During my five years in the Chicago suburbs and a summer internship at a Sun-Times-owned paper, I began to understand just how complicated Chicagoland is to cover. Covering religion in the country's third largest city is no small task, and religion reporter for the Chicago Tribune Manya Brachear tackles it head on.
Manya Brachear joined the Chicago Tribune in June 2003, covering the papal transition from Rome, the Dalai Lama's visit to Chicago, debates about gay clergy, interfaith dialogue and religion in American politics. We regularly read her work here at GR.
She earned a bachelor's degree from Appalachian State University and masters' degrees in journalism and religious studies from Columbia University. She also has written for Time magazine, The Dallas Morning News, Beliefnet.com and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.
(1) Where do you get your news about religion? I do the same as all my colleagues: read a variety of blogs and reports from other news outlets. But more importantly, I stay in touch with the community and count on them to let me know when news is brewing. The Tribune now has a hyper-local focus. Localizing national stories just isn't enough. There needs to be a local person who is driven by faith to do something extraordinary--either extraordinarily good, bad or odd to make into the paper. That simply requires keeping my ear close to the ground and pounding the pavement. Yep, all those old-school cliches you learn in J-school are still what work best.
(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get? I don't think the mainstream media fully grasp the way religion can motivate people to vote a certain way, act a certain way, lead a certain way. I also don't think they understand the importance of wading into the messiness of religion, evidenced by how easily they move religion writers--trained professionals specifically fitted to wear those waders--to other beats. Powerbrokers get away with nonchalant God talk because reporters either don't want to offend or don't want to cover a debate that has no clear right or wrong resolution. We need to hold everyone accountable when they insert God into the equation.
(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two? There's been so much focus on objections to the Park 51 mosque, but many other faithful people besides Muslims are vying for rights and getting turned away. Religious discrimination on all fronts has become more acceptable but also more debatable. As some non-profits fight for the right to hire on the basis of religion and still receive federal funding, those who are excluded from applying are alleging discrimination. Meanwhile, religion bashing, which often sounds an awful lot like hate speech, seems to have become acceptable. The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story on September 11 about how three Muslim teenagers who barely remember the events of 9/11 have been teased and taunted as terrorists. I can see how one can argue that the story's timing was or wasn't appropriate, but those adults who responded by insulting the teens, calling them liars and suggesting they should just accept it, either missed or proved the point of the story. I look forward to watching how society, including official agencies such as the United Nations, law enforcement, FCC, religious institutions and the mainstream media, address the phenomenon.
(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today? Religion motivates people whether they know it or not. Doctors, politicians, philanthropists and business leaders often rely on their faith to guide their actions, sometimes more often than they admit or realize. Furthermore, religion also answers the question "why?" for many people. "Why?" is one of our five Ws. If we journalists fail to understand what drives everyone around us, we fail to answer the "why?" and thus fail to do our jobs.
(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately? The atheists' bus campaign that appeared on the side of Chicago buses cracked me up. Not only did the ads sponsors use the very evangelization methods they scorn, the ads revealed that even atheists are divided along liberal and conservative lines and vary in degrees of fervor. While some secularists simply seek to promote an ethic of goodwill, others want to dish out what they've been taking all these years. While doing my High Holiday reporting, I was reminded of the joke in Jewish circles that three Jews need four synagogues. But after seven years on the religion beat, I'm finding that joke applies to every religious denomination, including the atheists.