Brad Greenberg on God, news, blogs

BradGreenberg.jpgIf you are interested in God and also in blogs that are about religion and God, then you are probably familiar with The God Blog, which is operated by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. And if you are familiar with The God Blog, that means you are familiar with the work of the young religion-beat specialist Brad A. Greenberg. Now, I have been interested in having Greenberg do a 5Q+1 post for us for quite some time now. However, there is now another reason to introduce him to GetReligion readers. During our latest reorganization -- with Ari Goldman's decision not to wade into the blogosphere -- we've been looking for another member of the GetReligionistas and Greenberg has answered the call.

Now, I will let young master Greenberg fill in even more details about where he is in his career when he does an introduction post later this week. But briefly, let me tell you where he has been.

Greenberg is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and has done some adjunct teaching at UCLA, as well, working with journalism interns. He has worked as the religion-beat reporter at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, Calif., The Sun in San Bernardino, Calif., and the Los Angeles Daily News. However, he is best known for his work as the senior writer at The Jewish Journal. You may have also seen his byline as a contributing writer at Christianity Today.

When it comes to awards, he placed second in the Religion Newswriters Association's Cornell Religion Writer of the Year contest in 2006, picked up a third-place award from the American Academy of Religion contest for mid-sized newspapers and, in 2008, the Los Angeles Press Club gave The God Blog its "best individual blog" nod. One of his recent Facebook updates noted: "Thank God for the religion beat. At the Press Club dinner; won Journalist of the Year in under 100k category. Amen." That would be the LA Press Club, again.

Greenberg is especially interested in religion and popular culture and, thank goodness, that also includes an interest in faith and sports. We will let him offer some more insights into his unique background later on. Meanwhile, here's the standard 5Q+1 questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I started in print journalism as a purist, so it's a bit embarrassing that I get almost all of my religion news online -- and not just from the online versions of The New York Times and The Washington Post. In addition to the religion feeds of mainstream media staples, my Google Reader overflows with content from 90-something blogs written by religion reporters; journalists at sectarian outlets; pastors, rabbis and imams; scientists and skeptics; lefties and rightists.

The nice thing about filtering religion news through sectarian publications and personal blogs is that you immediately know the perspective the author is bringing to the story (though I don't want to confuse that with the term "agenda") and the authors often communicate a better understanding of why something is occurring and what is at stake. There is more of a mixed bag with religion blogs at mainstream papers, in large part, I think, because traditional journalists remain uncomfortable with having an online identity that differs from the person they need to be in the paper. I know I did. Sadly too, some of my favorite newspaper religion blogs have fallen by the wayside or been drawn back dramatically due to decimated and discouraged staff.

My three most trusted sources -- both for keeping up on religion news and for those lazy Monday mornings when I desperately need a quick blog post -- are Christianity Today, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and, for a quick view of what the MSM is writing about, GetReligion. I really couldn't survive without those three. I'm also a big fan of Friendly Atheist, FaithWorld, The Forward and Religion Clause. At the national news level, I think The New York Times and NPR do the best job. I get very little these days out of my local paper, the Los Angeles Times. But I also get a healthy dose of quirky religion news on Twitter from Holy Weblog! and through my at-home subscriptions, which include The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Wired, but not Newsweek and Time. Really, you'd be surprised how many religion currents run through an issue of Wired.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

blog_header_thegodblogDefinitely the Miss California mess.

Actually, though that was designed as a joke, there was plenty wrong with the way media reacted to Carrie Prejean's belief that homosexuality is a sin. And that hints at a bigger religion story that the MSM continues to miss, or at least oversimplify: homosexuality and the church. The Episcopal schism and California's Proposition 8 come with their own pre-packaged stories. But it's too easy to settle for a storyline that pits gay rights activists against Christian soldiers. When is the last time you saw a reporter really try to explain why most Christians believe homosexuality is a sin? Considering the great range of opinions on this topic, from everyone's-welcome theology to fire and brimstone for those who stray, shouldn't journalists being trying a bit harder to understand why even members of the same denomination, the same church, the same family could understand the same few biblical passages so differently?

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

The arc of the atheist evangelists. A few years ago, there was all this hoopla over atheists and agnostics "coming out of the closet." But aside from a few bestsellers and getting a lobbyist in Washington, I've seen a lot more news ink dedicated to this movement than seems warranted. Some polls have found an uptick in the percent of Americans who identify as unreligious, which is different than being atheist or even agnostic, but other polls continue to find that nontheists are viewed more negatively by others than just about any other group. No, they aren't baby eaters, but Americans would still be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is female, African American, Latino, Catholic, Jew, Muslim or Mormon than for an atheist.

I think journalists have made the mistake of over-hyping this story because they feel like atheists have been underrepresented and under respected for years. Their perspective, though, is likely skewed. Based on the random samplings of the dailies I've worked at in Southern California, newsrooms have a disproportionately high percentage of unbelievers among their ranks.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Because that role cannot be understated. This is a point I have made for years. In fact, I emphasized it in a blog post last year titled "The dangerous world of religion reporting." I wrote:

Once considered a backwater of journalism, the Godbeat feels to me quite chosen, home to immensely important and interesting news. Religion, after all, is the rubric through which each person uniquely sees the world. Science, education, politics, entertainment -- it regularly serves as an undercurrent in these fields. (That was, in fact, part of my pitch at The Sun three years ago when they were looking for a reporter for the newly created position and I was eager to get out of Rialto.) The religion angle also is occasionally relevant when trying to understand peoples' beliefs in God, their perspectives on the life hereafter and that which gives every day meaning.

Think of the God beat as the Jerusalem of journalism. Seriously.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

You mean besides learning that a reporter at a Jewish newspaper, who looks and acts and even spells his name like a Jew, is in fact a Christian?

Well, I wouldn't call the general phenomenon funny -- it's the reason I'm going to law school -- but as newspapers have been cut to the bone and, in some cases, gone belly up, the religion beat has suffered. The Los Angeles Times, which only a few years ago had three-plus religion reporters, has had periods with none. Picking up the slack have been reporters with other specialties, which has led to the funny part of this sad story. For instance, an article about soaring fuel prices last summer included this paragraph:

The problem is affecting even the holy business, driving down attendance at churches, synagogues and mosques. Religious leaders are struggling to help their members cope, spinning new themes about a society that has become almost sinfully reliant on motorized transport. Others are viewing the energy-price squeeze as a test of the way they serve God and their communities.

Now, any Jew, and most gentiles, could tell you that Orthodox Jews don't drive on the Sabbath. They haven't since the Model-T went into mass production, regardless of the price of gasoline. But the reporter, who quoted a Muslim and a few pastors in his article but no Jews, must not have known this; surprisingly, neither did his editors. It's difficult to imagine Russell Chandler making that mistake.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

It sure ain't what it used to be, and I worry about how much more it will slip as more and more metropolitan papers drop their religion reporter slot(s).

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