Hey, Washington Post, does experience matter?

WashPostCoverIt's the question that all religion-beat specialists hear all the time, whether they want to or not. "Hey, where do you go to church?" This is, of course, simply another way of stating the worldview question: "Hey, reporter, what in the world do you believe?" As I have discussed here in the past, there are many Godbeat professionals who simply refuse to answer, saying it is nobody's business. This causes tension, more often than not.

A few journallists open up and pretty much spill the works. This often creates a whole different set of tensions. Want to make a conservative Episcopalian grimace? Tell her that you are a liberal Episcopalian. Or turn that around, because it really doesn't matter. Ditto for Baptists, Jews, United Methodists, Catholics, you name it.

But whatever a religion writer says in this situation is going to tick off somebody. As I wrote early in the life of this blog:

The religion beat takes a journalist into territory that is both highly personal and very, very complicated in terms of history, doctrine, facts, titles, lingo, statistics and who knows what all. I like to tell people that it's like covering politics and opera at the same time.

When I joined the Rocky Mountain News staff, I discussed this problem with my editor. He approved the following answer, which some journalist friends of mine jokingly called "Mattingly's Miranda." It goes like this: "Yes, I am an active churchman. I take my own faith very seriously and, because of that, I want to do the best job that I can to understand your faith and get the facts right."

In the classroom, I often put it this way: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

When speaking to clergy groups and at seminaries, I often appeal to holy types to stop asking this question.

Why? Because it's the wrong question. I have known some very religious people who could not report worth a flip and I have known agnostics and one or two atheists who took the religion beat very seriously and did fine, balanced, nuanced work. For them, it was like sociology with colorful voices and rites. Hey, whatever works.

The key, however, is that they have to care about the facts, history and symbolism of the beat. They have to sweat the details. In my opinion, this comes with experience and professional training, whether in the classroom or out of it.

Thus, I urge clergy to ask reporters this question: "How long have you covered the religion beat? Where did you study?" You would think this would be a rather neutral question, but apparently not.

TumsLong, long ago, back in 1994, The Washington Post raised many eyebrows by posting a newsroom notice for a religion reporter. The "ideal candidate," it said, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion." Well, I still think this is bizarre. Try to imagine a notice in an elite newsroom seeking an opera critic that says the "ideal candidate does not necessarily like opera or know much about opera." How about notices for reporters who cover professional sports, science, film and politics?

No one has taken more shots on this issue than the veteran religion-beat writer Julia Duin at The Washington Times, who once caused a mini-storm at Poynter.org -- check out the counter arguments -- arguing that newspapers seeking improved religion coverage should hire qualified, experienced, award-winning religion reporters to help bridge the information gap that skews so many stories on this beat. I joined in during these arguments, too.

Now Duin has shipped me another note from the front lines of cyberspace, taken from a MediaBistro board on job changes here inside the Beltway. This latest Washington Post news caused her to reach for the Tums, and you can probably see why:

Metro is happy to announce that Jacqui Salmon, who has been covering philanthropy, will change assignments to become a second regional religion reporter together with Michelle Boorstein. We are making this change to restore a second Metro religion reporter, lost when Caryle Murphy took early retirement. The move reflects the importance of religion to our readers and to contemporary social, cultural and political life. Jacqui remains based in Fairfax, but will report now to the District desk's Joe Davidson, who oversees religion coverage, including the Saturday Religion Page.

In nearly two decades at The Post, Jacqui has established herself as an enterprising reporter who thinks broadly and breaks news. She has reported and edited on the Business staff, and covered suburban family life on Metro before taking over the philanthropy beat.

Now, try to imagine the eye-popping resumes the Post would have received if it had advertised this job via contacts at the Religion Newswriters Association, Poynter.org or some similar network. Hey, maybe the Post did that and nobody good applied (but I would not count on that).

Would any qualified people apply if the Post advertised a Supreme Court slot? You think? There would have been a very high-quality stampede.

Clearly, Salmon is a skilled, veteran reporter who is trusted by editors at the Post. That is not my point.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that I hope that -- in the weeks ahead -- lots of people ask her: "How long have you covered the religion beat? Where did you study?" I think this is fair, given the complex and controversial nature of this topic and its importance in local, religion, national and global news today.

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