Ann Rodgers has earned such a reputation for her thorough reporting that a reader e-mailed us recently describing her as "Pittsburgh's queen of religion reporting." What an appropriate title for a journalist who regularly covers local news that deserves national attention and national news from a local perspective.
Rodgers, who serves as vice president of the Religion Newswriters Association, has been the religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1988. She received her degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master of theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter or simply watch for her name after reading her answers to GetReligion's five questions.
(1) Where do you get your news about religion? From all sorts of places. I subscribe to several magazines that represent different aspects of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and get a lot of freebies from other religious groups. I have some favorite Web sites, including Whispers in the Loggia and www.ocanews.org. I also am on the Vatican Information Service and Zenit, both of which are invaluable to anyone who covers the Catholic Church. CAIR bombards me with its summaries. The Pew Forum provides a lot of good updates. There are denominational news releases (although I keep getting bumped off their e-mails because my mailbox fills up and sends a dead letter message back to them when I'm on vacation.) Then there are local sources, including attending presbytery meetings and other events that expose me to cool stories happening in congregations. Frankly my biggest problem is that I'm bombarded by too many sources of religion news and consequently can do little more than skim them. (2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get? I think there are serious problems because reporters don't understand Catholic canon law and the church bureaucracies that surround it. If they want to get the story about the Vatican and sex abuse right, they really need to talk to canon lawyers about what the church judicial process was set up to do, how its law operates and what laws these cases were prosecuted under at various times. They also need to understand the relationship, or lack thereof, between canon law and the various civil law systems worldwide. Not every legal system operates like the American system, in fact most of Europe doesn't.
(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two? There are a bunch of them. I'm very interested in the dynamics of evangelical Protestantism right now. There's a lot of sorting out over how that movement relates to politics and how it will seek to interact with the wider public in the future. Longtime leaders are retiring or dying, and younger evangelicals have somewhat different priorities than their elders, particularly on gay rights. Although I don't write a lot about politics (we have theologically literate political reporters at my paper) I do expect to keep a close eye on these dynamics.
(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today? Because religious faith is the number one motivator of how people conduct themselves in the wider community and it determines their view of the larger world. Some people might say that economics has that role, but I think that's only true for those who worship money. People do incredibly self-sacrificial things in the name of God, whether that means providing medical care to the poor, peacefully resisting brutal dictators or, unfortunately, becoming a suicide bomber. But, overall, the delivery of social services to the poorest regions of the world would disappear if religious groups withdrew from it. Even atheists would say that their behavior is motivated by their lack of belief in God, which is a sort of shadow faith. You can't understand human behavior, locally or globally, without understanding religious faith.
(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately? I've seen some gaffes, but they don't meet that description. Something that I do see very few years, but didn't spot anywhere this year, is a holiday food story that will begin something like, "Ham is the perfect, easy main course for all of your special spring holiday meals." Last year I even heard an announcement very similar to that in my local supermarket, which I thought especially bizarre because the chain is owned by a prominent Jewish family. I do find it the height of irony that these writers are straining to be "inclusive," while insulting the very group that they're trying to include. And I think it shows the problems that arise when we try to homogenize references to religious or cultural holidays. We need to let each faith group speak for itself about its specific beliefs and practices.
BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media? It's important to understand the limits of what we can do. We don't write about God, who hasn't given any interviews lately. We write about what human beings believe about God. Our job is to describe those beliefs as accurately as we can. But we can't solve the great theological mysteries, such as whether God is transcendent or immanent--or plural or gendered or loving or silent or whatever. That is the job of pastors and theologians. As journalists, we can only write about human efforts to understand and interpret those things.