5Q+1 interview: Daniel Burke on CNN Belief, 'The Friendly Atheists Next Door' and the next big religion story

Daniel Burke
Photo: Jeremy Freeman/CNN Digital Rebranding 2013

Daniel Burke is religion editor for CNN.

His mission: to cover the faith angles of the day's biggest stories.

Before joining CNN two years ago, Burke spent seven years with Religion News Service, where he covered everything from Amish funerals to the Zen of Steve Jobs. 

He earned master's degrees in journalism and comparative religion from Columbia University.

"Before that, I went to Georgetown University, where a course on 'The Problem of God' set me on the path to religion reporting," he wrote on his LinkedIn page.

In a 5Q+1 interview (that's five questions plus a bonus question) with GetReligion, Burke discussed CNN Belief, his 10,000-plus-word longread on "The Friendly Atheists Next Door" and what he sees as the next big religion story.

Q: Tell us about the changes earlier this year at CNN. What's the story with new site?

A: CNN.com went through a major makeover earlier this year, and CNN Belief is part of that. We went from a “vertical,” which was narrow and only allowed us to showcase a small number of stories, to a landing page that’s essentially CNN’s religion section. At a glance, readers can peruse lots more text stories, videos, etc. The content is essentially the same, but the page is broader and more reader responsive, which means it can be easily consumed on desktop, tablets and phones. It makes my job a lot easier, frankly.  

Q: Lately, you seem to be running a one-man show. Is Eric Marrapodi still involved? 

A: It may seem like a one-man show at times, but it’s definitely not. I’m the only editor at CNN.com devoted solely to the religion beat, but we have several great reporters with experience covering religion, including Moni Basu, John Blake, Eric Marrapodi, Delia Gallagher in Rome covering the Vatican and Jessica Ravitz. On top of that, correspondents in the field often contribute text and video pieces from all over the world, not to mention the documentary unit, which has produced a great piece on American atheists that airs on Tuesday.

CNN has lots of resources to bring to the religion beat, and sometimes it’s just a matter of making sure we’re all working together. Marrapodi, who has been at CNN since Methuselah was young, is especially valuable in that capacity. He knows how to pull the levers and kick CNN’s big machine into gear. 

Q: What is your mission as Belief Blog editor? How difficult is it to accomplish everything you'd like — both from a writing and an editing standpoint?

A: Our mission is pretty much the same as when Dan Gilgoff and Marrapodi first created Belief at CNN several years ago. We want to cover the big religion stories, everything from Pope Francis to the rise of atheism, while poking around for the hidden religious angles in otherwise “secular” stories like the upcoming presidential primaries. As for the difficulty of doing that, one of the first things I had to learn at CNN, after seven years at Religion News Service, was how to calibrate what I would cover, what to let pass and what to ask other folks to tackle. That’s a daily challenge for most reporters and editors, and a big reason why so many of us are prematurely gray and furrow-faced. 

Q: What's the inside story on your in-depth piece on "The Friendly Atheists Next Door?" How did this story come about, how long did it take to produce, and why did CNN consider it an important story to tell?

A: Thanks for asking this. Like many religion reporters, I’ve read lots and written some about the rise of American atheism, but many of those pieces took a broad approach. I wanted to write a narrative about how one person loses faith. What were the turning points, and what happened after the last corner was turned? In some ways, it’s the traditional conversion narrative from the other side of the mirror.  

The story itself took 10 months. Part of that was finding and getting to know the Shaughnessys, the family I profiled. Part was studying atheism and traditional conversion narratives; and part of that was working with our design, photo, video and editorial team to produce the final product. 

I wrote at least five drafts of this story before finally finding the right tone and narrative arc. But I’m blessed to work with very patient and very gifted editors.

Q: What is the biggest religion story you'll be following over the next six months to a year?

A: I think many people will tell you that the Pope’s visit to the United States in September will be huge. No surprise there. And the presidential primary, especially the GOP’s outreach to ever-important evangelicals, will be interesting to watch. I’ve already seen a few stories on that. In some sense, though, those stories feel familiar, even stale, like crumbs left behind by the last election cycle. I wish I could say something smart here about how that’s going to change for the 2016 campaign, but I don’t really know yet. If anyone has good ideas, please send me a note at daniel.burke@cnn.com.

Q: Any advice for GetReligion? We do our share of media criticism and like to open ourselves up to some when we do these interviews.

A: Hmmm. I think the site could benefit from a broader array of voices. I’d love to see how Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists and atheists consume and pick apart media coverage of their communities. Tell us what we’re missing, what we get wrong, where the bodies are buried. 

I would say, as well, that I’m occasionally put off by the condescension that sometimes sneaks into this blog, as if religion journalists were naughty schoolchildren who need to be scolded into line. The relationship between critics and the subjects of their criticism is never easy, and I certainly have planks in my own eye. But if the goal is to create a valuable (and needed) conversation about how to accurately cover religion, then perhaps epistemological humility, on all sides, is a better conversation-starter.

Related: our review of Burke's "Friendly Atheists" story. If you have feedback about it, feel free to leave a comment or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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