5Q+1: How Jeremy Lott is Real Clear

Get ready to add a new website to your daily reading list. So far at least, the Real Clear Religion website, a sister site to Real Clear Politics, is producing some quality religion news aggregation. Real Clear Religion editor Jeremy Lott explains the new site in a blog post.

Religion is serious and silly, scandalous and sublime. Religion writing ought to reflect this reality. Too often, it doesn’t. That’s a problem because religion is vitally important to billions of people the world over. It gives them a way to think about making sense of things, forming families, helping others, and helping themselves.

RealClearReligion.org aims to change this. We want to improve religion writing by highlighting the best of it, by giving interested parties a daily shortlist of news and commentary that they really ought to check out. We will cover religion in itself and religion as it influences those things that we can’t avoid: religion and science, religion and culture, religion and commerce, religion and politics.

Now that you have added the site to your bookmarks or RSS feeds and maybe “liked” the site on Facebook, we wanted to pick Lott’s brain about religion news.

First things first, here’s a short bio: Lott is the author of three books, most recently William F. Buckley (part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series), and the recognized ghost for the autobiography of former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel. Lott, who is also associate editor of Real Clear Science, has worked at a number of think tanks and magazines, including the Cato Institute and The American Spectator as well as for, hold on to your hats, GetReligion. He lives in Fairfax, Va., and Lynden, Wash., and does not own a dog.

We’ve asked Lott to respond to our usual 5Q+1.

Where do you get your news about religion?
The short answer is everywhere. The long answer is, well, longer. The way the Real Clear websites work is that there’s a beta phase, where you, the editor, update a website regularly as if you had an audience. And then, at some point, you launch and start to attract an actual audience.

The beta prepares you for the launch in some ways. You get a good feel for what’s out there, what you should be reading regularly, what’s available in a pinch to round our your list ‘o links. But the dynamic also changes when you have readers. Then, people begin to forward and lobby for links.

I think that’s a good thing because, one, I can only read so much, and, two, it’s good to get readers involved in the process. Anybody should feel to drop me a note at jlott@realclearpolitics.com, though please don’t take it badly if I don’t answer.

One of the things that I find infuriating is when I read a good piece in a print periodical and then can’t find it online to link to it. Come on, publishers, get with the 21st century! Information wants to be free! Or at least, I want it to be.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
So many choices! I think the Ground Zero Mosque story stunned my fellow journalists because they don’t understand the deep ambivalence that many American have toward Islam. Bill O’Reilly said on The View that people objected to the mosque because Muslims killed Americans on 9/11. That was just beyond the pale. Rather than argue with him, two of the co-hosts walked off the set. There’s a great way to encourage constructive dialogue.

I’m way more of a dove than most Americans about Muslims, but I also do not buy this “religion of peace” line that George W. Bush turned into official US government policy. Islam is a religion that’s capable of peace, certainly. Sometimes for long historical stretches. But 9/11 and the riots that happen every time somebody threatens to draw a picture of Mohammad argue otherwise.

What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
I think the Glenn Beck-Mitt Romney story will be fascinating. Here you have the Tea Party that has just taken over American politics. It consists largely of conservative Protestants and Catholics but one of the big icons of the movement, Beck, is an unabashed Mormon.

Will Beck decide to back Romney out of solidarity or go against him for ideological reasons? If he opposes Romney, how will his fellow Mormons react? If he backs him, how will his largely evangelical audience react? Evangelicals have historically been extremely anti-Mormon. Could that change? We’ll find out.

Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Trying to understand the world today without taking account of religion is a fool’s errand. You literally cannot make sense of much of history, including recent history, unless you are willing to grapple with the role played by religion. It’s like walking through a busy train station with a bag over your head.

What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
My favorite story recently was about how Rev. Terry Jones got a free car for agreeing not to burn a Koran. This, of course, invites the obvious jokes about opportunism. Religious leaders of the world should know that there are literally thousands of your books that I will agree not to burn if you buy me a Can-Am Spyder Roadster.

But I do think that it also hints at the right kind of solution to some of our social conflicts. True, the Ground Zero Mosque folks — sorry, the two blocks from Ground Zero mosque folks –rejected Donald Trump’s overture. But just before 9/11 this year I had a piece in AOL News that argued mosque opponents should create a “move the mosque” fund. If thousands of people offered them tens of millions of dollars to move the building, say, eight blocks, it would be harder to say no.

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

Don’t get too attached to that idea of mainstream media. It’s all changing, and faster than you think.

