Beat The Devil: Real life on the religion beat (1985)

On the religion beat, you can be your own worst enemy. But sometimes it’s your editor

By Terry Mattingly
(Copyright) The Quill:
The Society of Professional Journalists
April of 1985

    “Mattingly!” the editor said.  “There’s too much Jesus in this story.”
     It was hard to tell if he was joking. I took him seriously and tried to explain that whenever the person I was writing about opened his mouth some kind of faith-soaked religious language came out. His speaking style was part of the story, I argued.
     The editor was still a little uncomfortable: “Well, okay.  Just try to tone it down a little. OK?”
     I tried to tone it down a little.

    When I wrote what became “The religion beat: out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets” (the QUILL, January 1983) I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I had worked for three or four years as a copy editor and reporter (and rock’n’ roll columnist, for that matter). I had not, however worked as a full-time religion writer.
 Now, two years later, leaving my first job as a religion writer, in Charlotte, N.C., for my second, in Denver, I have the perspective of personal experience.
    Organized religion, like journalism or politics or any other subculture, has its own jargon and a system of symbols encrusted with centuries of history.
    American politics can get complex, and its symbols are often strained to the limit. Still, there is one national political system. The nation’s churches and denominations operate with systems of government ranging from the intricate, gray-suited formality of a Presbyterian convention to the spirit-filled, hard-earned dollars-on-the-table freedom of a business meeting in a local Assembly of God church. News events may exist in words openly distributed in a denominational newspaper or in whispered prayers between shouted sermons at a healing rally.
    So, when an editor shoots an icy stare at his religion writer and mutters something like, “Look, don’t give me all of this religious-sounding crap. Nobody’s going to understand it. Just give me the facts,” the odds are that what he wants to do is take the religion out of religion writing. I have had the experience of trying to convince an editor that it really will matter if people who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true gain control of the Southern Baptist Convention. I learned on that occasion that the words “biblical inerrancy” will turn a city editor into a pillar of salt.
    It is crucial for respect and trust to flow both ways between editors and religion writers. This obvious statement must be made because so few editors understand religion and religious people. Cal Thomas of the Moral Majority and others of the religious right-wing have taken some perverse pleasure in citing that fact or fanciful versions of it. But they are not seeing the complete picture.
    The main problem is not the lack of religion in the nation’s newsrooms — it is a lack of respect for religion in the nation’s newsrooms. There is also, in some cases, a lack of trust in journalists who choose to pursue careers as religion writers

    Few editors are experts in film, rock’n’ roll, business, television, or education. But these fields, and the writers who cover them, are respected. Business and entertainment earn pages of ink in most newspapers, as do education, food and travel.
    And there is sports.
    I can’t imagine an editor saying to a sports reporter, “Look don’t give me any of this crap about the split end finding a seam in the zone between the free safety and the rover and catching a bomb on a post pattern for the winning score. Just give me the facts.”
    Content and style also mix in religion.
    It is not, I repeat, just a matter of newsrooms being secular. I know of journalists with no personal commitment to religion who have supported and helped produce quality religion coverage.  I have already lucked into working with a few. Some people realize religion is a force in America, with a powerful style all its own. Many people do not — including some who manage newsrooms.

