5Q+1: Grossman's faithful reasoning

If you're not following Cathy Lynn Grossman on Twitter or include Faith & Reason & USA Today's religion stories bookmarked/on your RSS feed, stop whatever you're doing and right that wrong. Grossman might be one of the most connected religion reporters on the map, monitoring the news and staying in touch with religious leaders all over the country. She is a regular for GetReligion, as we are often reading her work and keeping in conversation with her.

Grossman studied journalism and urban studies at Medill at Northwestern University. She spent 17 years covering almost everything except sports, courts and business at the Miami Herald before moving to USA Today in 1989. Here's her version of what happened next:

My claims to fame are simple: I had a "Pulitzer" at 23 by naming my dog after the prize; I covered the 1973 Arab Israeli War and the 1976 Entebbe rescue; ran feature projects for The Herald; discovered a passion I still have for survey research and finding stories in numbers; spent many years covering travel at USA Today before convincing bosses in 1999 that the inner journey was a better story than the outer one.

Check out some of Grossman's provocative responses to GR's 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion? I constantly follow wires, other blogs, social networks, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the major magazines--Christianity Today, Baptist Press, America, First Things, Commonweal, The Forward, Moment and more.

But in the end, my primary source is my own curiosity. Once you start looking for news that touches or expresses peoples' visions and values, you see it everywhere. Every decision we--or our politicians--make about health, education, welfare, peace, justice or economics speaks to our worldview.

My dual life as beat reporter and as blogger allows me to jump in where I don't have a story myself. I can delve into questions raised by reporting elsewhere and bring them to readers to puzzle over as well. The role of Faith & Reason is to create conversation.

Here's a typical process for me. Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings are coming up and that revives a slew of questions:

"How did we wind up with six Catholics and, likely, three Jews on the Supreme Court? Could it be that both traditions place a high value on "works" or as much value on justice as on grace? If President Obama had appointed a mainline social gospel-focused Protestant to the court, would conservative evangelicals still have felt they were no longer "represented?"

(Note: I always have a slew of questions. It is impossible for me to ask only one. I am my mother's daughter and 10 to 15 questions at machine-gun speed are nothing for mom.)

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get? Actually, the story the mainstream media does get--and GetReligion doesn't like--is the "meh" story, the "whatever" trend to the ever-climbing numbers of the Don't Know/Don't Care crowd.

The problem, in part, is the data. We rely on surveys that ask people clear choices like spiritual and/or religious but rare is the survey that lets people say they believe "nothing in particular" and do nothing about it.

Frequently, GR will critique stories for failing to get very religiously particular, slapping media around for failing to spell out what exactly is Tim Tebow's theology, for example. I would argue that you can deal with it once, maybe, but not every time Tebow is in a story. You could spell it out in detail but readers by and large would not grasp where those views stand on the theological spectrum or how close or far these are to what they believe, because they actually know very little themselves.

We cover the beejeebers out of institutional fights, the sexual abuse crisis and the latest missteps or controversial quotes of high profile religious leaders. Yet we seem to miss that for all the preaching, teaching, Internet outreach, church planting and general rah-rah, the number of people who worship is the same small percentage it has been for decades. Are religions failing? That's the story.

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

I track three major groups: People of faith who believe there is absolute truth; those who accept, even celebrate, that truth is pluralistic, relative and changing; and the Don't Know/Don't Care group. Almost every story I do stands on how one or more of these groups respond to--and often clash over--the news of the day. Their tracks can lead to a story on Millennials ditching religion or to one on the small but insistent traditionalist counter stream.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today? Religion news well done goes to the core of a story: How and why we think what we think, act as we do, dream as we may. If you don't delve into these aspects--and attend closely for the flickering candle or incense whiff of belief behind someone's ideas or actions--you haven't really told their story, whether it's on the front page, the sports page, entertainment or features.

I do, however, disagree with Ross Douthat that the mass media should be a forum for debating the truth claims of faith. Nor do I feel remotely guilty for failing to promote these debates. Books, journals and salons--and churches, synagogues and mosques--are the home for these discussions. You can have them next week, last week or never. I work for and delight in news--beliefs come to life.

But the stories and blog posts that work--that grab and hold readers--must be rooted in ideas. "Local" stories needs national context from the start. This is why I am wary of the hot trend now to hyper-local community news coverage.

In this age, people define their "neighborhood" by their community of interests and views--hobbies, politics, personal ties--not by geography. My 24-year-old will never read a Philly paper to find out what the news is in Center City because, in her mind, she "lives" in a network of college pals, in the design worlds of New York and London, in emo rock bands she follows. But she'll read a debate on the death penalty or inter-religious marriage or a profile of a Supreme Court nominee.

5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately? Is there someone reading this whose first response to the unveiling of hypocrisy isn't a self-righteous hoot of laughter before we recover our senses (and remember our own failings) enough to feel sorry for the person? Come on, be honest. Remember, Ted Haggard? Hypocrisy will always be news when religious leaders, like politicians or anyone who professes to offer a vision of truth to the world, is be caught stepping, or sneaking, outside boundaries they themselves defined.

When I was still covering travel full time for USA Today and sneaking off to do religion stories as often as I could, I found the perfect best-of-both-worlds story: A flight attendant was fired. She said it was because she was reading the Bible on company time and someone objected. The airline said she was proselytizing on flights including leaving tracts in the bathrooms. She lost. But who won?

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media? If you are a reader of religion stories and blogs, make your mark--put a civil comment on the post or story and help keep these kinds of stories in our common civic conversation.

If you are a religion reporter, take a little heart and a little action. The Internet revolution in news delivery may be doing one great favor for religion reporters. At last, we have proof of the high, responsive readership we always knew was out there. The editors know what your metrics are. And if you want to keep this beat alive, you'll find out, too. What you'll probably find is that week after week your stories or blog posts draw more eyeballs and keep them longer than many other topics. So go make friends with the numbers people at your company and find out how well you are doing.

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