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5Q+1: Manya Brachear as Chicago’s ‘Seeker’

During my five years in the Chicago suburbs and a summer internship at a Sun-Times-owned paper, I began to understand just how complicated Chicagoland is to cover. Covering religion in the country’s third largest city is no small task, and religion reporter for the Chicago Tribune Manya Brachear tackles it head on.

Manya Brachear joined the Chicago Tribune in June 2003, covering the papal transition from Rome, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Chicago, debates about gay clergy, interfaith dialogue and religion in American politics. We regularly read her work here at GR.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University and masters’ degrees in journalism and religious studies from Columbia University. She also has written for Time magazine, The Dallas Morning News, Beliefnet.com and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

You can follow The Seeker blog, her Twitter feed and Facebook page. We’ve asked her to respond to our usual 5Q+1.

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

I do the same as all my colleagues: read a variety of blogs and reports from other news outlets. But more importantly, I stay in touch with the community and count on them to let me know when news is brewing. The Tribune now has a hyper-local focus. Localizing national stories just isn’t enough. There needs to be a local person who is driven by faith to do something extraordinary–either extraordinarily good, bad or odd to make into the paper. That simply requires keeping my ear close to the ground and pounding the pavement. Yep, all those old-school cliches you learn in J-school are still what work best.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
I don’t think the mainstream media fully grasp the way religion can motivate people to vote a certain way, act a certain way, lead a certain way. I also don’t think they understand the importance of wading into the messiness of religion, evidenced by how easily they move religion writers–trained professionals specifically fitted to wear those waders–to other beats. Powerbrokers get away with nonchalant God talk because reporters either don’t want to offend or don’t want to cover a debate that has no clear right or wrong resolution. We need to hold everyone accountable when they insert God into the equation.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
There’s been so much focus on objections to the Park 51 mosque, but many other faithful people besides Muslims are vying for rights and getting turned away. Religious discrimination on all fronts has become more acceptable but also more debatable. As some non-profits fight for the right to hire on the basis of religion and still receive federal funding, those who are excluded from applying are alleging discrimination. Meanwhile, religion bashing, which often sounds an awful lot like hate speech, seems to have become acceptable. The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story on September 11 about how three Muslim teenagers who barely remember the events of 9/11 have been teased and taunted as terrorists. I can see how one can argue that the story’s timing was or wasn’t appropriate, but those adults who responded by insulting the teens, calling them liars and suggesting they should just accept it, either missed or proved the point of the story. I look forward to watching how society, including official agencies such as the United Nations, law enforcement, FCC, religious institutions and the mainstream media, address the phenomenon.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Religion motivates people whether they know it or not. Doctors, politicians, philanthropists and business leaders often rely on their faith to guide their actions, sometimes more often than they admit or realize. Furthermore, religion also answers the question “why?” for many people. “Why?” is one of our five Ws. If we journalists fail to understand what drives everyone around us, we fail to answer the “why?” and thus fail to do our jobs.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
The atheists’ bus campaign that appeared on the side of Chicago buses cracked me up. Not only did the ads sponsors use the very evangelization methods they scorn, the ads revealed that even atheists are divided along liberal and conservative lines and vary in degrees of fervor. While some secularists simply seek to promote an ethic of goodwill, others want to dish out what they’ve been taking all these years. While doing my High Holiday reporting, I was reminded of the joke in Jewish circles that three Jews need four synagogues. But after seven years on the religion beat, I’m finding that joke applies to every religious denomination, including the atheists.

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5Q+1: Bruce Nolan, five years after Katrina

Whenever I see Bruce Nolan’s byline, I think of Bruce Almighty, thanks to a post Bobby wrote back in June. On screen, Jim Carrey’s character Bruce Nolan acts as a television reporter who plays God for a bit.

In all seriousness, though, the real journalist Bruce Nolan has done some solid stories down at the The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In case you didn’t hear, there was this thing called Hurricane Katrina, and then another thing called an oil spill.

Nolan’s job has been to dig out religion angles out of what initially seemed to be a natural disaster story and a corporate blunder story. Here’s a sample: Katrina anniversary services as a litmus for the emotional status of the region, collective prayer as a response to the oil spill, seeing the spill theologically as a “sin” against creation, a Jewish social justice training program uses post-Katrina New Orleans as a laboratory, and Katrina radicalizes (and psychologically damages) an Episcopal bishop.

Nolan has spent his entire career at The Times-Picayune, something few reporters can claim. After stints as a reporter, suburban bureau chief and assistant city editor, in 1994, he asked for a six-month sabbatical to get back to writing and cover religion. “After six months everybody liked what was happening, so this long sabbatical just rolls along,” he said.

