Troubles on the Godbeat

Typewriter 02So a reader sent along an interesting story headlined "Burnout on the God beat -- second top religion writer calls it quits." Written by Reuters' Tom Heneghan, the piece explains that Stephen Bates, who recently left his post at The Guardian, published an account of his time on the beat in an article for New Humanist magazine:

Bates announced his move back in September in another interesting article, this time for the website Religious Intelligence. Writing from New Orleans, where he was covering the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he said: "Writing this story has been too corrosive of what faith I had left: indeed watching the way the gay row has played out in the Anglican Communion has cost me my belief in the essential benignity of too many Christians. For the good of my soul, I need to do something else." Bates, who says he still regards himself as a Catholic, said he was turned off by the intolerance he saw towards gays and the self-righteousness of Christians who "pick and choose the sins that are acceptable and condemn those -- always committed by other, lesser people -- that are not."

Before we look at the substance of this story, it is important to note it appears in a relatively new blog that any reader of GetReligion will want to bookmark immediately. Reuters' religion blog began in mid-October and features stories from their religion reporters around the world. Here is Heneghan, the religion editor, explaining the purpose of the blog:

This blog will let us reach beyond the news stories we now write about faith. With our global network of correspondents, we want to bring a new dimension to our religion reporting. Sometimes we'll add more information to a story, especially by bringing you closer to the source with links to background material. Sometimes we'll tell the reporter's "story behind the story." Sometimes we'll point out someone else's story if it helps readers understand the issues.

So a hearty welcome to the blogosphere, Reuters religion reporters, and we look forward to reading the posts at FaithWorld. Okay, now on to the issue raised in Heneghan's post -- is religion reporting hazardous to one's faith? My heart goes out to anyone engaged in a spiritual crisis. I experienced a bit of that myself, though it had nothing to do with my profession, and it is a horrible thing to go through. So Bates has my sympathy -- although I'm confused how he can claim both Catholicism and no faith.

I must admit I'm surprised, though, at some of the naivete of reporters covering religion. Is assuming benignity in humanity a good starting point for covering anything? I always joke that cynicism is one of the best traits I bring as a reporter. It seems that many reporters (and not just religion reporters) are biased toward viewing religion solely as a set of principles that people choose to adhere to. That's why stories about morality and hypocrisy are so prevalent. While "moral code" may describe an aspect of all religions, there is so much more to religion, so much more that is transcendental about religion. And why would reporters be surprised that, if religion is important, it involves some pretty serious fighting? It seems like a basic requirement for starting on the religion beat would be an understanding that people take religion very seriously and doctrinal differences can be fierce.

Still, Bates' piece is much better than this embarrassing piece by The Cincinnati Post's Kevin Eigelbach. In a column about the top 10 things he's learned as a religion reporter, he writes about how he hates religious adherents because, well, they hate. Here are some of his top 10 lessons learned: Religion is not rational, people don't like to have their religion challenged, the media are nearly always viewed as the enemy, sexual sins bother people more than anything else, and:

Christians often don't act Christlike.

LosingReligionWait a minute. Christians often don't act Christlike? Stop the presses! Newsflash! Christians often don't act Christlike! This is one of the top 10 things this religion reporter learned from being on the beat? I am shocked, shocked that Christians failed to live up to this standard of literal perfection.

Anyway, he sums up by saying that his list reflects poorly on religion:

And truly, my experience writing religion stories has been a process of disillusionment. So, I finished with some good things I've learned. One is that it's easier to hate in the abstract.

You don't say. Anyway, even though I wish Eigelbach had learned better or more useful or interesting lessons on the religion beat, I don't mean to say that I'm not sympathetic with the hardships of covering religion. It is tremendously difficult to do well, which is why we try to write posts here about good work as well as bad. And people can be just horrible to reporters. When Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune wrote up a very fair and straightforward story last week about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is making another significant change to the introduction to the Book of Mormon, a reader called her a sk---. But the fact is that even weather reporters (especially weather reporters?) get nasty mail and hateful comments. Should reporters question meteorology because of it? People can and will be nasty. This is a lesson most people learn by junior high.

Speaking of junior high, Sally Quinn wrote a rather unimpressive piece for the first anniversary of her On Faith project. (On Faith is The Washington Post/Newsweek big blog devoted to religion.) Anyway, her essay is curious. John Podhoretz described it as being like Augustine's Confessions, if Augustine's Confessions had been written by a combination of Helen Gurley Brown and Britney Spears. Ouch! Quinn's essay is about how little she knew about religion a year ago, how she's not really certain why she launched a religion site and how (after a three-week trip around the world to study the world's religions), she learned the basic tenets of all religions were the same. Back to Podhoretz:

Remember: This is the woman who is the co-editor of a religion website co-managed by one of the nation's two most important newspapers and one of the nation's two most important magazines. Neither organization, it's safe to say, would allow a person as gleefully ignorant and simultaneously archly portentous as Quinn to co-host a site about, oh, sports with the level of knowledge and interest she possessed before taking on "On Faith." And who, after a year's thin study, feels herself competent to speak with surpassingly confident banality about the differences and commonalities of the world's major religions.

Indeed. I'm sure Quinn is a delightful person and her writing is lively and engaging. But why, contra almost every other beat, is religion considered something for amateurs and the uneducated? When religion reporters and editors are well educated, curious and competent, the payoff is tremendous. I would encourage editors to take note of that.

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