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.