“Like other reporters of a certain age, I’ve done a lot of laps around the sexual abuse track; kept score in the culture wars and written a lot of clergy profiles and obits,” he said. “In August of 2005, however, I was aboard a Times-Picayune delivery truck that, having participated in a convoy ferrying employees out of the flooded city, doubled back and re-entered. That was the first day of the last story of my career–which story has lasted five years now and still insinuates itself into almost everything we do here.”

Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’ve asked him to answer our usual 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
From the usual places, probably. I have Google Reader, (an RSS feed reader) stuffed with colleagues’ blogs and wires, among them: David Gibson, Rocco’s Whispers, John Allen, Pew, RNA headlines, the RNS blog, Christianity Today, and more. I scan incoming newsletters from churches and synagogues. But the most fascinating stories are the ones that arise outside institutional structure-the ones you don’t recognize at first as religion stories: I mean the baseball Little League for Christian families; the medical school students’ organizing a year-end memorial honoring the people whose corpses they have dissected (true!) This is where you see religion working itself in the most innovative ways–which make for the most interesting news stories.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
A couple of things come to mind. It feels like 1) the whole culture is very near some kind of tipping point on gay marriage and 2) I sense a growing secularization, or at least a growing appetite to find meaning outside organized religion. But more basically, here’s something I think lots of colleagues may recognize: It’s the slightly awkward feeling you get when you tell an editor that in response to some community crisis–a drought; a devastating plant closing; a storm or a massive oil spill–people in the community by the thousands are responding by … praying. Think the evening of 9/11,–but also, much smaller events as well. In lots of newsrooms, that won’t make the cut.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
Since Aug. 29, 2005, we in New Orleans have had a lot on our plate locally, so brawls over sexual abuse, same sex marriage, Manhattan mosques and President Obama’s secret faith don’t get real purchase here. However, it has been immensely interesting to watch faith groups pitch in on the rebuilding of New Orleans, each following a command heard slightly differently, according to their tradition. We’ll keep watching that.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because faith-and everybody believes something–is the way we interpret the world, period. What was the meaning of the hurricane? Am I supposed to assist? Who shall I choose as a spouse? Who shall I vote for? Is this immigration policy just? How do I know? Basic stuff.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
So a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into this bar, and … Oops, wrong cue. Let’s give irony a try. This is Louisiana, home of U.S. Senator David Vitter, one of the most vocal family values champions in that body-before and after he was exposed as a regular customer in a prostitution ring. Perhaps you have someone similar near you. They seem to be proliferating, no?

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Okay, these are hard times. The old struggle to get religion news in the newsroom hierarchy of values endures, with new challenges: not enough bodies; new technologies to learn, you know the drill. But there’s a lot of wisdom out there; some best practices worth studying; smart colleagues to consult. The hive is trying to work this out. If at all possible, try to make it to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver in late September. And one more piece of irony: I can’t make it this year. I’ll miss you, but catch you later.

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5Q+1: Joshunda Sanders on sacred and secular

Today I remembered why I like Joshunda Sanders’ Of Secred and Secular blog so much. She often teases that local angle out of a national issue, or finds something fresh locally.

For instance, she posted something today about how University of North Texas professors are studying the faith of Katrina survivors. This was no press release re-write; She interviewed the professors about how factors like age, previous religious experience and church attendance play a role in the faith of the survivors.

Sanders is the religion reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, where she has worked for five years. The Bronx, NY-native began her newspaper career in 2000 after she graduated from Vassar College as a Hearst Fellow with the Hearst Newspapers Corporation. During her fellowship, she moved every six months for two years and worked at the Houston Chronicle, The Beaumont Enterprise, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle.

She was a features writer at the San Francisco Chronicle between 2002 and 2005. She returned to Texas to write for the Statesman and to attend library school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a master’s of science in information studies in 2009.

She has covered the public safety/cops beat, education, and breaking news at the Statesman before she was promoted to the religion beat in 2009. She has been visiting area churches, speaking to local church leaders about trends, and blogging up a storm since then.

Joshunda also writes creative nonfiction and her essays have appeared in several Seal Press anthologies, including “Secrets and Confidences: The Complicated Truth about Women’s Friendships,” “Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time,” and “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also a lecturer at the University of Texas School of Journalism this semester.

Sanders will join the flock of religion reporters headed to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver September 23-25. Anyone else going?

If you haven’t already, you should add Sanders’ Of Sacred and Secular blog to your bookmarks/readers and follow her on Twitter. We asked her to weigh in on our usual 5Q+1.

