How an AP reporter found religion

You might consider Associated Press reporter Tom Breen to be the anti-William Lobdell. Breen recently told me he eventually became a weekly Mass attendee after educating himself on the Catholic abuse scandals for his journalism job. His story is quite the opposite from Lobdell, whose work on the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times caused him to drop his faith and write Losing My Religion.

Instead of re-writing Breen's story into an intro, I'll let him tell you about it before he answers some questions about the religion beat:

I was baptized a Catholic, but never really in any tradition other than a vague understanding of Christianity coupled with a sort of tribal pull toward the Catholic Church. My mother died when I was very young, and my father had enough bad experiences with church growing up in an Irish neighborhood in Chicago that he wasn’t particularly driven to make sure my brother and I were raised as active members of the faith.

My father is a journalist, though, and it was his influence that steered me toward news. After college, I was working at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., at the time the most recent sex abuse scandals began to break in Boston. Partly because I had some Catholic bric-a-brac on my desk, my editor assumed I actually knew something about the church, and so I was assigned to cover a few local stories related to the scandal.

I quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about Catholicism, and so to avoid embarrassing myself and the paper I resolved to learn what I could. In addition to reading everything I could get my hands on, I started pitching stories on religious topics that had nothing to do with the abuse scandal, hoping to bring myself up to speed.

This continued after I moved to the Journal Inquirer, the paper in my hometown of Manchester, Conn. By now I had discovered that I was interested not just in Catholic stories, but in religion generally. It was not only a fascinating topic, but it was one that not many other reporters were interested in covering, so I could pursue stories without stepping on any toes. I also had tremendously knowledgeable editors who were hungry for religion news. One of them put it to me in a way I’ve always remembered: compare the amount of resources the press spends on covering primary elections, he told me, with the number of people who vote in primary elections. Now compare the resources spent on covering religion with the number of people who attend a weekly worship service.

So that’s how I became hooked on religion coverage. On kind of a parallel track, I eventually became a devout Catholic, going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and becoming a weekly churchgoer. Ironically, it was my work covering elements of the sex abuse scandal that led me to become an “official” Catholic; I learned all I could about the faith to make sure my stories were accurate, and my learning convinced me this was the truth.

I realize personal belief is a touchy subject for journalists, but in the religion beat it’s been a tremendous asset to my reporting. It’s an imperfect comparison, but if you grew up rooting for the Chicago Cubs you’re going to be a better baseball reporter than someone who’s never been to a game. That’s not to say I think active membership in a religious group is a prerequisite for the beat, but an ex-Cubs fan still knows the game even if she doesn’t follow the team anymore.

That’s probably far more than was necessary, and I apologize. On to the questions!

In your role at the AP, how do you boil down everything into a brief story and still maintain nuance, balance, complexities, etc.? The AP’s very talented religion editor once described the faith beat as “intimidating,” and I think that’s absolutely right, for precisely this reason. There is no government, economic philosophy or baseball team on the planet with a back story as rich, detailed and complex as, say, Judaism. Or Christianity. Or Islam. Or Hinduism. You get the idea. What we strive to do is work in our “pre-reporting” to identify the telling details, wise sources and most salient facts to make sure that even an 800-word story has enough nuance and balance to meet our standards. When writing about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the wide-ranging debate it prompted, for example, I knew in the earliest stage of the story that I wanted to talk about the Christian theologian Origen in the context of universalism. I hit the books, talked to some sources, and spent maybe half an hour boiling down what I learned into two paragraphs that I could then bounce off editors who are religion pros (to make sure it was accurate) and editors who don’t know Methodism from method acting (to make sure it was right for a general audience). Knowing what’s going to be important in terms of background and detail to augment the main news in the story is a huge help when it comes to “front-loading” our reporting.

Where do you get your news about religion? Have blogs, social media, etc. changed how you read and then cover religion news? My news about religion comes from a lot of sources: newspapers and broadcasters, the denominational press, tips from sources, friends and acquaintances, press releases, etc. But the most important day-to-day aspect of covering the beat is social media and blogs, something that’s a huge change from when I started in daily journalism 10 years ago. Twitter in particular is a chance to monitor international conversations about faith as they happen, with everyone from Rick Warren to the person in the next pew pitching in. And for reporters looking to go beyond the usual pundits, officials, experts, talking heads, etc. and get deeper on a story, there’s nothing like social networking. On a story about American Catholics’ reaction to the beatification of John Paul II this year, I was able to write a story out of Raleigh with voices from all over the country thanks to finding folks on Facebook and Twitter and contacting them for interviews. Blogs have also changed the way the beat works, moving from commenting on stories or developments to breaking news; the questions about Ergun Caner’s resume being a good example of a story that was broken first by bloggers. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do a good job covering religion today without daily use of those resources.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media is having a hard time grasping? Some of the tectonic shifts in American religion are being only dimly appreciated so far, I think. The U.S. has in all likelihood become a country without a Protestant majority for the first time in its history, a change with lots of implications, both in the short and long terms. The major inroads that Evangelical churches are making among first and second-generation Latinos in the U.S. is also a big story with major implications that I think too often gets lost in coverage of how Latino immigrants are providing the bulk of the Catholic Church’s new members. And the fact that growing numbers of Americans say they have no religious preference is interesting in ways that I don’t think are being fully explored – too often, that’s taken as a decline in religious belief, when I think a big part of the story is a change in how people are defining religion.

What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two? I’ll be very interested to see how American Catholics receive the new translation of the Roman Missal, which has been getting a roll-out in some places for months, but which is going to “go live” on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s not on the same level with the changes to the liturgy that came at the end of the 1960s, but it’s altering parts of the Mass most American Catholics have known for their whole lives. People are going to have add the word “consubstantial” to their vocabularies! There’s been some pushback in Anglophone Europe from priests and laypeople, but so far we haven’t seen much of that in the U.S. I don’t know if that will change on November 27. I think it’s going to be an opportunity for some great stories about what people believe and why.

What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately? I don’t know about funny or ironic, but a story that really provided me with a “Wow!” moment this week was the AP’s coverage out of Jerusalem on a small group of Muslim missionaries who spend their days trying to win Jewish converts to Islam, apparently a first in the history of Israel. Given the social, political, cultural and religious contexts, this is bound to be an interesting story, but what I especially liked was that it explored questions that can resonate with missionaries in any tradition: how seriously do you take your faith, and what are you willing to do for it?

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media? I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’ve called a member of the clergy or a layperson for a story on a religious topic and as soon as I identify myself as a member of the press, they react like a babysitter in a 1980s horror movie hearing the words, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” One of my fondest wishes is that I will one day be able to make people understand that the vast majority of reporters want just two things: to tell a good story and to get it right. And the only way reporters can tell good, true stories about religion is by developing relationships with people who know faith and aren’t afraid to trust their story to someone.

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