A religious journalist on religion journalism

I have often wondered whether someone who is personally religious would have the guts to uncover a Watergate-like story in his or her own faith tradition. When I read AP reporter Tom Breen's analogy of a sports fan covering sports, it reinforced the idea for me that someone who is religious could indeed pursue religion journalism just as aggressively as anyone else.

At least one reader, though, was surprised that anyone could arrive where Breen did as he found his way towards the Catholic Church. Mediabistro's Matthew Fleischer could not fathom how anyone could report on the sex abuse scandals and find faith.

Having covered elements of the scandal myself, this seemed too improbable for words. How could anyone come to believe in the divine sanctity of the Catholic Church while reporting about how, for years, it covered up the sexual abuse of minors and protected the priests who were guilty of these crimes? We emailed Breen to ask him for some clarification.

And here is how Breen responded:

“The coverage of the scandal was the motivation to learn more about Catholicism, and I really can’t overstate the extent of my ignorance at the time; I mean, I couldn’t even name all the sacraments, let alone explain them. So my desire to get up to speed wasn’t just a desire to learn about the context of the scandals, it was an effort to learn, basically, everything I could, from church history to theology to the formal name for that hat bishops wear. It was through that effort – which lasted for years, and took in everything from lots of reading to hanging around pilgrimage sites and talking to people – that I eventually decided Catholicism was for me.”

And back to Fleischer:

To each his own. The Catholic Church undoubtedly has a rich cultural tradition that draws many to the fold. And the Church is certainly bigger than Cardinal Mahony and crew. But it’s still tough for us to understand choosing to believe in the sanctity of any entity that has people like that under/holding its umbrella.

Even if you are not Catholic, you could see this response as fairly flippant. Fleischer doesn't really take seriously the idea that people become religious through very different paths. Many know the pitfalls of a religious institution and its followers yet find the logic (or other elements) attractive.

But back to the idea of religious journalists cover religion, if you look back at the original post, you'll see some additional contributions from our readers, including one from A. E. P. Wall:

Editors don’t assign reporters who are anarchists to cover the legal beat. They don’t assign Christian Science practitioners to cover the medical beat. They don’t cover baseball with a reporter who doesn’t go to games. Yet they sometimes assign atheists to cover the religion beat. Alas, newspapers are disappearing faster than churches.

I think an atheist could be an excellent religion reporter, perhaps someone who has personally studied religion. I have heard some journalists suggest that if you are religious, your objectivity could be called into question, but someone who has studied it can see how people take religion seriously and how it can impact every day decisions. Nicole Neroulias suggested the idea of Religion Newswriters Association hosting a panel on the idea at its annual conference.

I’d love RNA to hold a conference session on religion reporters losing or finding faith on the beat. Has that happened before? (I haven’t seen one in the past six years, but perhaps there was one in the early 2000s, around the time of the Catholic abuse scandal?) Breen and Lobdell could both sit on the panel, among others.

This could be a potentially interesting panel. Often journalists are so intent on taking themselves out of the story (for many good reasons), that we might neglect the idea that our own backgrounds shape the way we cover religion.

People who are strongly religious probably probably aren't terribly excited about covering their own faith in a less pleasing light, but they are completely capable of doing it in a journalistic way or may even be the best person to pursue those angles. For instance, if you believe that expressing truth is a core tenet of your faith, then journalism is just one way of expressing truth, whether the story is lovely or not so lovely.

Warning label via Tom Scott.

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