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

I have over two dozen RSS feeds in Google Reader that range from Reuters’ FaithWorld, to Spiritual Politics to more obvious choices like USA Today, Washington Post and the New York Times Religion pages and blogs. I also check the Associated Press wires daily and look at the daily roundups from the Religion News Service to see what’s happening around the country and around the world. I also love magazine writing, so when I have time, I scan some of the religious magazines, like Christianity Today or Tablet, along with the more secular ones, like Newsweek, to get a sense of whether there are trends happening that I’m not necessarily looking at, but need to file away for the future.

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

It’s hard to say. I have compassion for mainstream media outlets at a time when blogs and micro blogs keep changing the print and web landscape for writers and readers, exposing us to constant deadlines, competition to have “attitude” like blogs and the expectation that we will also be fair, breaking news and absolutely correct 100 percent of the time right out of the gate. That said, I think the identity crisis that Christian denominations find themselves facing is something we’re not quite getting at, probably because it’s such a vast story. From the Catholic Church’s rising immigrant population to mainline denominations figuring out how to retain young members as older ones die in what seems to be an increasingly non-denominational church world, the identity shift is one that we’re still in and who knows how long it will last. But, like I said, I think that’s a challenging to story to write and stay on top of with all of the expectations for reporters to produce across media platforms.

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

I’ll be looking closely at the issue of clergy health locally to get a sense of whether national denominational efforts have trickled down to Austin, which is known as a fit town full of runners and cyclists and people who are concerned with their overall wellness.

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

I used to be a cops reporter, a features writer and for a very short time, an education writer. Each of those positions sometimes offered trend stories that affected a large audience in theory, but in practice, none of the stories I’ve worked on up to this point (10 years as a reporter, five years at the Statesman) seem to have resonated with readers in the same way as stories about belief, non-belief, tradition, faith and spirituality. I think religion resonates for people because folks in our society have been trained only to talk about religion in private (kind of like their ideas about sex or money, I suppose) but the web and the 24/7 news cycle gives people an anonymous forum for discussing their thoughts about faith. That’s a good and a bad thing, but the best thing about it is that people have access to so much information about all kinds of things that allow them to put in context the things we experience on an everyday basis. Insofar as religion or faith or agnosticism affects the way that people live their lives or conduct themselves as public officials, this is tremendously important for journalists to understand in as nuanced a way as possible.

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

As a native New Yorker who once worked briefly in the World Trade Center as a college intern, I loved the Washington Post piece that interviewed apathetic New Yorkers about the Cordoba House/Park51 debate, which has become more of a political joust than a meaningful discussion about what turns a prayer room a mosque, how we decide what truly makes President Obama or anyone a “real” Christian or Muslim, and why it’s impossible for us to identify people as Islamophobes without being labeled socialists.

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

I think it’s amazing that mainstream media still has writers devoted to religion coverage and I think it’s a privilege to be counted among that group. In my case, I actually write on other topics as part of a slim staff, but most of the time my editors are gracious enough to let me blog and write about religion, which I have come to love. I don’t know that readers understand fully the statement that the presence of religion writers sends about the organizations that are still committed to the coverage–that religion is still worth talking about because it touches all of the important areas of our lives whether we are believers or not. I’m probably biased because I work for a newspaper, but while I think it’s important to give writers, editors and content producers at news organizations constructive criticism, I also believe it’s important to affirm the religion writers who get it right or try their best, and I think that’s the incredibly valuable service that
GetReligion provides. So, thanks for that!

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5Q+1: Grossman’s faithful reasoning

If you’re not following Cathy Lynn Grossman on Twitter or include Faith & Reason & USA Today‘s religion stories bookmarked/on your RSS feed, stop whatever you’re doing and right that wrong.

Grossman might be one of the most connected religion reporters on the map, monitoring the news and staying in touch with religious leaders all over the country. She is a regular for GetReligion, as we are often reading her work and keeping in conversation with her.

Grossman studied journalism and urban studies at Medill at Northwestern University. She spent 17 years covering almost everything except sports, courts and business at the Miami Herald before moving to USA Today in 1989. Here’s her version of what happened next:

My claims to fame are simple: I had a “Pulitzer” at 23 by naming my dog after the prize; I covered the 1973 Arab Israeli War and the 1976 Entebbe rescue; ran feature projects for The Herald; discovered a passion I still have for survey research and finding stories in numbers; spent many years covering travel at USA Today before convincing bosses in 1999 that the inner journey was a better story than the outer one.

Check out some of Grossman’s provocative responses to GR’s 5Q+1.

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

I constantly follow wires, other blogs, social networks, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the major magazines–Christianity Today, Baptist Press, America, First Things, Commonweal, The Forward, Moment and more.

