5Q+1 interview: RNS writer David Gibson on the Godbeat, falling into journalism and his conversion to Catholicism

First of two parts

On his Twitter profile, Religion News Service national reporter David Gibson describes himself as a Catholic convert, a Vatican veteran, a faith fan and an alliteration addict.

His RNS bio notes that he has written two books on Catholic topics, including a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.

Gibson was honored recently as the Religion Newswriters Association's Religion Reporter of the Year for large newspapers and wire services. His winning entry included "The story behind Pope Francis' election," "Is 'Just War' doctrine another victim of the Syrian conflict?" and "The 'Breaking Bad' finale was great. But was it good?"

GetReligion has both praised Gibson's work and — sometimes — questioned why RNS publishes his "analysis" pieces without labels identifying them as such.

What I like about Gibson is that he seems to enjoy the give and take and not take it too personally.

Case in point: his willingness to do this interview.

Q: Tell me about yourself: your background, education, past jobs, hobbies, etc.

A: I actually grew up as what I like to call a “Billy Graham evangelical” in the Bible Belt known as central New Jersey. My first visit to Madison Square Garden as a boy was to see a Billy Graham “crusade,” as we called them then. But I always wanted to check out the big wide world so I went to Furman University in South Carolina, in the actual Bible Belt.

I studied history but had no clue what I was going to do with my life. So like many clueless people I went to work on Capitol Hill for a while, then, still clueless, traveled around Europe and the Middle East for a year on a shoestring. After I came back, I still had no better ideas so I bought a one-way ticket to Rome figuring I’d stay for a few months. Italy isn’t such a bad place to figure things out.
I was lucky enough to fall into journalism, getting a job at an English-language daily — because they couldn’t find anyone else. The talent pool for ex-pats is very shallow. Then I lucked into a job at the English Program at Vatican Radio, even though I was still a Protestant. But again, they needed someone, and the Radio is run by the Jesuits, who now sort of run the whole church (thank you, Pope Francis). It was a great gig, and in the 1980s traveling with Pope (now Saint) John Paul II was a remarkable experience. So a few months turned into five years, as can happen in Rome.
When I returned in 1990 I got jobs at daily newspapers (remember those?) in New Jersey, starting with the local cop shop beat. That was the best journalism training I could ever have. I never went to J-school or took journalism courses, so one of my biases is to see journalism as a craft, a trade, and I was fortunate enough to be in great newsrooms with longtime reporters and editors who kicked my tail and taught me the ropes. That was an indispensable time, and it’s bad for the business that such newsrooms hardly exist any more.
In 2003, I had a chance to write a book and do a few documentaries on early Christianity for CNN so I went freelance — basically got a jump a few years before everyone else was pushed. I freelanced for several years, wrote another book, lots of magazine writing, and then got a job at AOL’s PoliticsDaily, until that shop got shuttered. For the past three years I have been a national reporter for Religion News Service.
I try to range as widely as possible in what I cover, but of course my default beat is the Catholic Church, and since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, that has been just about all I’ve done. Understandably.

Q: Your Twitter profile describes you as a "Catholic convert." What can you tell me about your personal faith and how, if at all, it plays into your Godbeat duties?
A: Oh, yeah, and the other thing I “fell into” in Rome was the Catholic Church. I converted a few days before my return to the U.S., in late 1989, a few days after I had left the employ of Vatican Radio; I waited until then because I didn’t want a conflict of interest, or conscience. Each conversion story is different, and mine takes too long to unspool, but my faith is central to my life. How it plays out in my work is hard to say. I think the journalist’s search for truth, and the desire to communicate human experiences through storytelling, has much in common with the Christian vocation (and that’s true for other faiths, of course).
I also think that being a person of faith might give a reporter an added appreciation of the religious sensibility, and a special interest in the quest for meaning that is at the heart of the beat, and of the lives of so many people.
But it’s a double-edged sword, always: Your own faith tradition can create a subtle bias, or blind you to important aspects of another tradition. A bigger danger, perhaps, is that you assume you know what you need to know about your own tradition, and you don’t double check your facts or presumptions when writing about your own faith. The can lead to trouble.
I often find that I am extra attentive to the details and nuances of a story when writing about a faith different from my own because I want to be respectful and, of course, get it right, but I also know that I don’t know enough about other traditions. So I double and triple check.
The bottom line is that I am biased toward people who take faith and life seriously, whatever they believe or disbelieve. I have a hard time with slackers and apathy, and fortunately we don’t often encounter those types on the religion beat. We often find folks who may be too passionate, or too earnest. But most are serious, and humorous, both wonderful and complementary qualities.

Q: Where do you get your news about religion? Have blogs, social media, etc., changed how you read and then cover religion news?
A: It’s crazy. I still have several file cabinets stuffed with frayed folders full of yellowed clippings on all manner of topics. Haven’t looked at them in years. Twitter is my news feed, Facebook somewhat less so. Since the death of Google Reader (RIP), I have become a devotee of Feedly. The ocassional tip comes over the transom, or in conversation with sources. Alas, there is far too little of the latter anymore.

Q: How would you describe your work with RNS? News writing? Columns? Analysis?
A: I basically do straight news writing and analysis. I blog some, though not as much as I should, and blogging is a different voice. I’m on social media too, of course, and that’s a bit more unbuttoned. Journalists today have to deploy so many different voices, it’s energizing and enervating, and a bit perilous. But when writing for subscribers under the RNS brand I certainly try to play it straight.

Q: What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
A: Pope Francis. And did I say Pope Francis? Much as I try to broaden the range of stories I cover, Francis remains a huge deal, and he will be front and center in 2015 with his first U.S. trip and followed by another Vatican synod on the family.
That said, I think the larger story that Francis points to is the question of whether “religion,” in the traditional sense, can be perceived as able to reform itself and to become credible again. The alternatives seem to be an increasingly ugly fundamentalism or a dissipated spirituality. Can Francis help rescue religion?

Q: What's the best part of your job? The most challenging?
A: Best part of my job is writing about religion, which I love doing, in all its myriad manifestations. We get to cover anything and everything, really. The toughest part is the same one: there’s too much to cover. We can never get to it all. We’ve never been able to get to it all, but the Internet and social media show us every day, hour, minute and second how many good stories are out there to be covered. If only we could.

In part two (coming soon): I also asked Gibson for his feedback on GetReligion. He did not hold back. Hint: He thinks we might have some room for improvement. I want to give him a full opportunity to share his perspective while responding to just a few of his concerns. Stay tuned.

Thursday update: Here is part two.

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