Giving religion news a closer look

religionDid it seem like there were no religion news stories last week? Maybe it was because all the religion reporters and writers were partying at the Alamo at the Religion Newswriters Association's annual convention. Gary Stern blogged about it last week and even posted a video blog upon his return. Unfortunately the report included no funny stories or gossip about other religion beat professionals. J. Michael Parker, the Express-News religion writer, got a story out of the convention, focusing on the decline of the religion news section at some papers:

Chris Quinn, religion and philanthropy reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he doesn't miss the religion section.

"Why should we 'ghettoize' religion news in a Saturday section? The trick for religion writers is to make others in the newsroom understand the importance of religion and why it should be on Page One," Quinn said.

But he contends that the public largely misunderstands the secular media's watchdog role in covering institutions, including religious ones.

"I think many would like us to be cheerleaders for them. They're used to the religious media writing about them. Religious media are less likely to ask religious leaders questions about things that might not present them in a favorable light."

But Kelly McBride, a former religion writer in Spokane, Wash., and now ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla., believes that the average person reading a daily newspaper "is likely to judge religion reporting as credible if he sees his belief system authentically represented."

"But he's likely to dismiss it if he sees something he knows to be erroneous," she added.

I love that quote from Quinn about the media's watchdog role. It's funny to me how reporters consider their role to be one of asking hard questions of institutional leaders -- all institutions, that is, except for . . . the media and friends. I exaggerate, of course, but we see it all the time. Think of the ease with which The New York Times exonerated itself in a recent scandal and consider whether it would be so charitable to a religious institution, business or member of Congress.

Each year the association awards monetary prizes for excellence in religion reporting in the mainstream media. This year's winners:

Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Sandi Dolbee of The San Diego Union-Tribune. From a feature on a team of young Mormons recreating a pioneer mountain trek, to a moving profile of a local National Guard chaplain whose faith was challenged in Iraq, judges said her stories showed a "knack for finding the heart of a story and presenting it in a way that brings difficult and complex subjects to life."

Supple Religion Writer of the Year Eric Gorski for work he did at The Denver Post. "This writer's package had it all: a hard-hitting investigation of Heritage Christian Center, strong examination of the Ted Haggard scandal that was both local and national in scope, and a good sampling of other religious events in the community," the judges wrote.

Other winners include David O'Reilly and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Larissa Theodore-Dudkiewicz of the Beaver County (Pa.) Times, G. Jeffrey MacDonald of The Christian Science Monitor, The Mobile Press Register, The Salt Lake Tribune, PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Rachael Martin of NPR.

Congratulations to everyone!

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