But in the end, my primary source is my own curiosity. Once you start looking for news that touches or expresses peoples’ visions and values, you see it everywhere. Every decision we–or our politicians–make about health, education, welfare, peace, justice or economics speaks to our worldview.

My dual life as beat reporter and as blogger allows me to jump in where I don’t have a story myself. I can delve into questions raised by reporting elsewhere and bring them to readers to puzzle over as well. The role of Faith & Reason is to create conversation.

Here’s a typical process for me. Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings are coming up and that revives a slew of questions:

“How did we wind up with six Catholics and, likely, three Jews on the Supreme Court? Could it be that both traditions place a high value on “works” or as much value on justice as on grace? If President Obama had appointed a mainline social gospel-focused Protestant to the court, would conservative evangelicals still have felt they were no longer “represented?”

(Note: I always have a slew of questions. It is impossible for me to ask only one. I am my mother’s daughter and 10 to 15 questions at machine-gun speed are nothing for mom.)

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

Actually, the story the mainstream media does get–and GetReligion doesn’t like–is the “meh” story, the “whatever” trend to the ever-climbing numbers of the Don’t Know/Don’t Care crowd.

The problem, in part, is the data. We rely on surveys that ask people clear choices like spiritual and/or religious but rare is the survey that lets people say they believe “nothing in particular” and do nothing about it.

Frequently, GR will critique stories for failing to get very religiously particular, slapping media around for failing to spell out what exactly is Tim Tebow’s theology, for example. I would argue that you can deal with it once, maybe, but not every time Tebow is in a story. You could spell it out in detail but readers by and large would not grasp where those views stand on the theological spectrum or how close or far these are to what they believe, because they actually know very little themselves.

We cover the beejeebers out of institutional fights, the sexual abuse crisis and the latest missteps or controversial quotes of high profile religious leaders. Yet we seem to miss that for all the preaching, teaching, Internet outreach, church planting and general rah-rah, the number of people who worship is the same small percentage it has been for decades. Are religions failing? That’s the story.

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

I track three major groups: People of faith who believe there is absolute truth; those who accept, even celebrate, that truth is pluralistic, relative and changing; and the Don’t Know/Don’t Care group. Almost every story I do stands on how one or more of these groups respond to–and often clash over–the news of the day. Their tracks can lead to a story on Millennials ditching religion or to one on the small but insistent traditionalist counter stream.

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

Religion news well done goes to the core of a story: How and why we think what we think, act as we do, dream as we may. If you don’t delve into these aspects–and attend closely for the flickering candle or incense whiff of belief behind someone’s ideas or actions–you haven’t really told their story, whether it’s on the front page, the sports page, entertainment or features.

I do, however, disagree with Ross Douthat that the mass media should be a forum for debating the truth claims of faith. Nor do I feel remotely guilty for failing to promote these debates. Books, journals and salons–and churches, synagogues and mosques–are the home for these discussions. You can have them next week, last week or never. I work for and delight in news–beliefs come to life.

But the stories and blog posts that work–that grab and hold readers–must be rooted in ideas. “Local” stories needs national context from the start. This is why I am wary of the hot trend now to hyper-local community news coverage.

In this age, people define their “neighborhood” by their community of interests and views–hobbies, politics, personal ties–not by geography. My 24-year-old will never read a Philly paper to find out what the news is in Center City because, in her mind, she “lives” in a network of college pals, in the design worlds of New York and London, in emo rock bands she follows. But she’ll read a debate on the death penalty or inter-religious marriage or a profile of a Supreme Court nominee.

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

Is there someone reading this whose first response to the unveiling of hypocrisy isn’t a self-righteous hoot of laughter before we recover our senses (and remember our own failings) enough to feel sorry for the person? Come on, be honest. Remember, Ted Haggard? Hypocrisy will always be news when religious leaders, like politicians or anyone who professes to offer a vision of truth to the world, is be caught stepping, or sneaking, outside boundaries they themselves defined.

When I was still covering travel full time for USA Today and sneaking off to do religion stories as often as I could, I found the perfect best-of-both-worlds story: A flight attendant was fired. She said it was because she was reading the Bible on company time and someone objected. The airline said she was proselytizing on flights including leaving tracts in the bathrooms. She lost. But who won?

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

If you are a reader of religion stories and blogs, make your mark–put a civil comment on the post or story and help keep these kinds of stories in our common civic conversation.

If you are a religion reporter, take a little heart and a little action. The Internet revolution in news delivery may be doing one great favor for religion reporters. At last, we have proof of the high, responsive readership we always knew was out there. The editors know what your metrics are. And if you want to keep this beat alive, you’ll find out, too. What you’ll probably find is that week after week your stories or blog posts draw more eyeballs and keep them longer than many other topics. So go make friends with the numbers people at your company and find out how well you are doing.

