Help Wanted on Religion Beat: Don’t Limit the Talent Pool

Newspapers need to do a better job of covering religion. Julia Duin and I agree about that. We don’t agree on how to improve coverage.


Duin regards religion writing as a specialty where experience in the field is a more important job qualification than overall experience and ability. A premier paper, she argues, should fill its religion beat with experienced religion writers who have learned this difficult specialty at smaller papers.


We need more reporters covering religion, she argues, suggesting that because more people fill houses of worship on weekends than watch sports events, we need religion staffs comparable to our sports desks. (That’s an absurd comparison, limited to the one day when many people practice their religion. I don’t see dozens or hundreds of kids from each school in America gathering after school daily for choir practice or youth group meeting. And Americans don’t wager billions on the outcome of religious events. Don’t tell a Red Sox fan that Fenway Park isn’t a house of worship.) But back to the central premise of Duin’s argument:


She wants more reporters covering religion but she finds fault with the means newspapers use to bring new reporters into the field. Duin takes The New York Times to task for moving a business reporter to the religion beat and takes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Miami Herald to task for hiring inexperienced reporters with academic religion studies, including one with a divinity degree from Yale.


You don’t upgrade and expand religion reporting – or reporting of any subject – by limiting access to the field. For many beats in any newsroom, a talented, enthusiastic reporter with little experience but with specialized academic training brings energy and fresh ideas that provide better coverage than a veteran who might have become bored with the beat. Experience covering business is certainly valuable in covering religion, which is a huge business. Why is it acceptable for churches to hire marketing directors but not acceptable for business reporters to cover religion?


A problem with religion reporting is that too many papers treat it as a specialty, turning the beat into a newsroom ghetto. The writer churns out features for a Saturday page or section, breaking onto page one rarely – in case of scandal or when we become embarrassed after the fact about shallow political coverage.


I was a general assignment reporter for the Omaha World-Herald when the Des Moines Register recruited me in 1998 for its religion beat. Except that it was nearly seven years ago, I could have been one of the examples Duin cited of major papers hiring inexperienced religion writers. I replaced Bill Simbro, a specialist who moved into journalism from the ministry and did an excellent job covering religion for the Register for 22 years. I admired Simbro (who died last year) and in many ways, I did feel inadequate to fill his shoes. One of the first things I did was seek out Simbro, who had retired, and pick his brain as thoroughly as I could.


I feel I was a worthy hire for at least a couple of reasons:



  • Religion is important – increasingly important – to newspapers because it is important to people’s lives. I had personal experience with religion that I have written about here before and won’t repeat now. Every reporter who comes to this beat brings personal experience that can help in covering it. Duin cites the value of an evangelical Christian who didn’t get the Times job and dismisses the value of a candidate who “is not necessarily religious.” (I don’t defend the poorly worded Washington Post want ad, but I am defending the worthiness of religion reporters who aren’t necessarily religious.) An evangelical or a person who has been turned off by religion has personal experience that will be valuable in this job and personal biases that he or she (and his or her editors) must recognize and overcome in doing the job.

 



  • I’m a good reporter. I had more than 25 years’ experience in this business as a reporter and editor. I could (and did) write investigative, explanatory, feature, and breaking news stories about religion for the front page, not just for the Saturday religion page. I wrote about the marketing of mega churches, conflict over homosexuality, a mission trip to Venezuela, evangelism in schools and Iowans traveling to see Pope John Paul II in St. Louis.

 



  • In that 25 years, I had gained considerable experience in religion coverage without working on the beat. I had edited Simbro’s stories years earlier. I had directed coverage of Identity movement cults. I had written investigative stories about a priest who was a child molester and an archdiocese that ignored reports of his activities, four years before the Boston Globe’s reporting forced the issue front and center.

Duin writes about the vast amount of information a religion reporter needs to learn. That’s true. But it’s true on any beat. Duin made a comparison to environmental reporters, another beat I covered briefly. I found that beat and agriculture, another beat I’ve covered, tougher to learn. The material you need to learn is unique, but the task of learning a new beat is not. The Religion Newswriters Association does a tremendous job helping reporters learn the beat.


Yes, we need more and better religion reporters. I share Duin’s dismay at the way some major publications have cut back on coverage of religion. We need to upgrade religion coverage by giving better opportunities to good reporters already on the beat. But we need to do more: We need to hire talented beginning reporters eager to cover religion and we need to bring the valuable experience of business and political and perhaps even sports reporters onto this important beat.
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