5Q+1 interview: From God and guns to Death Row salvation, JoAnne Viviano excels reporting on faith and values

JoAnne Viviano jq

JoAnne Viviano covers faith and values for the Columbus Dispatch, a central Ohio newspaper with a daily circulation of 120,000 and an average Sunday circulation of about 230,000.

Her Godbeat writing earned her the 2014 Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. That award honors excellence in religion reporting at mid-sized newspapers.

"I grew up in suburban Detroit, where my mom fostered in me an early love for books by taking me to the library regularly and teaching me to read as a kindergartener," Viviano said.

She received a bachelor of arts degree in English and communication from the University of Michigan ("not very popular here in Columbus!") before starting working as a reporter. She recalls "an amazing mentor there named Jon Hall, who helped me find the confidence I needed to turn my writing abilities into a career as a reporter."

Her first writing job came with her Michigan hometown weekly, The Romeo Observer, followed by stints with The Macomb Daily in Mount Clemens, Mich., the New Haven Register in Connecticut and The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. Along the way, she covered beats ranging from general assignments to municipal governments to state courts to education to crime.

Shortly before a strike hit The Vindicator, she left and earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. That led her to The Associated Press, where she worked for several years, starting in the Detroit bureau before moving to Columbus, eventually serving as a breaking-news staffer.

"I came to The Columbus Dispatch in 2012 because I missed beat reporting and being part of a metro newsroom," Viviano said. "It was a scary choice, with the way the industry has been, but I’m glad I made it. The Dispatch has remained strong and is a supportive, positive place to work."

Q: What percentage of your time do you spend on the religion beat? What's a typical workweek like for you?

A: As The Dispatch’s full-time faith and values reporter, I spend the bulk of my time on the religion beat. From time to time, I fill in for another reporter or work a weekend general assignment or police shift.

Each week, I am responsible for our Faith & Values pages, which run on Fridays, and generally have two or three stories and a couple shorter items. The pages are a combination of my local work and wire copy. I also write daily stories as news arises and weekend stories that might be more in depth or have a more general appeal.

So I spend my week contacting and visiting sources, researching, scheduling photos and, at times, shooting video to run on the website alongside a story.

Q: What do you like most about your job? And what do you find most challenging?

A: I feel so fortunate to be a reporter. I enjoy meeting people I’d never otherwise encounter, hearing their experiences and viewpoints and helping them tell their stories. It’s amazing to me that I am able to learn new things every day this far into my career.

I’d say the main challenge of the religion beat is its vastness. Columbus is very diverse, and I still have much to learn. It’s a beat in which you can be tackling a brand-new subject nearly every day.

Q: Your winning RNA entry included stories about God and guns, a fired gay teacher at a Catholic school and jailhouse religion involving Death Row inmates. Tell me about those stories and why you considered the topics interesting and/or important.

A: The God and guns stories came in the aftermath of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. I had heard that some local congregations were considering security issues and had seen a story elsewhere about a church offering concealed-carry classes. I thought it was important to let the community know what measures congregations had been taking or considering to ensure safety and to give a snapshot of how views may differ in our urban, suburban and rural areas.

I learned about the fired teacher after a former student sent me information on a petition and other activities seeking her reinstatement. This was important because it caused great distress and division in the school community where the teacher worked but also across a decent part of the diocese. The difficulty was getting a clear representation of the diocese’s point of view, because they had been sticking to short statements. I was eventually able to get the bishop and the superintendent to sit down and talk with me in order to make the stories more balanced.

The story on Death Row clergy came to me over time as I covered executions for The Associated Press and learned more about them. Then, during my first days on the religion beat in 2013, I contacted a priest who was the spiritual adviser to a man who had just been executed. He replied with a short email telling me that he was too upset by the experience to discuss it. I thought it would be interesting to tell the stories of the people who counsel these inmates and how the death penalty affects them. It took some patience to gain the trust of some of the pastors and to get access to Death Row, but when we did, we were able to get interviews as well as photos and videos to help tell the story.

Q: Where do you get your news about religion?

A: I keep an eye on various sources, including Religion News Service and a number of faith websites. I also hear from sources at various faith-based organizations and people in the religious community here in Columbus.

The Religion Newswriters Association also has a ReligionLink site that offers resources and an annual conference, where I’ve found peer support and ideas.

Q: What key religion stories or issues do you anticipate in your coverage area over the next 12 months?

A: Well, there’s a decent chance that Pope Francis may visit Philadelphia next year, so that would involve a great deal of coverage on my part.

In Columbus, there is a growing population of Muslims, so I’ll also be keeping an eye on that increase and reception by the greater community.

Also, I think a lot of stories will come from watching how people of faith negotiate the changes that come with recent rulings on same-sex marriage.

Q: Any advice for GetReligion as we endeavor to analyze mainstream news coverage of religion?

A: So many papers have dropped religion reporters, leaving the coverage to others who may not have the time or experience to understand the complexities involved. Also, religion is so prevalent in other beats, from business to sports to government and education. It’s everywhere.

So again, you have non-religion reporters covering religious issues.

Clearly, this isn’t a trend that’s missed by GetReligion. Perhaps it’d be worth exploring ways in which media and others are responding to the trend.

For example, I think RNA has helped by expanding to serve not just religion writers but other writers as well, and various faith-based groups have published guidebooks for the media.

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