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5Q+1: Burke’s belief in the religion beat

Can you imagine the topics of conversation at the dinner table in the Burke household in Baltimore? My guess is that Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham come up on occasion.

You might just call Melissa Nann Burke and Daniel Burke a religion reporting power couple; Melissa is the religion reporter for the York (Pa.) Daily Record and Daniel works for Religion News Service.

We wanted to dig into the religion climate at one of Pennsylvania’s local dailies, so we asked Melissa to answer the usual GetReligion questions. She has worked for the Daily Record for four years and blogs regularly for the newspaper’s Belief and Beyond.

Melissa studied journalism at George Washington University and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has received awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors and Religion Newswriters Association’s Cassel’s Religion Reporting Awards for small newspapers. Her reporting on the finances of the nonprofit Angel Food Ministries was named one of four finalists in its category in the Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards this year.

Check out her strong plug for the religion beat in her answers to GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
Locally, from first-hand reporting, reading my newspaper, attending services and events in the community and following clergy and other locals on Twitter.

To keep up on news elsewhere, I read other newspapers, the daily roundup on Religion News Service’s blog and the weekly ReligionLink.org. I have Google News Alerts on my favorite religion reporters around the country to see what they’re writing about. Several groups send a helpful roundup of headlines to my e-mail Inbox, such as the Pew Forum, Zenit, CT Direct, FCC Newsclips (religious freedom news), Faith in Public Life and the Chronicle of Philanthropy for nonprofit news. World Faith News compiles official press releases from faith groups. I listen to NPR’s weekly podcast with the week’s religion stories. I check the blogs Religion Clause, The Seeker, On Faith, Whispers in the Loggia and the Dallas Morning News and Baltimore Sun religion blogs, among others.

I’m also married to RNS reporter Danny Burke. We sometimes suggest story ideas for one another but try not to talk shop much at home. Emphasis on try.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
That’s too wide net to cast. I don’t think there’s a story the entire mainstream media is misunderstanding.

Journalists err sometimes. Too often those mistakes aren’t corrected fully. Rarely, however, do reporters set out to slant a story, leave out a source or ignore a newsworthy angle. The mistakes usually occur under the stress of deadlines or — more frequently these days — due to a lack of space to explain context and details.

I will offer a story that I’d like to see more of (and hope to pursue myself) — the experience of Muslims living in small-town, rural America, away from the network and support of a large metropolitan faith community.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
The Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, which covers central Pennsylvania, is expecting a new bishop to be appointed soon. Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades moved on to head the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana in January. Once a new bishop’s installed, there’s likely to be a period of change and adjustment here. I’ll be monitoring that.

I also keep an eye out for story ideas about the conflict between religion and science — especially science education. York County, Pa., is home to Dover Area School District, which received much attention during the intelligent design trial of 2005. My readers won’t forget that ordeal anytime soon.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Closely held beliefs affect people’s decision-making on everything from how to spend their money to how to raise their children to how they vote. My job as a religion reporter is telling stories about how folks live out these beliefs in their everyday lives. I hope these stories are written and reported so that they resonate with believers and agnostics alike. I want my readers to learn and better understand the faith communities around them — no matter the readers’ level of spiritual commitment.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
Nothing coming to mind here.

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

I wince hearing about religion reporter colleagues leaving the beat — either laid off, retiring or more often reassigned. The beat’s becoming more complex, and we’re losing those who know it best.

Dear readers, if want to continue to read quality religion journalism, someone’s got to dig it up for you. Write or call your friendly neighborhood newspaper editor and tell them why religion coverage is important to you. They’ll listen.

Reporters, if you haven’t already, find great tips and training on the beat through the Religion Newswriters Association. This year’s conference is in Denver from Sept. 23-25. For scholarship info, visit RNA.org.

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5Q+1: Julia Duin and her times

Sunday is the much-overlooked Christian feast of Pentecost and we live in an era in which the global rise of Pentecostalism is simply — this cannot be debated — one of the most important religion stories of our time. Ask the experts at the Pew Forum on the Religion & Public Life.

So I thought this would be a good time for a 5Q+1 with a religion-beat veteran who has just written a book that addresses a variety of newsworthy topics linked to this trend — such as the impact of Charismatic renewal in the national and global Anglican scene and ways in which this freewheeling form of faith can be a source of great strength and a door into forms of leadership that can be abused.

The book is “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” and the author is Julia Duin, who is best known, for those who have long followed religion-news coverage, for her work at the Houston Chronicle and at the Washington Times. In all, she has worked at five mainstream newspapers, often earning high marks in Religion Newswriters of America contests and written five books, including another recent work that drew media attention — “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It.”

