Some familiar religion-news questions, after 25 years

What are the odds? Several years ago, I realized that I was not really sure how long I had been writing the weekly "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. As some of you may know, aging brains often struggle with detailed information of this kind (especially when the brain in question also deals with 100-plus emails every day).

Anyway, I dug back into my analog files (thick folders full of paper printouts) and calculated that I would START my 25th year on April 11, 2013.

Then, a week ago, I pulled out the same folder and realized that I had looked at the front of the file, but that the columns were in reverse order with the oldest one at the back. Thus, I was one year off.

Thus, this week's column marked the 25th anniversary of the column. You'll be shocked, shocked to know that it focuses on the fact that mainstream news organizations continue to struggle, when it comes to covering religion news. More on that in a moment.

At the same time, I have watching the numbers at the GetReligion dashboard, by which I mean at our WordPress production page, climb toward another symbolic number -- 8,000.

This post, as it turns out, is No. 8,000 -- in just over nine years.

It's kind of a Zen thing, don't you think? The 8,000th post is about my 25th anniversary column which is about how the mainstream press struggles to "get religion."

Anyway, when I sent the column out to friends, former students, etc., I put a note on top thanking five people in particular for their help and inspiration. The request for a national Scripps Howard religion column came from Harry Moskos, then editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, and it was backed early and often by William R. Burleigh, who spent his whole journalism career with the E.W. Scripps Company and ended up running the whole shooting match. Also, I thanked the late Ralph Looney and Ben Blackburn, the top editors at the Rocky Mountain News who hired me to cover religion and later backed the creation of the national column. And, of course, I thanked my mentor in journalism, Prof. David McHam, who is STILL teaching journalism ethics and law, and how to write ledes (currently an emeritus professor at the University of Houston).

So the column is out, and here is how it starts:

Every year or so, editors are asked to sit patiently while market researchers dissect thick reports about what consumers say they want to see in their newspapers.

That was already true back when Harry Moskos was editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel. But he immediately noticed something strange, when handed the executive summary of one late-1980s survey.

Two words near the top of the subjects valued by readers caught his attention -- "religion" and "family." Yet the professionals interpreting the data offered zero suggestions for improving coverage of those subjects.

"I remember saying, 'Look at that.' ... Those words just jumped out at me, primarily because I knew people in Knoxville tend to see those subjects as connected," said Moskos, 76. He recently ended his 60-year journalism career, with most of that work in Albuquerque, N.M., and Knoxville, Tenn.

Of course, he admitted, the fact he noticed the words "religion" and "family" also "says something about the life I've lived and how I was raised" in a devout Greek Orthodox family. "I just knew we had to do something ... to respond to that interest among our readers," he said.

Thus, Moskos asked his team to create a section on faith and family life. As part of that effort, he asked -- at a meeting of Scripps Howard editors -- if the newspaper chain could start a national religion-news column.

That's how -- 25 years ago this week -- I began writing this "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. At that time, I was the religion reporter for one of the chain's major newspapers and then I continued this work while teaching, first in a seminary, then in two liberal arts colleges and, now, as director of the Washington Journalism Center.

Through it all, I have been amazed that many people still think religion is a boring, unimportant subject that can be relegated to the periphery of news coverage.

So what are the key issues, the questions that won't go away?

Well, why don't journalists simply "follow the money" and realize the power of religion in public life?

Also, why do the people who run newsrooms turn their backs on professionals who have shown excellence on the religion beat?

That led me, naturally, to that famous Washington Post job posting in 1994 in which the editors said that their "ideal candidate" for the beat was "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."

Thank kind of thinking does not amuse the reporter who was one of my inspirations, when choosing what I wanted to do with my life:

"The religion beat is too complicated today for this kind of approach to be taken seriously," said Russell Chandler, who covered religion for years at the Los Angeles Times. I interviewed him for "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," from Oxford Press.

"If you don't have experience you have to pay your dues and get some. Then you have to keep learning so that you get the facts right today and tomorrow and the day after that," he said. "I have never really understood what this argument is about. It's like saying that we want to sign up some people for our basketball team and we don't really care whether or not they can play basketball."

This logic also rings true for Moskos, who noted that he once interviewed five skilled sportswriters when seeking someone to cover University of Tennessee football -- a quasi-religious subject for locals. Why not take that approach to religion news?

"If you send somebody out to cover the Oak Ridge National Laboratory," he concluded, "you'd better find yourself a journalist who knows something about science. ... If people are going to get the job done covering religion then they need to find some journalists who know a thing or two about religion."

That makes sense to me. How about to you folks?

Anyway, read it all. And please keep reading.

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