Reporting on the faith can challenge your own

Even though survey after survey finds the U.S. one of the most religious of the world’s developed nations, and most Americans say that religion is significantly important in their lives, fewer and fewer news enterprises these days assign religion as a regular beat. When they do, it can cause a believing reporter to begin, as the REM song says, “losing my religion.”

In the cover story of the May issue of The Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, Debra Mason writes about holding on to one’s faith when covering religion. Mason is executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and director of the Center on Religion & the Professions at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. (By the way, the president of RNA is Kevin Eckstrom, director of Religion News Service, one of the finest religious news wire services, which gives CNS a good run for its reporting money every day.)

In her story “Keeping the Faith,” Mason tells of Los Angeles Times reporter William Lobdell who, after eight years of covering religion’s “darker side,” lost faith with faith and asked his editors for a change of beat. “Lobdell’s example shows — and he’s not alone — that sometimes a journalist’s job challenges a person’s faith,” she wrote. Yet many other journalists cover religion and their faith holds up. Still others see working in the mainstream press as a religious vocation.

Many of us who have covered religion for years know how faith can wax and wane as deadlines come and go, especially when covering the “dark side” of religious practice. Mason does a nice job giving tips on holding on to one’s faith, reporting on people with different points of view — especially not your own, avoiding conflicts of interest and finding support inside and outside the newsroom.

While covering religion for secular media presents its share of challenges, journalists who choose to combine faith and the craft can find support in associations of like-minded practitioners. The two she cites? Jewish Press Association and Catholic Press Association. The latter, of which CNS is a longtime member, is one of North America’s largest, oldest and best known.

Covering religion isn’t rocket science, but it is complex and at times trying for a believer. Like human existence, it’s messy. Messy can wear you down. Mason well points out the pitfalls as well as some best practices. And it’s good to know there is support out there when you need it on or off a deadline.

The Vatican’s big red book

VATICAN CITY — The Annuario Pontificio is the Vatican’s bureaucratic bible. It lists every diocese and bishop in the world, all Roman Curia offices and their personnel, the diplomatic corps at the Holy See, the world’s religious orders, pontifical academies and universities, a statistical summary and much, much more.

This year’s Annuario weighed in at 3 pounds and 2,511 pages, another record. At 67 euros ($105), it’s not cheap. But for those keeping tabs on the church’s organizational life, it’s an indispensable tool. The problem is that the content is ever-changing.

Already this year, the Vatican has issued 26 pages of Annuario updates — new appointments, retirements, deaths, creation of ecclesial territories and even new phone numbers and email addresses.  At the CNS Rome bureau, someone has to enter each bit of information by hand in the big red book. What makes it especially painstaking is that you have to write really, really small, because there’s not much white space on the page.

Relief may be on the way. The other day I phoned Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, head of the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics (p. 1,294 in your Annuario) and asked him why they haven’t made the whole thing available electronically. As it turns out, Vatican higher-ups have been working on such a project since 1997 and, after a meeting in mid-April, are very close to making it happen.

Msgr. Formenti assured me that his office has had the technical means to offer an electronic version for some time. But he said the project also includes a proposal to offer searchable archived material — a major undertaking, since the Annuario Pontificio has been in print since 1839. The Vatican has to decide which office handles the additional work load, which server hosts the programs, how much to charge and how much historical information to include.

Msgr. Formenti said he expects the online version to be up and running by next year. Knowing how slowly carefully the Vatican proceeds when it comes to the Internet, I think that may be optimistic. Meanwhile, if they come out with a beta version, CNS will gladly volunteer to test it.