“Days of Fire and Glory” cuts especially close to the bone, since it focuses on events in the nationally known Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which Duin attended during her Houston years. The other key word in the title is “community,” since much of the work of that parish revolved around the lives of individuals and families that, literally, lived in common households, communities, communes, etc. This fascinated Duin since she had experience with life in a Christian community in Portland. For more information on this fascinating and frightening book, which is rooted in 20 years of research and interviews, see this review by journalist George Conger of the Church of England Newspaper.

Duin was born in Baltimore and was raised in Hawaii, Maryland, Connecticut and Oregon. She is a graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland and has a master’s degree in religion from the Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary in Ambridge, Pa. For more information on her work and interests, visit her homepage and blog.

So here are her responses to those familiar questions:

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

I check GR and Whispers in the Loggia every morning plus I get literally hundreds of emails from Richard Kim, an Episcopal-turned-Anglican priest who operates an informal wire service of religion news. He scoops up a lot of stuff. When I have time, I check Rod Dreher’s weblog, Titus 1:9 and then the Episcopal Cafe, to see what the left is up to.

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

Overseas religious persecution tops the list. I did a front-page story recently on how the Chinese government is killing off hundreds — no one knows the true number — of Falun Gong prisoners for their organs and I got no pickups. Now that story is not completely new but the MSM is not touching it. It’s Nazi horror stuff: people getting snuffed out for their skin, lungs, corneas, livers and kidneys. The Falun Gong had a press conference recently in the Capitol on this — with secular folks who are not part of their movement testifying — and it was pathetic how few media attended. The slow strangulation of Orthodox Copts by the Egyptian government is another story. Teen-aged girls are getting kidnapped, gang-raped and forced to convert to Islam. Islamic mobs attack Christians with impunity. These stories are not hard to do but I don’t see journalists out there doing them.

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

I just did a series on the interfaith movement and how interesting combos of Jews, Mormons and Muslims are getting together, setting up think tanks and institutes and holding off-the-record meetings on ways they can work together. One New York foundation — led by a rabbi — does nothing but get foreign imams and rabbis together for several days to teach them how to import American-style interfaith networks into their own countries. I’m also watching how Islamic governments (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kazakhstan) are sponsoring all these interfaith conferences; in fact, Kazakhstan is having yet another one next month. Meanwhile there’s these off-the-record meetings American evangelicals are having with Muslim governments, such as Morocco, about religious freedom.

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

It informs everything we do and religion stories are truly everywhere. When you’ve got 95 percent of the American public believing in God; when religious events are Americans’ biggest leisure activity, when Americans spend millions of dollars on sports, but billions on religion (the late George Cornell of the Associated Press did a story in 1994 that actually proved this); then you have to ask why religion stories rarely make the top of A1 unless it’s about the pope. And why is it that journalists who’ve attended a religious college or seminary find it nearly impossible to get hired at a major newspaper? And why is it that sports gets 20-30 writers and photographers and a whole section to itself while at the same paper one reporter has to cover all the major world religions plus several thousand churches, mosques, temples and synagogues in his or her city?

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

The way Jim Wallis has become a statesman for the Religious Left. I’ve watched Sojourners since 1976 and how it started out as evangelical group that morphed into a mainline Protestant institution. There was a total vacuum of leadership and Jim neatly stepped into it, creating himself a place on the New York Times bestseller list in the process.

On the other end of the spectrum, I am amazed at how people who jumped on the Charismatic renewal bandwagon 30 years ago don’t want to be identified with it today, now that it’s no longer fashionable. Instead, they’ve gone Reformed, neo-Calvinist, emergent or whatever the theological flavor of the year is.

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

I still wish the beat was given the respect that politics, entertainment and sports get. There could be a minimum of five-six reporters per media outlet covering religion because believe me, the stories are out there. Not only the predictable stuff but there are some great scandals out there I’d love to go after if I had the time and the staff. What’s been so disheartening over the years is to see how the largest media outlets consistently hire reporters for the religion beat who have little or no experience or background in religion coverage. I watch these reporters and usually they last 2-3 years max. At the same time, these media outlets demand years of expertise when it comes to staffing the beats they really care about, such as the environment, entertainment, health and election coverage.

So to all you recruiters out there: Don’t just pick someone from your existing staff to plug the religion hole. Do a national search for the right person. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of talent out there and the number of people who have honed their skills in small and medium markets, who’ve done graduate work in religion and would love the chance to cover the Godbeat in a way that would make the most impact.

