I was, at best, an oddball choice to be editor of the most award-winning newspaper religion section in the nation.

I didn't have any special knowledge of religion, beyond that of a regular churchgoer. I had never covered religion. I was a mainline Protestant raised among Roman Catholics and Jews in my suburban Cleveland hometown, but I was living in Dallas, land of Baptists. I hadn't read much of the Bible, beyond what I had heard in church. And at the time, I was deputy arts editor, covering television, which, let's say, involves a different set of morals and values.

A month after being named religion editor at The Dallas Morning News, a veteran religion reporter asked, "How does it feel to inherit the 500-pound gorilla?" It turned out to be a good wrestling match, one that taught me that the religion beat requires, first, our best journalistic skills and passions. In an industry confronting stiff challenges, covering religion well is about much more than hiring people with experience and expertise.

I am proud to be among the many "novices" to the beat who have "blossomed," as Julia Duin wrote. While I was religion editor at the Morning News, the staff won seven national awards for producing the best newspaper religion section in the country. I'm now editor of ReligionLink, a free Internet news source on religion, public policy, and culture provided by the Religion Newswriters Association and its foundation. I've taught seminars on religion reporting and spoken about religion and media at conventions around the country. I'm half-done with a master of theological studies degree at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, where I have a 3.9 GPA.

But this isn't about me, because I couldn't have done any of this without a lot of support and mentoring from a wide variety of people who have helped me learn about religion in my professional and personal life. It's about what makes a successful religion journalist and why I still have hope that the media in this country -- religion specialists or not -- can learn to cover religion in smarter and more sensitive ways. Tsunamis, presidential elections, terrorist attacks, corporate scandals, clergy sexual abuse and more have shown that it is critical for all journalists -- and everyone else -- to gain a better understanding of how religion and ethics influence people's actions.

I've been fortunate to work with some of the best and brightest religion reporters in the country. I've also been in a position to interview and hire a good number of them. I never ask what their religious affiliation is, if any. I never ask if they're religious. I've never asked how much time they've spent reading the Bible or any sacred text. Here's what I look for:

  • Immense curiosity about religion and a willingness to learn -- and keep learning -- about it.

  • Recognition that religion is a potent force that unites and divides people in powerful ways that affect everything from military conflicts to government policy to everyday actions in ordinary people's lives.

  • Sensitivity to nuances of all kinds.

  • A commitment to covering all kinds of diversity -- of faith, both within Christianity and outside of it; and of ethnicity, gender, economic status, and geography.

  • Willingness to spend time with all different sorts of people in the places where they live, gather, and worship. Willingness to work through language and cultural challenges.

  • Strong news skills, because religion includes much more than feature stories.

  • An abiding sense of fairness and balance, and an understanding that there are often more than two sides to a story.

  • The ability to accurately and fairly describe very different beliefs, even if the journalist personally disagrees with them or if a news report raises questions about them.

  • The absence of any interest in pushing any religious viewpoint.

  • Excellent writing skills, with the ability to describe rituals in ways that invite readers and viewers into worlds they've never experienced and the ability to be precise about doctrines and beliefs.

I have hired and worked with people both with and without academic training in religion and/or religion reporting experience. I have hired and worked with some people who would be labeled "liberal" and some "conservative," some of whom are religious and some not. Whatever their background, if they met the criteria listed above, they produced illuminating stories that were appreciated by a wide range of readers.

How can we improve religion coverage? Making smart and more hires are important factors, but in a troubled industry, it is unrealistic to think that the assets of expertise and experience will always trump other factors, including the need to hire from within. Here are some other ideas:

  • Lift up examples of good, and great, religion stories, no matter where they run, instead of spending so much energy bashing what misses the mark.

  • Actively mentor those new to the beat and those with an interest in religion and ethics. There are many ways to do this, including RNA's annual conference, RNA’s free Lilly grants that allow journalists from any beat to take college course about religion, and seminars through Poynter and other media organizations.

  • Make better use of the amazing amount of expertise out there. Religion is one of the most studied topics of all time and there are thousands of good interview sources out there. If you're a religion journalist, share ideas and sources with colleagues. If you're not, share ideas and sources with religion journalists. Find them through ReligionLink or ReligionSource.  Call local seminaries and universities. Check bookstores.

  • Redefine "religion coverage." It's not just about church, it's not just what belongs in the "religion" section, and it's not just about organized religion. It's about the diverse ways people live out their beliefs in the world, whether it's how they vote or how they participate in community. The expertise religion reporters acquire on the beat is important, but it needs to be shared across the newsroom.

  • Lobby for more religion coverage. Get readers/viewers to lobby for coverage. Be persistent about finding ways -- through readership surveys or otherwise -- to convince news organizations that readers' and viewers' beliefs, whatever they are, cannot be ignored. 

Religion reporters are often the best journalists in the newsroom. They have to be. They are fewer in number, with more ground to cover and fewer resources behind them than almost any other beat. Can religion coverage improve? Absolutely. But making it better requires recognizing what works, and why, and then persuading the leadership in the newsroom to make religion coverage the priority that it is for the rest of society.

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Diane Connolly is editor of ReligionLink: Resources for Reporters. She can be reached at connolly@religionlink.org.