    Almost all reporters, I have been told, have thin skins. This is certainly true of young religion writers.
    At least a dozen of them called me, after reading my original QUILL piece, to talk about their fears and problems. There are some editors who do not believe religion is an appropriate focus for journalistic ambition.
    One editor said to me, while debating the merits of a story, “Terry, we know you are a good religion writer. Now we want you to think of yourself as a journalist.” It took me a week to realize he did not know he had insulted me. Later another editor told me I was too “emotionally involved” in my work.
    I have, I am sure, caused myself grief by blowing some problems out of proportion. It’s easy for a reporter committed to quality religion writing to imagine anti-religion editors behind every desk, just waiting to cut the soul out of a story, sending you running for a swig of Maalox.
    But I have learned there are also editors who, as they learn more about religion, become better judges of a religion reporter’s work. It is tough work to translate religion into newswriting. It helps to know that your editor understands the subject well enough to assist you in the struggle.
    Most religion writers I know want that kind of help. It is tempting to try to hide second-rate reporting in a swarm of religious clichés — or sports or rock or political clichés.
    Soon after arriving in Charlotte, I wrote a story on that bitter dispute in the Southern Baptist Convention over whether the Bible is “inerrant,” that is without errors of any kind. One reason the battle had been so open, I wrote, was the SBC’s roots in the “free church” and an editor caught it. I was wrong.
    Another time, however, an editor told me no one would understand a reference, in a column, to someone “walking the aisle during the invitation hymn.” Maybe no one would understand those words in Bangkok. But in Charlotte, North Carolina?
    Do readers understand terms like “evangelical,” “fundamentalist” or “born again?” How about “full Gospel,” “mysterious presence,” or “liberation theology?” There ought, it seems to me, to be tow kinds of religion writing: one with the simplicity to be grasped by all readers and one with enough stylistic integrity for the religious community. Obviously, the first form must predominate.
    Religion writers have long pleaded for our stories to be played in the prime news pages. We must accept that there is another side to this coin: Stories must be written to compete for that space; we must improve our skills.
    But I still believe editors should trust a trained religion writer’s judgment on most style and content issues, as is functionally the case in subjects like sports, entertainment, and business.

    A subtler problem is that while the news media are beginning to accept some of the blunt faith-language of the religious right–even if with a condescending wink — there is little tolerance for the complex, sometimes intellectual faith-language of religious moderates and liberals. Religious language is very personal and, like it or not, it is usually subtle. How do you condense events full of mystery, symbolism, and intellect into “crunch” grafs in news stories? It’s unfair for the media to turn people on the right into caricatures of mindless Bible-thumpers, and just as unfair to portray those of the center and left as faithless intellectuals and politicos — unless the shoe happens to fit a particular foot. It helps to know a little about religion when making such judgments.
    The moderates and liberals often do have one advantage over the religious right. They know how to approach controversial subjects in ways that journalists consider newsworthy. A three-day meeting on the topic, “Is god female? — The role of today’s Christian woman,” will attract press attention more easily than a fundamentalist revival meeting that includes a blunt sermon on the problems facing modern families. Religion mixed with politics or social change is news; saving souls is not, unless we’re talking about saving thousands of souls simultaneously and in a bizarre manner.
    The religion beat is not he only field where it is hard to spot and define trends before they become obvious. But there are at least two reasons why it’s especially hard for religion writers to sell their hunches to editors.
    First, long before a religious trend affects congregations or national denominations — causing public fights and local strife — it exists as an idea, usually an idea about something the Bible says. Religious ideas bother many editors. People getting emotional about such ideas is even worse.
    Last year a wire editor asked me if it was important that the Southern Baptist Convention’s president had said that his denomination — the nation’s largest Protestant group — needed its first creed. Was it worth a filler story? Well, yes, I said, after calming down. Was Vatican II worth a filler?

    The second problem with religious trends is that they usually start with small groups of people in churches and synagogues and mosques. This is logical, if you stop to think about it. But editors have a natural reaction to enthusiastic reporters with hunches about trends: If this is such a good story, why haven’t I heard about it or seen it in Newsweek? On the religion beat this problem becomes a true Catch-22.
    It’s beyond dispute by now that the news media ought to cover religion. How they should do so raises institutional questions of column inches, job titles, and dollars in the travel budget. Should it be treated as a city-desk beat for rookies, a feature beat, a semi-political beat, or a prestigious specialty beat? Should the stories be limited to a religious section? Should there be a weekly religion column?
    I’ve found that religion is a subject that likes to wander through the newspaper — drifting onto page one, then over to Op-ed, and then into the entertainment section or even sports. Sometimes religion needs a softer, feature-oriented approach — which takes space. Other stories are hard news and should appear on the local-news front. Major stories should be written for everyone and pushed for page one. Some trend stories may fit in the editorial pages.
    I used to think religion pages were old hat. My views have changed. Religion pages, and columns, make excellent safety valves. A space clearly labeled “religion” can ease the pressure that builds up when editors and writers try to jam stories into the space and style limitations of hard-news pages.
    However a news organization arranges its space and personnel, serious coverage of religion is going to be shortchanged as long as many editors still feel about religion writers as E.M. Forster’s character Ronny feels about religion itself; Ronny “approved of religion as long as it endorsed the national anthem, but…objected when it attempted to influence his life.”

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