Help Wanted on the Religion Beat

December 9, 2004
Category: Archive

With concern about values registering high in exit polls last election, the question was raised as to why journalists didn’t shed more light on such concerns and the people who hold them.  

It’s the hiring, stupid.

Those of us who’ve been on the religion beat for a while know there’s fear and loathing of religion among many gatekeepers who call the shots on newsroom staffing. Partly because they attach insufficent importance to the subject, they often fail to hire the best person for the religion beat. And partly as a result of that, much of the media missed the biggest story of the election. 

Many newspapers and radio and TV stations refuse to invest seriously in this beat by hiring specialists. The range of coverage strategies includes newsrooms that:

  • have no one covering religion as a regular beat

  • have someone covering the beat who knows little about it

  • have one or two overworked reporters covering all the breaking news and sometimes putting out a religion page or section at the same time

  • have several seasoned experts on hand

The Dallas Morning News and the PBS show “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly are almost alone in having four or more full-time people on the beat. Compare that to well-staffed sports and business desks, even though a far larger percent of the American population is in a house of worship on any given weekend than at a sports event. 
But media priorities are reversed. Compare the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), the professional association for beat journalists with 262 members, with the 430 newspaper reporters who belong to the Society of Environmental Journalists.
It used to be that journalists who liked the religion beat paid their dues at smaller publications before moving up the food chain to the large dailies. This is rare today. Now many of the largest newspapers bring in complete newcomers.

I recognize that lots of factors are involved in any single hiring choice — including the occasional need to bring the fresh eyes of a newcomer to a beat. So what follows is not meant to pass judgment on any particular move but rather to challenge what looks a whole lot like a disturbing trend toward less experience, less expertise — and less coverage. 
After The New York Times lost a veteran religion reporter in 2001, it took nearly three years to replace him — and then with a newcomer to the beat.  My concern has nothing to do with the individual who got the job (a transfer from the business desk), but everything to do with the level of experience that editors appear to be seeking and settling for. The New York Times could have hired any religion writer in the country. So why put somebody new to religion coverage on the beat?  (Times national editor Jim Roberts did not respond to an e-mail and phone request for comment.)   
Among the candidates who interviewed unsuccessfully for the national religion reporter job at The Times was an evangelical Christian with wide-ranging experience as a religion writer and several awards on his resume. Just think what a difference his presence might have made in the Times‘ pre-election coverage. 

As things turned out last fall, a lot of TV and magazine political writers around the country spent a lot of time wading into a beat they didn’t understand, coming up with clueless observations about candidates and their faith. 
The lack of knowledgeable coverage can be traced, at least in part, to the limited expertise on staff. 

As the presidential campaign clicked into high gear, US News and World Report had laid off its religion writer, Jeff Sheler, and has yet to replace him. Newsweek has not replaced Kenneth Woodward since he retired in 2002. Ever since Peggy Wehmeyer left ABC-TV in 2001, none of the networks (including Fox, considered especially sympathetic to the values issue) has hired a full-time religion correspondent. 
A number of newspapers have axed or diminished their religion beats, including the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard in 2001 and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The latter used a survey from the Readership Institute to determine that religion didn’t belong in a list of nine content areas important to “grow readers.” On Sept. 11, it moved its religion reporter to a metro beat.     

The values discussion provoked by the exit polls did not prompt the paper to restore its full-time religion slot.

In an effort to discover the reasons behind such decisions at the Pioneer Press, I e-mailed Vicki Gowler, the paper’s senior vice president and editor. She said she’s been wanting to “mainstream” religion coverage by spreading religion responsibilities over a larger group of metro reporters instead of attaching it to one specialist. Hopefully, she said, readers will end up with more religion stories, not fewer.

That sounds credible as a theory, but in practice, I’m not convinced. Reporters who don’t know much about religion tend to make a hash of their coverage. They don’t know who’s who on the beat. And they often fail to understand its complexities.

When the Seattle Times wanted a religion writer a few years ago, it transferred over a features writer. Then when the newspaper wanted a health writer and editor soon after that, it placed ads in Editor & Publisher. Why was one specialty worth a national search and the other not? 
When the Miami Herald and St. Louis Post-Dispatch were looking for religion writers recently, they hired recent graduates. Granted, both students had some religious studies under their belts (one of them from the Yale Divinity School), but were there no qualified people on smaller newspapers with some full-time experience?
Religion reporters must memorize a dizzying list of facts, 4,000 years’ worth of world religious history, and basic theology for more than a dozen religions. That takes time and experience.

Yes, some of the novices to the beat have blossomed and done well. Others have not. 
If they’re in the Bible Belt, they should. But the Nashville Tennessean, when it first advertised for a religion writer this spring, said in its ad “religion writing experience not required.” That brought to mind memories of The Washington Post’s famous November 1994 religion reporter job posting that, “The ideal candidate is not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.” 
Nashville is the national center for contemporary Christian music. Wouldn’t knowing differences between Amy Grant and Michelle Tumes — or between Stacie Orrico and Rebecca St. James — be helpful? 
Apparently not.

When The Arizona Republic replaced its religion writer in 2002, it gave the beat to reporter covering the non-profits beat. The newspapers mentioned here can all afford to make specialty hires. So why don’t they?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that the Arizona Republic assigned a society writer to the religion beat in 2002. In fact, the reporter was covering the non-profits beat. (Jan. 10, 2005)

Julia Duin is the chief religion reporter at The Washington Times.