A final goodbye with an eye on the future

Since joining GetReligion three years ago, I have felt like a giant walking paradox.

I would write a GetReligion post about the missing religion angle or the unfair twisting of the facts to fit a narrative. Then I would try to cover religion in a smart and interesting way for Christianity Today magazine, knowing I could easily make the same kinds of mistakes I would critique of the mainstream media.

Religion reporting is hard.

In my role at GetReligion, I analyzed. In my role at CT magazine, I covered. And then I decided to continue to cover by taking a new job with Odyssey Networks, a multimedia outlet that covers religion, especially through video. Odyssey has worn many hats over the years, and I’m hoping to rethink how we cover religion news through new media.

During my time at CT, I stepped out of several potential critiques where I might feel most qualified because it could interfere with my role as reporter. Reporters just don’t get religion, especially evangelicalism. When you ask a reporter, who works very nicely within structure and obvious hierarchies, to cover something inherently unstructured and rapidly changing, you can almost guarantee a messy story that misses the bigger picture.

I have also been caught between our desire for truth and the hope that we can extend some grace. Yes, it’s true that many, many reporters miss the angle or do sloppy stories. But I also know many, many reporters are terrified for their jobs, their families, their livelihood. Journalism thrives on telling true stories, though we also extend some grace knowing that the reporter is probably also worrying about their future employment.

Journalists are no longer going into an office to write one story a day. They are often covering several a day, flying from one thing to the next, churning out copy for the web and for print, pleasing their direct supervisor as well as doing something for the bottom line.

While reporting a story, a journalist is also probably tweeting, recording video, making sure she has enough batteries for whatever devices she’s been given, getting ready to upload or dictate the story back to editors in the office. It’s challenging, especially if you’re wondering if you’ll have a job the next day.

My husband worked night, weekend and holiday shifts at a newspaper during our first two years of marriage. I know firsthand it isn’t smooth sailing being a journalist or being married to one. You wonder if you could get laid off, you churn out stories at a rate barely humanly possible, you fly by the seat of your pants hoping a copy editor will catch you if your writing “fly” is down.

Thanks to smartphones, you’re wedded to your device like the world could explode any second. Because you can be on the ball, you can constantly worry you’ll get beat by another reporter and you’ll face a public chiding in the next editorial meeting. And tools like Twitter have come along to shake our collective understanding of gatekeepers, how to chase and report news and how to understand the world we live in.

And we wonder why journalists drink and smoke and abuse substances?

With the low pay, the high stress, the insane hours, the lording editors, the competition within your beat, you might understand better why some reporters would miss the religion angle. But on a positive note, I think we can be grateful to many, many reporters who work hard to cover the news, especially the religion beat. Religion reporters are the ones filling in the holes, the religion “ghosts,” the why question we often so question. My colleagues at GetReligion have helped me immensely in understanding how to cover religion more thoroughly.

With all the dire news about the media, it’s easy to focus on what hasn’t worked, but I hope we can better understand and figure out what is working, editorially, financially and all the other elements that make media outlets run smoothly. In the coming years, who knows what medium we’ll be in reporting in, as the newspaper, magazine and broadcast models have been merged and diverged, mixed and matched to try to make magic on the internet. It feels like a Buzz Lightyear moment: “To infinity and beyond!” or something like that. Image of woman with suitcase via Shutterstock.

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