Scared 'journalist' hides in a church, lives to write about it

A few weeks ago, a Twitter post from Tim Townsend, the award-winning religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, caught my attention.

The tweet linked to a piece titled "Journalism is not narcissism."  The enlightening essay concludes:

The extent to which we train a generation of young writers to become robotic insta-memoirists is the extent to which a generation of stories from the wider world does not get told. The real tragedy of journalism-as-narcissism is not the general pettiness of the stories it produces; it is the other, better stories that never get produced as a result.

I was reminded of that piece this week when I came across a Religion Dispatches post headlined "A Journalist in Church, Hiding in Plain Sight."  I forwarded a link to the article to my fellow GetReligionistas with a one-word subject line: "Weird." (And yes, I acknowledge the irony of writing a first-person blog post related to this.)

My boss replied to my e-mail with this note:

A great example of a non-hard news item that we should write about.

It's linked to the religion beat, period.

So here I am, assigned to make sense of this "journalist" who hides in a church and lives to write about it.

Let's start at the top:

I’ve often wondered why I hid from them that day. It was two years ago and a rousing Sunday service was winding down at the Portuguese Language Missionary Pentecostal Church in Queens. The pastor, a fiery sermonizer who looked the part of an insurance salesman in his oversized metallic gray suit, had just asked the congregation’s baptized members to approach the front of the church and form a tunnel, through which the unconverted (não crentes, as Brazilians call them) could walk and feel the power of the church’s faith.

As the first of several women approached the gauntlet of cheery Christians, their heads downcast in perhaps shame or contemplation, I double-timed it down the church’s back hallway to the shoddy bathroom. For several tense minutes I waited, until it was safe to once again hide in the back row.

While cowering in the bathroom, and later in my seat, I rationalized my disappearing act on purely journalistic grounds: I was only there to observe. Yet my rapid heartbeat hinted at something else: fear. Fear of being found out, of being asked straight out if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—I had not and still have not.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but wouldn't the better journalistic approach be to carry a notepad, introduce yourself as a reporter and ask if it's OK to hang out in the back and see what the church is all about? Isn't that what journalists do? 

Or maybe the better "journalistic" approach is to pretend to be someone you're not?:

As I would discover over months of reporting, my job was just that much easier if everyone simply assumed I was a born-again journalist, writing about a life of faith I had intimate access to. Though I never once claimed to be anything I was not, I also never volunteered a fully candid portrait of my private self: A young gay man, recently out of the closet and transplanted to the big city, co-habitating with my boyfriend of almost three years, unable to remember the last time I’d darkened a church’s doorstep.

But whatever you do, don't just stand or sit there with a notepad. Convince folks that you're a true believer:

To avoid the dreaded question, while still establishing a basic sense of belonging in the dozen or so churches I visited, I set down some rules of engagement. When the assembled faithful joined in song, I’d sing along. (My favorite hymn, Ressuscita-me, or “Revive me,” begs God for a miracle.) When the congregations swayed rapt, their hands raised to the heavens to beseech their God, I’d hold my hands palms up, but never higher than my elbows, which I’d keep firmly glued to my sides. None of those straining Baptist hands for this (onetime) Catholic boy. I also peppered my language with faith-y buzzwords—God’s PeaceEpiphanyDeliverance—meant to connect with my interview subjects’ often hardscrabble stories of poverty, illegal emigration to the United States, solitude, drug abuse, and, finally, rehabilitation in Christ.

Good grief.

The Religion Newswriters Association points out:

It is critical that journalists respect faith as an important part of people’s lives, and they must be committed to the core journalistic values of balance and fairness. Whatever their own beliefs, journalists must write about others’ beliefs with respect, whether or not they agree with them.

As a religion journalist for The Oklahoman and later The Associated Press, I tried to show respect in small ways: If a congregation stood to pray or sing, I stood up, too. When I walked into a mosque, I removed my shoes.

But I can't say that I ever purposely "peppered my language with faith-y buzzwords." And I never — as this writer suggests later in his piece — "felt an all-too-spiritual tingle as I crescendo-ed in collective song."

My question for GetReligion readers and Godbeat pros: If you can't trust a "journalist" to be upfront in his reporting, how much can you trust the news story that he produces?

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