Boundaries on reporting on religion and politics

Yesterday I told you about the pre-conference to the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference being held over the next few days here in the Washington, D.C. area. Because the speakers were all situated on one side of the aisle, more or less, I mentioned that the pre-conference is organized independently of RNA.

But the best panel was this one:

What Should the Boundaries Be on Reporting on Religion and Presidential Politics: Bill Keller, The New York Times; Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post; David Campbell, the University of Notre Dame; Amy Sullivan, writer and editor; Moderator: Professor Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary

The Huffington Post had a nice write-up of the discussion. Each participant gave their opening remarks. Sullivan talked about how reporters need to discuss religion as a means to understanding how elected officials might govern. Campbell said we should ask candidates about religion "only to the extent it has a plausible connection to what an elected official would do in office" instead of covering candidates' faith solely to make them seem odd or exotic.

On the other side of the debate, Keller defended his widely-discussed (and widely dissed) piece arguing that Republican primary candidates should get tough questions about their views on interpreting Scripture (and various other things). So I guess the piece wasn't satire, as I had argued at the time (See my "Bill Keller's Modest Proposal"). Henneberger also argued in favor of exploring any religion angle that comes to mind.

I found myself agreeing with all of them (I have that problem sometimes). But it seemed to me that the two sides could be reconciled. It seemed Sullivan and Campbell -- and, if I'm reading at least a portion of the gathered reporters correctly -- simply wanted good faith efforts at understanding religious influences and the role religion plays in candidates' political goals. Keller argued that it's the politician's job to decide if he is going to answer a question or not and that reporters shouldn't unduly limit themselves in where they probe.

I pointed out (the peanut gallery got to ask questions) that part of the reason why Keller's piece went over like a lead balloon is because he had incorrectly said that Rick Santorum -- a rather well-known Roman Catholic -- was part of a "fervid subset of evangelical Christianity"and that he'd confused literalism and inerrancy and had mis-stated what Catholics believe about Communion. Perhaps, I asked, newsrooms could do something to make sure religious questions are more informed? Liz Tenety at the Washington Post asked about how hostility to religious views in newsrooms affects trust with readers and what can be done about it.

Keller didn't quite manage to answer my question, although he noted he'd had to correct the column. Anyway, I thought the discussion interesting none-the-less.

What do you think are the boundaries for reporting on religion and politics? My own approach is a bit of a mix of all four panelists. Like Keller, I think boundaries are the wrong way to look at this. Like Henneberger, I just have a blast discussing religion wherever that might lead. Like Campbell, I don't think society is helped by having reporters highlight religion simply to make it seem weird. And I agreed with most of what Sullivan said (she had some great comments on what the media miss when they cover religion stories) and was favorable to her idea that the religion questions of political reporters should meet a basic test of whether or not the answer will help news consumers learn about how the candidate will govern.

What are your thoughts on the debate?

Boundaries image via Shutterstock.

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