Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

If you were looking for a quote that perfectly captured the attitude that crusty old-school newspaper editors used to have about religion news (see my 1983 Quill cover story on life in that era), then here it is.

And let's face it, the fact that the quote comes from an NPR piece about the death of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post -- the ultimate symbol of the politics-is-the-only-reality school of journalism -- just makes it more perfect.

"Major regional newspapers mimicked the format he devised for the Post, with a Style section devoted to features involving politics, regional personalities, celebrity and popular culture and highbrow culture alike. He also insisted on a high profile for beats on the subjects he vigorously and vulgarly called "SMERSH -- science, medicine, education, religion and all that s - - -" -- the subjects from which Bradlee personally took little enjoyment."

So the low-prestige beats were covered, but were not on the radar of the powers that be that ran the big-city newsrooms of that day. This is precisely what I used to hear from the Godbeat scribes who were weary veterans in the 1980s, at the time I hit The Charlotte Observer and then The Rocky Mountain News.

Of course, it is also important that one of the key players who helped create the current religion-news marketplace -- in which, all too often, politics defines what is real and religion is essentially emotions and opinion -- is Beltway matriarch Sally "On Faith" Quinn, who was the talented and high-profile wife of Bradlee's mature years.

This brings me to two items of religion-beat news for the day, both care of friends of this weblog. The first comes from a former GetReligionista, who asked what would happen if everyone clicked into this Poynter.org piece -- "What topics do reporters need to get smarter about in 2015?" -- and answered, "Religion, of course." Here's the set-up:

We’re asking you to help pick next year’s training topics. What subjects do you predict will be in the news next year that reporters would benefit from learning more about? Poynter will carry out three of these news-driven workshops next year, and McCormick and Poynter will select three other organizations to carry out three additional workshops. One will be on the Iowa caucuses.
Tweet your suggestions (hashtag #news15) or fill out a brief survey. Tell us one or two topics important enough to your audience that a reporter should go to a two-day workshop to learn more, then return to the newsroom to report and write.

And while we are on the topic of news coverage of religion, Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher recently blogged on the fact that he is one of the featured speakers in a program this week in Boston that will be of obvious interest to GetReligion readers. That would be:

... I’ll be at the Boisi Center at Boston College on Thursday evening for a panel discussion on writing about religion in a polarized age. I will be joined by actual smart people, including my longtime correspondent Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times; I’m the comic relief, I think. Come if you can, or watch us livestreamed. ...
As I’m thinking about the remarks I’ll make, I’d like to throw open the comments box to ask you readers what you think about religion writing in a polarized age. What qualities does the best religion writing you see nowadays have? What’s wrong with religion writing today? How could we who write about religion do a better job?

Yes, the event will be broadcast live online at 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday. 

I've been following some of the early comments at his blog (especially since Rod ended with a kind reference to GetReligion) and it's interesting to note that most of his readers seem to be interpreting "writing about religion" as, yes, essentially opinion writing and essay writing -- as opposed to writing for news publications that are committed to balanced, accurate, non-advocacy journalism. I find that sad, but not surprising.

Meanwhile, Dreher adds that he thinks the Internet is helping way more than its hurting:

I think that the tremendous job the media did on the Catholic abuse scandal wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. Nor would it have been possible for Catholics, both conservative and liberal, to offer their own analyses that either contradicted or amplified what we were seeing in the mainstream media.
Plus, I think it is a good thing that it’s harder for authorities within a religion, church or tradition to control the narrative. I’m a conservative, as you know, but I treasure the fact that I can read both a conservative and liberal take on certain issues. Though an ex-Catholic, I am still rather unlikely to agree with the National Catholic Reporter on any Catholic issue, but I still value its perspective as a reality check on what my preferred sources are saying.
So that’s one good thing about religion writing in a polarized age: if you care to find alternative perspectives to inform your own, it’s not hard. ...
Finally, one challenge we who write about religion (and who read about religion) face is that we downplay religious difference. Sometimes, religions really cannot be reconciled at the doctrinal level. There is a strong tendency, and not always a bad tendency, to try to find common ground to reduce conflict. But this is a bad thing when we fail to recognize that some things are not possible to agree on. When I was a Catholic, I thought that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were pretty close, doctrinally. Now that I’m Orthodox, I see that I was wrong. My error came in part because I wanted to see the similarities, not the differences, but also because I simply wasn’t as familiar with the differences as I am now that I am Orthodox. I would still love for the Catholic and Orthodox churches to cooperate more, but I don’t hold out much hope for any re-establishment of communion, simply because the differences between the churches are more profound than many Western Christians see.

So, head on over there and leave Dreher some questions and comments. I assume that Rod will also write about the event and his extended remarks. As you would expect, there will be live-tweeting from the event at #WritingAboutReligion and, again, the live broadcast of the event will be online.

The Media Project book "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion" is still available online.

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