Get religion; Get information; Get scholarship money

Here is some exciting news. The professionals at the Religion Newswriters Association -- the informal guild of people who cover the religion beat -- have landed some scholarship money for people who want to learn more about this highly complex beat.

The Religion Newswriters Foundation is offering up to $5,000 per person to journalists enrolling in college-level courses on religion. The new Lilly Scholarships in Religion are part of $50,000 available this year to help journalists cover the expense of tuition, books, and fees at any accredited college, university, seminary or similar institution. Journalists can take any course they choose as long as it is in the field of religion. April 1 is the first deadline for applications.

See the RNA website for complete information.

This is really crucial. I have worked with many religion writers who were devout believers and, because of the strength of their own faith, they were driven to try to take seriously the beliefs of other people. The goal? Report unto others as you would like them to report unto you.

I have also known excellent religion writers who were agnostics or simply deeply skeptical about the world of faith, yet who were so fascinated with the details and passions of the religion beat that they studied it and dug deep into the lives of believers of all kinds.

But I've never known a good professional who did not believe that it was important to get a grip on the basic, factual material at the heart of the religion beat. All good specialty reports want to get the facts right. The really good reporters want to dig deeper than that and get into the spirit of their stories, as well. I like that Bill Moyers quote: Many journalists remain tone deaf to the music of religion.

Some people cannot grasp this. As I once wrote:

In 1994, Washington Post editors tacked up a notice for a religion reporter, seeking applicants from within the newsroom. The "ideal candidate," it said, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."

Now try to imagine a newsroom notice seeking an opera critic which states that the "ideal candidate does not necessarily like opera or know much about opera." Or how about seeking a Supreme Court reporter who "does not necessarily care about the law or have done any work in the field of law." How about notices for reporters who cover professional sports, science, film and politics?

To paraphrase that ragin' cajun: It's journalism, stupid.

I like to tell my students that the religion beat is a combination of politics and religion. It has all the complexity of politics, with all of the titles, laws, history and machinery. But it isn't just politics. Right in the middle of a debate about some complex, picky Canon law -- prepare for a wild metaphor -- one of the participants may break into a passionate aria. They are discussing facts, but the beauty of their faith is at the heart of what they are saying.

You have to cover both the facts and the music. This takes commitment, study and a trained ear. Here's hoping that some journalists -- young and old -- take the RNA up on this offer. And kudos to Poynter the Ethics & Public Policy Center and others who are working in this area, as well.

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