer co-moderator (*updated: as of this week), and the site is no longer connected to Newsweek . Sally Quinn, who founded On Faith, is still involved, writing columns and and representing the site.

Now Elizabeth Tenety serves as editor of On Faith. She formerly was producer of Divine Impulse, On Faith’s video interview series. Here’s more from her bio:

She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.

She also happens to be a Navy wife.

You can follow On Faith on Twitter, watch some videos, read its contributors, add the RSS feed to your reader. We tend to focus on the news parts of the site, which Tenety, Michelle Boorstein and other Post reporters post on the Under God blog and on the Twitter feed. We put Tenety to the test of GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get religion news from the same places where I get my regular news — is my favorite source for breaking news, NYTimes/Wapo for political and national coverage and an eclectic blend of blogs for everything else in between. I think religion journalists easily identify faith angles in everyday news, so I tend to find the “religion ghosts” in stories more interesting than straight religion news. Drudge and HufPo are my guilty pleasures. My really guilty pleasure is Gawker.

RNS’ daily religion roundup is the best source out there for easily entertained religion nerds like me — and for journalists who want to be sure they have a handle on the news landscape each day. Also: has a surprising number of stories that mention religion or faith — take a recent interview with Matt Damon on ‘Hereafter’ as an example.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I think mainstream journalists are still struggling to understand how religion is impacting the Tea Party movement. How can a movement promote fiscal responsibility and smaller government as top priorities if a majority of its members say they are part of the Christian conservative moment? Is smaller government a religious value? Are “constitutional conservatives” making a religious argument?

As the Tea Party evolves, journalists will continue to grapple with it. The religion angle is not as obvious as in previous incarnations of the Christian right, but more polling and an election may help us to better understand. At On Faith, our panelists provided a diversity of responses on the question of the tea party’s religiosity — <a href=""Samuel
Rodriguez called it the “secular wing of the GOP” — but Jordan Sekulow said “social conservatives lead the tea party.”

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

I’m really interested in how churches–and individual believers — deal with modernity in their midst. For example, a few weeks ago the web lit up with coverage of Stephen Hawking’s comments on God. One headline read “Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe” (I did not read the book so I’m not sure how accurate that headline is). Nevertheless, atheists pounced on the “proof” and religious apologists took to defending God’s necessity or questioning the usefulness of Hawking. I suspect a number of people — at least those in the middle of the spectrum of belief — saw the headline and thought, “Hmmmm, wonder if that’s true,” and moved on, contemplating the ability of their tradition to cope with such questions. Do believers and religions deal with challenges by a return to orthodoxy or do their beliefs take on a modern adaptation? Something in between? This trend is interesting to me on the level of individual believer and religious institution.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

It is important for journalists for understand the role of religion in our world today because the world doesn’t make sense without an understanding of religion. Top stories at the Post recently included “Man arrested in alleged plot to bomb Metro stops” and “Tea party leader: Get rid of Muslim congressman.”

If we don’t understand how religion motivates people then we can’t understand the news. On a basic level, religion deals with the most profound questions one can ask: Is there a God? What does He want? How shall I live?

As we know, what people believe about God and human nature impacts what they believe about politics. Are we sinners by our nature? Are we essentially good? Is America “blessed” or “ordained” by God? Can government nudge us to righteousness or is the individual struggle for virtue the highest good? The answers to these questions have tremendous impact on values, policy and the headlines.

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

Not a recent story — but an MSNBC story from last year asked if women who want to have large families (aka, more than two children) are “addicted” to having children. Mollie called the post a “train wreck.” I think it’s also a commentary on how quickly our society is changing and how an innocent attempt to explain a phenomenon, when not executed respectfully, can alienate readers. And, of course, GR had a field day.

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

I think the MSM — and indeed, democracy — is in trouble if large chunks of the country viscerally distrust us. The religion beat is an opportunity for mainstream journalists to cover issues that matter to readers who may (rightly or wrongly) feel marginalized or misrepresented by our media organizations. Fair coverage — reporting that is balanced, uses accurate language and explains without condescension — is a chance to narrow the gap between the “media elite” and “real America.” And for a great take on the media elite, watch this 2008 video by my Post colleagues.

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