Can you imagine the topics of conversation at the dinner table in the Burke household in Baltimore? My guess is that Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham come up on occasion. You might just call Melissa Nann Burke and Daniel Burke a religion reporting power couple; Melissa is the religion reporter for the York (Pa.) Daily Record and Daniel works for Religion News Service.
We wanted to dig into the religion climate at one of Pennsylvania's local dailies, so we asked Melissa to answer the usual GetReligion questions. She has worked for the Daily Record for four years and blogs regularly for the newspaper's Belief and Beyond.
Melissa studied journalism at George Washington University and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has received awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors and Religion Newswriters Association's Cassel's Religion Reporting Awards for small newspapers. Her reporting on the finances of the nonprofit Angel Food Ministries was named one of four finalists in its category in the Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards this year.
Check out her strong plug for the religion beat in her answers to GetReligion's 5Q+1.
(1) Where do you get your news about religion? Locally, from first-hand reporting, reading my newspaper, attending services and events in the community and following clergy and other locals on Twitter.
To keep up on news elsewhere, I read other newspapers, the daily roundup on Religion News Service's blog and the weekly ReligionLink.org. I have Google News Alerts on my favorite religion reporters around the country to see what they're writing about. Several groups send a helpful roundup of headlines to my e-mail Inbox, such as the Pew Forum, Zenit, CT Direct, FCC Newsclips (religious freedom news), Faith in Public Life and the Chronicle of Philanthropy for nonprofit news. World Faith News compiles official press releases from faith groups. I listen to NPR's weekly podcast with the week's religion stories. I check the blogs Religion Clause, The Seeker, On Faith, Whispers in the Loggia and the Dallas Morning News and Baltimore Sun religion blogs, among others.
I'm also married to RNS reporter Danny Burke. We sometimes suggest story ideas for one another but try not to talk shop much at home. Emphasis on try.
(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get? That's too wide net to cast. I don't think there's a story the entire mainstream media is misunderstanding.
Journalists err sometimes. Too often those mistakes aren't corrected fully. Rarely, however, do reporters set out to slant a story, leave out a source or ignore a newsworthy angle. The mistakes usually occur under the stress of deadlines or -- more frequently these days -- due to a lack of space to explain context and details.
I will offer a story that I'd like to see more of (and hope to pursue myself) -- the experience of Muslims living in small-town, rural America, away from the network and support of a large metropolitan faith community.
(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two? The Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, which covers central Pennsylvania, is expecting a new bishop to be appointed soon. Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades moved on to head the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana in January. Once a new bishop's installed, there's likely to be a period of change and adjustment here. I'll be monitoring that.
I also keep an eye out for story ideas about the conflict between religion and science -- especially science education. York County, Pa., is home to Dover Area School District, which received much attention during the intelligent design trial of 2005. My readers won't forget that ordeal anytime soon.
(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today? Closely held beliefs affect people's decision-making on everything from how to spend their money to how to raise their children to how they vote. My job as a religion reporter is telling stories about how folks live out these beliefs in their everyday lives. I hope these stories are written and reported so that they resonate with believers and agnostics alike. I want my readers to learn and better understand the faith communities around them -- no matter the readers' level of spiritual commitment.
(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately? Nothing coming to mind here.
BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
I wince hearing about religion reporter colleagues leaving the beat -- either laid off, retiring or more often reassigned. The beat's becoming more complex, and we're losing those who know it best.
Dear readers, if want to continue to read quality religion journalism, someone's got to dig it up for you. Write or call your friendly neighborhood newspaper editor and tell them why religion coverage is important to you. They'll listen.
Reporters, if you haven't already, find great tips and training on the beat through the Religion Newswriters Association. This year's conference is in Denver from Sept. 23-25. For scholarship info, visit RNA.org.