Pod people: Looking at the year's Top 10 religion-beat stories, through the eyes of the late George W. Cornell

Anyone who knows their religion-beat history knows this byline -- George W. Cornell of the Associated Press.

When he died in 1994, the national obituaries called him the "dean of American religion writers" and that was precisely the role that he played for decades, especially for those of us who broke into the religion-news business back in the 1970s and '80s.

However, when I did a series of interviews with him in 1981, for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") he simply described himself as the AP's religion writer for all of planet earth. How would you like to try to handle that job? (The Vatican bureau didn't count, he explained, because editors tended to view that as a political and international-news bureau.)

George had a private tradition in which, every year, he analyzed the Associated Press list of the world's top 10 stories and counted the ones that -- seen through his veteran eyes -- were built on facts and history rooted in religion. He never saw a year with fewer than five of these stories, he told me, and frequently there would be more than that.

Ah, he explained, but were the religion facts and angles in these stories (a) covered accurately, (b) presented in a way that could be understood by the general public or (c) covered AT ALL?

I thought about those conversations with Cornell this week when Todd Wilken and I recorded our "Crossroads" podcast focusing on the Religion Newswriters Association poll that selected the Top 10 religion news stories and the Religion Newsmaker of the Year (Pope Francis, of course). Click here to listen in on that.

Our own Bobby Ross, Jr., covered the results of the RNA poll two weeks ago, so I won't work my way through the whole list again. Plus, I wrote my own "On Religion" column on this subject this week for the Universal syndicate.

However, this was certainly a year in which what we could call the "Cornell law" certainly applied to the list. We're talking, of course, about the Islamic State, the Health & Human Services mandate (and the "religious liberty" wars in general), the Temple Mount conflicts, Ebola in West Africa, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, immigration issues and, of course, Ferguson, Mo.

In several cases, the RNA results, as often is the case, rated ordinary, ongoing events in oldline Protestantism (the continuing rise of same-sex rites, the approval of female bishops in England) higher than I would have put them. I would, for example, have ranked the work of faith-driven activists in Ferguson and in West Africa (Ebola, of course) much higher in the list.

But still, here is the key. Read the whole list (click here) and then read the following material from Cornell, drawn from the end of the version of my graduate project that ran as a cover story at The Quill journal. Then read the list again. See what Cornell was talking about?

George Cornell, who has fought the good fight as long as any religion writer in the nation, sits and works on his own mission impossible at the Associated Press office in New York. How does it feel to be the AP's Lone Ranger of religion?
"Kind of lonely. And it also makes me feel kind of frustrated that I sometimes have to pass up a lot of things I should have covered," Cornell said. "I mean, there are many important things that I just don't have the time to do. If I'm away from the office working on a project then there is no one here to handle things. An important announcement will arrive in the mail and it will just sit there on the desk until I get back."
All of the AP bureaus around the world and in the United States are supposed to cover religion stories that break in their areas. However, the number of AP reporters with skills and the desire to write sensitive religion stories is small.
"AP tries to give religion a pretty fair shake," Cornell said, and then paused. "I'm defending my organization, you know," he added, and laughed.
It's just a matter of time until editors realize how important religion is, Cornell said. He sees young writers doing fine work all across the nation. Eventually, they will be given the freedom they deserve to cover religion in print and on television.
"I mean, look at every major flash point in the world. There's almost always a religious element involved – and it's almost always a powerful one," Cornell said. "The same thing is going on in the human-rights struggles around the world. That's why the religious forces get into so much trouble with authoritarian regimes...
"But to think religion is dull and boring -- I can't understand that. People just don't see where the hammer is falling -- where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it."

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