While I was in Key West (I am still catching up after that fine conference and being stuck in a train much of yesterday), I read a note from a reader pointing me toward an interesting FaithInTheWorkplace.com interview with former ABC News correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer that focuses on journalism, faith and journalists who cover news about faith. Click here to go straight to the interview. I should mention that I consider Wehmeyer a friend and I talked with her and with thelate Peter Jennings about some of the issues that she discusses in the interview. She now works with World Vision in its media projects. I still hope that, someday, a cable news outlet that wants to explore the religion-news demographic will bring her back to major media.
The interview speaks for itself. However, I will point out that Wehmeyer uses the word "objective" in describing her work, which in my experience leads to endless debates about philosophy, the fall of man and other topics that make eyes glaze over in newsrooms. Here at GetReligion we prefer a word like "balance," which isn't perfect either. But you can tell that what Wehmeyer -- backed by Jennings in this experiment -- was trying to do was get intelligent, informed voices into her reports about hot-button issues.
This was controversial, especially in the wake of a 1998 USA Weekend cover story (source of the photo) with the headline "My faith makes me a better reporter: ABC's Peggy Wehmeyer seeks something higher than ratings for network news." But this new interview makes it clear what she was trying to do. Here's a sample:
Your job description was to get to the bottom of stories involving different faiths and to tell them fairly. Did an assignment ever cause you to struggle with your own beliefs?
Of course. And at times my own faith got wobbly. As a good journalist, you try to see the world through the eyes of the people you're interviewing. You want to understand what they believe and tell it as closely to what they believe as possible. To do that well, you must empathize and understand both sides of a contentious issue. Yes, it challenged my faith. It made me question many things I had just assumed. It also broadened me greatly, caused me to think deeply, and to reassess what core beliefs in my faith I really could hold and count on.
I've always been a truth seeker; what I wanted was the truth regardless of the cost. What I found to be true -- that I wished weren't true -- is that we have to live life much more in the gray than in the black-and-white.
So you still have doubt?
I'm a huge doubter and a skeptic. It's part of what makes me a good journalist and a lousy Christian. My friends say it makes me a good Christian. Let's say it makes me a sometimes overly intense and troubled Christian. ...
So how did you take your Christianity into your work world?
Right in the beginning, I had to decide: would I stay in the closet, or would I be as unashamed of who I am and what I believe as my colleagues were about who they are and what they believe? Because of the kind of person I am, for me to hide the core of who I was would be almost lending credence to the argument that I was ashamed of being a Christian or that there was something inferior about it.
There were times when I wished my personal life were invisible and not an issue. I sometimes had to jump through three extra hoops as a religion reporter, because my colleagues thought that a Christian covering religion was an inherent conflict of interest. I would argue: is an atheist, a Jew, or an agnostic inherently less biased than a Christian? Why would a Christian be less able to be objective than anyone else? All of us have personal worldviews and biases. Why would mine disqualify me and others not disqualify them?
Wehmeyer was open about her faith in the workplace and stressed that, because she took her faith so seriously, she wanted to go the extra mile to take seriously the beliefs and viewpoints of those she covered. Most of all, she wanted the people she covered to believe that she had accurately reported their beliefs, as part of reports that also included the viewpoints of other, often clashing, voices in the same story.
That does create tension and it's hard work. But Jennings once told me that Wehmeyer's reports used to draw the highest positive-response ratings of any produced in his newsroom. That probably isn't bad for ratings.