Veteran reporters who really, really get religion

Last week, Father Kendall Harmon -- an Episcopal priest who has had more than a few close encounters with the mainstream media -- left a dangerous comment in response to my post about the debate inspired by Washington Times veteran Julia Duin's comments on the role that experience and training play in quality religion reporting. Harmon was probably winking as he typed. Here is what he wrote:

OK, tmatt, here is a challenge then -- tell us whom you consider the three or four best religion reporters out there in America right now, and tell us why you think so. You had Cornell as a role model to follow, who should young people be following as sources of learning now?

There is no way that I am walking deep into THAT minefield. I have many friends on the beat and there are numerous people that I respect greatly. So how to comment without getting killed? Let's stick with a very, very short list of people in the mainstream, as opposed to specialty publications and websites.

GetReligion has, of course, formally saluted one reporter as precisely this kind of professional gold standard -- Richard Ostling of the Associated Press. I also think that Barbara Bradley Hagerty's work at National Public Radio must be mentioned.

While many consider the New York Times a bastion of liberalism (with obvious reason), Laurie Goodstein is an amazing reporter who often wins praise from partisans on both sides of hot issues. And while Duin works for the Washington Times, anyone who has followed her career knows that she is constantly finding new information and voices on the left as well as the right. Both are experienced professionals and must reads.

One other short note. I was happy to hear that Mark O'Keefe has ascended to the top job at Religion News Service (even though he did not drop me a line to let me know this news at the time, dang it).

I also wrote a piece long ago -- in blog terms -- about the need for some of our major newspapers and wire services to do a better job of steering online readers to their religious coverage. What's the point of having a top-flight specialist on any major beat, such as religion, if it is next to impossible to find that person's work? I mention some other favorite reporters in that piece.

Which brings us to a fine piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by veteran religion-beat scribe Mark I. Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel, who is now as well known for his books such as "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" as he is for his work in daily journalism. The piece is called "Among the Evangelicals: How one reporter got religion." Nice headline, don't you think?

In terms of his own politics and beliefs, it is safe to say that Pinsky is not going to show up anytime soon on The 700 Club (although I have no doubt he would be a fabulous interview if he did). In his article, he describes the journalistic process -- equal parts continuing education and snooping around -- that helped him learn to understand and accurately write about the lives of the armies of evangelical Christians who are camped in and around Orlando. Here is a wonderful passage:

For the first time in my life, I was living in a sea of believing, faithful Christians, and the cold shock felt like total immersion. As on the West Coast, I learned a lot on the job, interviewing ministers, leaders, and lay people. I attended church services more often than many Christians -- some months more often than I attended my own synagogue. But the most intense part of my education came from outside the job, apart from the mediation of a reporter's notebook. At PTA meetings, at Scouts, in the supermarket checkout line, and in my neighborhood I encountered evangelicals simply as people, rather than as subjects or sources of quotes for my stories. Our children went to the same birthday parties. We sat next to each other in the bleachers while the kids played recreational sports. Our family doctor went on frequent mission trips and kept a New Testament in each examining room. In the process, I learned about the Great Commission, the biblical obligation of all Christians to share their faith with the once-born and the unsaved.

Evangelicals were no longer caricatures or abstractions. I learned to interpret their metaphors and read their body language. From personal, day-to-day experience I observed what John Green at the University of Akron has discerned from extensive research: evangelicals were not monolithic nor were they, as The Washington Post infamously characterized them, "poor, uneducated and easy to command." Like Ned Flanders, they are more likely to be overzealous than hypocritical, although there is certainly some of the latter. They don't march in lockstep to what Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or Focus on the Family's James Dobson tell them, and they hold surprisingly diverse views on many issues. While making common cause politically, their theological differences range from the subtle to the significant. For evangelicals, religion is not just for Sundays -- or Election Day.

It's hard to stop there. Read it all. Friends and neighbors, this is what it is all about. Preach it, brother.

Personal note: The Rt. Rev. LeBlanc has been on the road for several days, searching for wardrobes in Los Angeles. Now, I am headed to Tinseltown myself and then to Cincinnati. In other words, posting will continue in the next few days -- when we can sit still long enough to do so. Make sure you let us know of any really good or really bad stories that you see.

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