Assessing the state of the Godbeat

I posted earlier this week on three veteran superstars of the Godbeat — Ann Rodgers, Bob Smietana and Tim Townsend — deciding to leave major daily newspapers.

I noted a tweet in which The New York Times’ religion writer Laurie Goodstein joked, “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Playing off Goodstein’s quip, I suggested that someone — I nominated former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey — should “step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore.”

My choice of terminology, even while typing with my tongue firmly in cheek, was not the best.

My phrasing prompted a gentle pushback from tmatt in the comments section:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

I agree. I nominate Sarah to write a definitive piece for Poynter.org

RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, meanwhile, strapped on a rhetorical holster and came out firing (take cover, fellow GetReligion contributors!):

Or, how about this? Rather than conclude (without any basis in reality) that “no one wants to cover religion anymore,” perhaps it’d be a good idea to ask why these folks are leaving the beat (it’s complicated) and whether these positions will be filled (most likely).

But that’s not the way GR does things. Shoot first and never ask the appropriate questions later. C’mon, guys, you can do better than this. Or at least you should.

You can read my response to Eckstrom (and his response to my response) in the comments section of that original post.

Eckstrom complained that Poynter.org picked up on my question and that I didn’t do the religion beat “any favors with careless irresponsible exaggerations.” 

In fact, this was the headline on Poynter’s follow-up on my post:

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Hey, you put your opinion in my news!

One of the many products offered by Religion News Service is its daily round-up of news items, a chatty summary that is almost always infused with opinion. Here’s an example from earlier this month:

The Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit civil liberties group, posted on its website last week that it had discovered that six people chosen to review biology textbooks for the state had ties to creationism. That was later amended to four. Still.

Still … what? I mean, I have no idea how the much abused term “creationism” is being defined in this coverage of a biology textbook writing controversy, but I do believe God created the heavens and the earth. Was this RNS item an attack on religious adherents like me? It seemed oddly hostile.

Last month the round-up included this bit:

Yesterday we wrote in this space about how two of our guest commentators — Barry Lynn and G. Welton Gaddy — did not mince words when decrying the assertion that there is a war against Christians in the military. But the Rev. Tom Ehrich has set the bar for higher  today — adding a healthy dose of outrage to his candor. His column begins:

It is tragic to watch contemptuous right-wingers declaring war on America.

Not that everyone doesn’t want to parse the fine points of distinction between the views of Barry Lynn and C. Welton Gaddy, much less between them and the Rev. Tom Ehrich, but is there room for another perspective in the opposite direction? Or as one observer asked:

Any chance for coverage of views on the other side, on the equal access side?

That’s not the only religion angle in play. I wrote a fairly middle-of-the-road take on evangelism in the military for the Wall Street Journal recently but there are views far to the other side of those featured by RNS.

And then today there was a tweet from RNS that read:

#RowanWilliams tells #Christians in the West who feel persecuted to “grow up.” ‘Bout time someone said it. http://ow.ly/nZo4h

With the caveat that I’d gotten in a bit of a dust-up with the great Alan Jacobs on just this issue this morning (because I sometimes forget, in the absence of coffee, to avoid battles with people far wiser than I could every hope to be), this ” ’bout time” sneering left a bad taste in my mouth.

I wrote: “Wow. Disdain much?”

Ted Olsen of Christianity Today responded “Gotta agree with Mollie. I don’t quite get RNS’s move toward mixing opinion and reporting. Esp. odd post-RNA merger.” And our own Bobby added, “With its snarky daily roundups and tweets, @RNS does seem increasingly willing to voice its opinion. Is this on purpose?”

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Religion journalists save the day for young scribes

Last night I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion for The Fund for American Studies’ Institute on Political Journalism. This summer program gives students internships at media organizations, coursework in politics and economics, and other features (such as mentors to guide you as you start your career).

Anywho, the director asked me to put together a panel of religion journalists and I was thrilled that both Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, and Kim Lawton, managing editor of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, graciously gave their time and wisdom to the students of the program.

First, here’s a bit of a scene-setter.

In high school, my journalism teacher told us a story about a horrible interview she once watched. A major flood had swept through a canyon in Colorado. A reporter approached a man who’d just seen his wife and kids swept away and asked him how he felt. Everyone was understandably appalled at the lack of humanity that reporter displayed in putting a man on camera and asking such a question at the worst moment of his life. I try to keep that in mind when I’m talking to people who have undergone some tragedy. And it makes me reticent to approach some people or ask too many questions.

Lawton told a wonderful story about reporting on a disaster zone that really moved me.

Arriving after some horrific travel delays, she had to rush to complete her interviews. As she got to the village where her interviews would take place, she said she just felt icky about the work she was about to do — like a vulture descending on these poor people. But she had to do her work and so she began asking people about how they felt regarding the tragedy they’d endured. As she got going, the crowd of people wishing to tell their stories grew and grew. She ended up unhooking the microphone from the camera so the camera man could complete the footage they needed to gather and just stayed there long after her own purposes, letting people speak into the microphone about their story.

I’m probably doing a disservice to the story, but it was such a wonderful reminder that journalism need not be invasive or an unwelcome necessity. It can also be healing and a beautiful way to connect with our fellow man.

Eckstrom gave great advice to the young whippersnappers — all college-aged kids — about the importance of mastering multimedia journalism. Basic reporting and writing skills are essential, but you can’t just be a writer these days, you have to figure out how to shoot and cut video, too. He also encouraged the students to be creative about how they present information.

Which is all a long way of getting to what I wanted to highlight.

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