Shameless plug for Godbeat friend (and moi)

BurleighBillI feel like there should be a string orchestra playing in the background as I type this. I rarely post my Scripps Howard News Service column on this site, but this is not a normal week. While doing some lecture research a few weeks ago, I was reminded that I filed my first column for the wire service on April 11, 1988, while I was still working full-time as a reporter and columnist for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

Do the math.

Well, on my 10th anniversary I saluted the writer and scholar who I felt had influenced my work as a journalist more than any other in the previous decade -- that would be sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. That column was called "Ten years of reporting on a fault line."

I shipped this one out with this cryptic headline: "Politics, opera and religion (20 years)." You have to read at least halfway through to understand the reference, but I hope you do. This time around, I decided to salute a journalism executive who has long been outspoken in his support for quality religion-news coverage in the mainstream press -- William R. Burleigh (photo).

So here is the top of the column. Yes, I feel old today.

Most editors and reporters would panic, or call their lawyers, if news executives asked religious questions during job interviews.

Yet it's hard to probe the contents of a journalist's head without asking big questions. And it's hard to ask some of the ultimate questions -- questions about birth, life, suffering, pain and death -- without mentioning religion.

William Burleigh carefully explored some of this territory when he was running news teams, both large and small. His half-century career with the E.W. Scripps Company began in 1951 when he was in high school in Evansville, Ill., and he retired several years ago after serving as president and chief executive officer.

"I always thought that it was interesting to talk to reporters and editors about their education," said Burleigh, who remains chairman of the Scripps Howard board. "How many people in our newsrooms have actually studied history and art and philosophy and even some theology? ...

"I have to admit -- quite frankly -- I always showed a partiality toward people with that kind of educational background. I didn't do that because I am a big religious guy. I did it because I wanted to know if we were dealing with well-rounded people who could relate to the big questions in life."

Burleigh won some battles. For example, a few editors decided to let a religion-beat specialist try writing a column for the Scripps Howard News Service and I've been at it ever since. This week marks the "On Religion" column's 20th anniversary and I owe Burleigh, and other editors who backed religion coverage, a debt of gratitude.

However, it's crucial to know that Burleigh -- a traditional Catholic -- didn't push this issue because he wanted editors to hire more journalists who liked sitting in pews. No, he didn't want to see newspapers keep missing events and trends that affect millions of people and billions of dollars.

Some journalists, he said, don't think that religion matters. Thus, many editors get sweaty palms when it comes time to dedicate time, ink and money to the subject. Few seek out trained, experienced religion-beat reporters.

"The prevailing ethos among most of our editors is that the public square is the province of the secular and not a place for ... religious messages to be seen or heard," said Burleigh, in an interview for my chapter in "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." Oxford University Press will publish this book, produced by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life, late this fall.

"As a result," Burleigh said, "lots of editors automatically think religion is out of place in a public newspaper. That's what we are up against."

By the way, that first column 20 years ago was about presidential candidate Pat Robertson and how (imagine this) he was giving speeches that were hard for news organizations to cover because he kept using evangelical jargon that was hard for reporters to understand. Imagine that.

The more things change, the more....

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