Reader comments on "stupid reporters"

scribeatcomputerFor quite some time now, young master Daniel Pulliam has been suggesting that each of us should select a "comment of the week" to pull out here on page one. I agree, in part because I fear that many of our readers miss some of the excellent questions, opinions and pot shots that are hidden deep inside this massive site. Thus, here is a comment from the Rev. Andy Chamberlain, diving into the sometimes emotional whirlpool that I stirred up with my post titled "Are reporters too stupid to get religion?" It begins with Chamberlain quoting an earlier comment by another reader:

"Since when is religion anything like rocket science? I thought religion was supposed to be a part of people's everyday lives."

And you are right, what we believe is part of everyday life; but whilst faith can be a simple thing (thank God) religion is fiendishly complicated; and this matters with news coverage because no one wants to read a story where the reporter doesn't know their stuff. It is distracting and stops the reader from engaging with the material.

For good or ill, religion is complicated; for example, you could look at the differences in Trinitarian theology between the Catholic and Orthodox church. These things don't matter at all to many people, but for others they are critical; and importantly, if you were going to write about them, you would need to know your stuff.

Or if you don't want to stray from the Get Religion website, I suggest you look at the discussion on the 'American Pastor' post about Rick Warren; there are a number of complex and subtle issues being discussed there by the different contributors. I think most reporters would be hard pressed to give a very informed contribution to those debates.

I think my rocket science observation stands, maybe that is a shame, but there you go. ...

Posted by andy chamberlain at 3:46 pm on January 29, 2006

I am passing along this comment for two reasons.

First, anyone who has ever tried to walk the Godbeat knows that it is stunningly complicated. When I left full-time work on the religion beat in Denver, after six-plus years at the Rocky Mountain News, my files packed two or three giant file drawers and included materials on -- I estimate -- at least 300 different religious organizations, movements, denominations or sects in that region. Try briefing a general-assignment reporter on that.

I know it is an unfair comparison, but the political beat includes two major parties and a few closely related major movements. In religion, there are at least 30 or more major "parties" in any major city, each with its own unique form of doctrine, language, culture and government (local, regional, national and often global).

One church's bishop is not the same as another's -- whether you are talking Anglican, Pentecostal, African Methodist Episcopal, Lutheran, United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or whatever. An Eastern Rite Catholic is not the same as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, even if their vestments look alike. A Western Rite Orthodox priest is not the same thing as an Anglican Rite Catholic priest, even if they both went to the same Episcopal seminary a decade or two ago.

When a Mormon talks about "heaven," the meaning is not the same as when a Baptist does. When a Catholic says she is a "charismatic," it probably does not mean precisely the same thing as when a Pentecostal believer uses the same term. Then again, it might, depending on the zip code. Don't get me started on all the differences -- legal and doctrinal -- between, let's say, a meeting of the Episcopal Church's General Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.

The list goes on and on. And the emerging world of the neopagans makes the Baptist world (with thousands of different conventions and networks) look downright simple, plain and ordinary.

This leads me to my second comment. I still find it amazing that one trend you see in American newspapers today is editors assigning the religion beat to people with zero training or experience or commitment to staying on the beat for a significant period of time. It is supposed to give the newspaper a fresh and open view of the topic.

Forget rocket science for a minute. Try to imagine newsroom executives in major newsrooms taking the same approach with sports, law, science or the arts. Yes, I know that journalists can study and get up to speed on a complicated beat. But are we supposed to say that, once they have learned what they need to learn, they are now less qualified to handle the same beat at a larger news organization? I think not.

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