Upbeat about the religion beat

We talk a lot about journalists who don’t “get religion,” but there is at least one group of mainstream journalists who do—or at least make concerted efforts to—get religion. Members of the Religion Newswriters Association generally strive to understand theological complexities and explain them to more general audiences, and many met at the annual RNA conference in Durham, N.C. last weekend.

These religion journalists will take a tour of a Buddhist temple, listen to panels on atheism or evangelicals adopting and then plow through a survey about religion trends. While they're doing this, they are tweeting, blogging, writing daily stories, plotting enterprise pieces, dealing with the editor who wants to cut the theological complexities and fielding the phone calls from readers, and sometimes they get a minute to take a bathroom break.

We often see the general assignment or sports or business journalist who has no background in religion that doesn't tend to understand or get the theological complexities. Many other beat reporters either don’t think to ask about someone’s faith or feel uncomfortable doing so, kind of like how you don’t like to ask someone’s age over a certain age.

I wish we had time to summarize all of the panels, but you will just have to join RNA and register for next year’s conference in Bethesda, Md.

I did happen to speak on one of the panels on religion reporting and social media, since we are navigating how sites like Facebook and Twitter might change the way we do journalism. Many journalists rightly wonder why or whether we’re giving away traffic to these networks, so where’s the payoff for media outlets who are trying to produce original reporting?

The questions posed to our panel were, “Can religion reporters remain neutral online? Should they even try?” I'm less interested in the question of whether I should Facebook friend someone or if I can follow someone on Twitter. I’m more concerned about how I might change the way I do journalism to reach people using those medium. Am I keeping people in context? Am I pulling out the sexiest quote to get the Twitter traffic?

There are other questions, too, about the role of a journalist being on social media and whether something might come up that could compromise objective reporting roles. There’s a difference, between being silly, snarky, or pushing an agenda and being witty, offering personality or putting things into perspective. Don't be rude, don't be inaccurate, update inaccurate tweets with correction, Jaweed Kaleem of the Huffington Post said.

Social media is paralyzing to many reporters who worry about the time wasted, whether it will make them more ADD or they hope their marketing departments will do the promotion work for them. And then we read stories of people fired after 20 years of working for a media outlet over one 140 character tweet. Many of these fears are keeping media outlets from being one of the front runners at this point.

As the Associated Press’s social media guidelines suggest, anything you put on the Internet can and will be used against you.

It’s not just like uttering a comment over a beer with your friends: It's all too easy for someone to copy material out of restricted pages and redirect it elsewhere for wider viewing. As multitudes of people have learned all too well, virtually nothing is truly private on the Internet. As multitudes of people have learned all too well, virtually nothing is truly private on the Internet.

Still, it's probably not an option for journalists to avoid social media anymore. If you are not on Facebook, you are not experiencing the primary way of how many, many people read their news and stay in touch with their friends. Not only are you missing opportunities to find stories and help people keep track of your work, but you are simply not in the spaces that most people are finding themselves in throughout the day.

"We don’t have a choice on whether we DO social media, the question is how well we DO it,” says Erik Qualman. As Kate Shellnut of the Houston Chronicle said on the panel, many churches have some sophisticated web teams to rival some newsrooms.

Even the blogging giants are a bit worried that Twitter is replacing their platform. Why would you read Andrew Sullivan’s sentence + blockquote when you can get that on Twitter? Politico’s Ben Smith says, Twitter is “sort of draining the life from the blog.”

“Where people were hitting refresh on my blog because they wanted to see what my latest newsbreak was, now they’ll just be on Twitter, and I’ll tweet it out and they’ll see it there,” he says. “What I’m doing right now is just incredibly old school. I might as well have ink all over my fingers and be setting type.”

In the question/answer period, some of the pushback came from reporters who are wondering how we can figure out how to harness social media while still doing a thousand other things. David Yonke of the Toledo Blade highlighted a fantastic piece on how journalists struggle to do so much and yet are asked to do so much more.

What our poor, overworked, underpaid, technology-crazed editor has completely forgotten is the purpose of journalism. Which is, to make sense of a bewildering array of events for people.

Read it all.

Washington Post writer Monica Hesse told journalists to stop using social media as “a new slipcover for an old couch — a way to dress up stories that are otherwise sagging and tired.” She calls out the silly trend stories. "[P]eople cheated on spouses before Facebook. And people found birth parents before Facebook, too. Bullying, social isolation and teenage heartbreak are not made sadder by the fact that they now exist online as well as in the corners of middle school locker rooms." We see this occasionally pop up in religion stories. Why yes, people love to talk about Jesus on the Internet.

One of my fellow panelists UNC journalism professor Ryan Thornburg made the key point that a journalist's job is to report on what's unseen, not be a stenographer for the obvious. Engaging in social media involves a lot of common sense as a reporter. Just because you’re on these networks, it doesn’t mean you should lose your identity and purpose as a journalist.

Overall, I was grateful we weren't discussing the doom and gloom of the religion beat or of journalism in general. It was an upbeat time where religion reporters encourage and inspire each other (Mollie already posted about the awards won.) Journalists seem really interested in finding ways to adapt the beat to fit different platforms. People are recognizing that the religion beat may not take the same form as it has in the past in official sections of the newspaper, but it definitely thrives online in various forms.

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