My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. posted a piece last week keyed to a comment made by Laurie Goodstein, the veteran, award-winning New York Times religion reporter, who recently pulled down another big Religion Newswriters Association prize.
Here's what she said, as reported by Religion News Service, which was the source of Bobby's lede:
"There are days when I feel despair about the news and the place of religion in it,” said Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, named first-place winner for excellence in religion reporting at the Religion Newswriters Association’s 66th annual awards ceremony over the [Aug. 27-30] weekend in Philadelphia.
“This work is getting harder,” added Goodstein, in what she said were unprepared remarks. She won in the large newspapers and wire services category for stories published in 2014.
Neither the RNS story or Bobby' post explained further what Goodstein meant. But Bobby did ask others to react to the question of on-the-beat despair. So here's my response.
On-the-job despair? Sure. Perhaps not of the order experienced by William Lobdell (younger readers should click here to understand this older-demographic God-beat reference), but despair nonetheless.
Frankly, I don't see how anyone -- religion journalist or not, person of faith or no faith -- cannot feel despair from time to time if they are at all aware of the vast world that exists outside themselves and they do not seriously numb their sensitivities via escapist self-indulgence (which, I hope it is clear, I am not endorsing).
It's a bloody mess out there, with much of the absurdity, depravity and pain brought to us in the name of religion.
So yes, following the news -- not to mention being immersed in it as I am -- can result in personal and on-the-job despair. Simply put, it adds stress, not exactly the best thing for peace of mind, or cardiac health and blood pressure.
That does not mean that personal faith (however you define it), family, friends and life-affirming joy do no good. Actually, it's quite the opposite, I believe.
But religion-beat journalism, at its very best, takes you to the center of humanity's damaged core, the part of us that cries out for answers and relief. Linger there too long and the enormity of the world's ills can get you down.
At least that's my experience. Perhaps that's what Goodstein's clipped quotes also referenced.
The cliche about war is there are no atheists in a foxhole. But who has counted how many have lost their connection to the sense of hope that is a cornerstone of religion when coming face to face with war's brutality -- and organized faith's inability to tame humanity's collective savagery?
Moreover, as I said above, so much of that global savagery we're witnessing today is perpetuated by killers claiming to act in the name of their religion. Of course, not that such claims are anything new, except now it's in your face with just a few taps on your smartphone keypad. It's just so much harder today not to know. If you don't turn off the alerts function, these things will wake you up in the middle of the night.
Covering religion is certainly less spiritually and psychologically demanding than covering war -- not to mention the physical risks that come with the latter.
It's not even on a par with a steady diet of police or court reporting. Those beats can also produce despair when you're faced each work day with the pain of humans acting poorly within systems that too often fail them.
Still, spending time on the Godbeat reporting on failed would-be saints and closeted hypocrites can easily make you cynical. Yes, that's a necessary trait for journalists, but one that's crushing in excess.
So despair, to at least some degree, is a hazard of the beat, despite the many people you'll also meet who are trying to do right and seem to reflect the light promised by the religion they've placed their faith in.
Expect it and be prepared to deal with it. Do not expect to remain enthralled by that uplifting sermon you just heard, or that aid worker you just spoke with who is motived by their faith.
Goodstein also touched on how much more difficult "the job" is getting. Again, we have no further information as to what she meant.
Did Goodstein mean religion reporting is getting harder? Did she mean journalism in general? Was she speaking about conditions at The Times? Was she referring to maintaining her admirably high standards?
Or was she referring to all of the above in this era of 24-7 deadlines, Twitter journalism, fewer economic resources, less job security, greater dependence on poorly paid freelancers, more second-hand reporting (quoting competing outlets rather than doing your own first-hand reporting), the growing need to juggle multiple news platforms, social media trolls and the loss of institutional memory and backstopping editors via layoffs and buyouts? Did I leave anything out?
And let's not forget how opinion, conjuncture and a properly snarky online personality have turned journalists into self-promoting brands. I don't know Goodstein well, but from what I do know of her, she's hardly that.
Yeah, it's harder. And harder can add to despair.
But when it's clicking on all cylinders for you, tell me, is there anything else you'd rather be covering? Is there a more encompassing beat than the Godbeat? I honestly do not think so.
Certainly not in those moments when it feels downright redemptive.