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5Q+1: Meet Tim Townsend in St. Louis

St. Louis may be best known for its Gateway Arch, but for GetReligion regulars, perhaps it’s best known for Tim Townsend. We’re regularly reading reports from Townsend, who has been the religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since June 2004. He also writes a news analysis column, called “Keep the Faith,” and oversees the newspaper’s faith blog Civil Religion. He previously covered personal finance and consumer news for The Wall Street Journal.

Townsend came to St. Louis with a long resume that keeps growing. He holds master’s degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Divinity School and has taught religion journalism at Webster University in St. Louis. He is a fellow with the “Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought” project at the University of Notre Dame, and has been a Gralla Fellow at Brandeis University and a fellow with the “Covering Islam and Muslims in America” program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

In 2005, Townsend won the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. His book Evil Will: An American Pastor’s Battle for Nazi Souls at Nuremberg & The Ancient Alliance Between the Divine and the Damned is forthcoming from William Morrow. We asked Townsend to weigh in on GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
I read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every day (in print – yes, I’m old) – not necessarily just for religion news, though I obviously do pay attention to that – but to just make sure I know what else is going on in those two papers’ worlds and how that information might have a broader connection to religion. I also try to check out the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times online. I’m a big context and history person and I think pointing out the broader ripples of any story I’m writing is really important for readers. I also read a lot of local religion publications – the St. Louis Review (St. Louis Archdiocese), the Jewish Light, the Pathway (Missouri Baptist Convention), and the Lutheran Witness (LCMS). And then some national denominational stuff – National Catholic Reporter, Our Sunday Visitor, the Christian Century, the Forward. And of course local and not-so-national religion blogs, including GR, the Revealer, PoliticsDaily, Beliefnet, the Seeker, the American Muslim, Whispers in the Loggia, On Faith.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
Since I’m a card carrying member of the mainstream media, I’m not really sure how to answer that. But I think a story that needs more attention in quarters beyond MSM religion reporting (where many of us do cover it) is the struggle of the American Muslim community in the nearly 10 years since the September 11th attacks. Some have done it very well. Andrea Elliott at the NYT comes to mind. I’ve been in the unique position of having watched and reported on the attacks on the World Trade Center from a couple blocks away as it was happening, and then moving to the Midwest to report on the American Muslim community’s challenge of trying to live a normal life in the attacks’ aftermath. It’s not an easy thing to cover, but there are so many good stories to be had there, especially among children who were 10 or 12 at the time, and spent their teenage years coping with the difficulty of what it means to be a Muslim in this country. Those kids are now entering adulthood and their experiences as teens are going to be formative for our country.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
Not just as a religion story, but I’d say the story of immigration is so important, and always has been, in this country. Each generation seems to forget that we were all immigrants at some point, and the tension in that is such great journalistic fodder. It’ll be fascinating to see how the power shift in the Catholic church, for instance, shifts from northeast to the south. I think we’ll be able to use religion as a mirror to tell stories about the browning of America over the next 25 years (I know you only asked me to look about a year or two.) Also: SnoCones.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because it’s everywhere. One of the great pleasures of my job is that I can write about anything, because everything bumps up against religion. That spectrum is evident in GR’s posts. I’ve written about religion and sports, religion and business, religion and politics, religion and entertainment, religion and SnoCones. I’m in a unique position in my newsroom because I’m the only religion specialist we have. That gives me a great perspective on how other reporters approach (or, more likely run away from) the religion angle in a story. A lot of reporters are a bit scared of religion – the third rail of the newsroom – and probably some feel lucky that I’m there to answer any questions they have on deadline. In the same way, I’m scared out of my mind to look at an earnings report on deadline, so I feel lucky there’s a business reporter nearby to calm me down. I’m also lucky to have the kind of position in the newsroom where I feel like my editors and reporter colleagues value whatever knowledge I bring to the paper and our readers.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
A local pastor pitched me a story yesterday about what he called “the onion ring of hope.” I wondered first if it was something about being gluten-free, or possibly Obama-related. It turns out some guy nearly ate a Dairy Queen onion ring, but then saw that it resembled a “do not” symbol and it reminded him of the pledge he made to his daughter to stop eating crappy food. He was auctioning off the onion ring of hope on eBay to help raise money for a local ministry organization. That’s A1 material, baby!!

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Just that I hope it exists 10 years from now. Two great practitioners of the beat – Eric Gorski and Michael Paulson – left recently for other journalism jobs, but there are still a ton of religion reporters out there, hoping the beat survives. I’m one of those who’s out there hoping. So I’m heading out to Dairy Queen for an order of onion rings.

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