I have some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that one of the buzz topics in religion-news circles this week was that job posting at The New York Times, the one with this headline: "Change Is Coming to the New York Times National Desk."
It appears the Times is thinking about doing something new on the religion beat, 12-plus years after the 2005 report on its newsroom culture and weaknesses, "Preserving Our Readers Trust." That was the amazing document that urged editors, when hiring staff, to seek more intellectual and cultural diversity -- to help the Gray Lady do a better job covering religion, non-New York America and other common subjects. Yes, I've written about that report a whole lot on this site.
Oh, and Times editor Dean Baquet's recent journalism confession on NPR -- that the "New York-based and Washington-based ... media powerhouses don't quite get religion" -- may have had something to do with this, as well.
The bad news? There is one chunk of language in this job posting that, for veteran Godbeat observers, could cause a kind of bad acid flashback to another religion-beat job notice in another newsroom, at another time. Hold that thought.
So here is the Times job notice for a "Faith and values correspondent."
We’re seeking a skilled reporter and writer to tap into the beliefs and moral questions that guide Americans and affect how they live their lives, whom they vote for and how they reflect on the state of the country. You won’t need to be an expert in religious doctrine. The position is based outside of New York, and you will work alongside Laurie Goodstein and a team of other journalists who are digging deep into the nation.
Did you see the key sentence? Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher sure did:
Two cheers for them! I’m glad they’re adding this position, and I’m really glad they’re not basing this reporter in New York (I hope they don’t base him or her in any coastal city, or in Chicago, but rather someplace like Dallas or Atlanta). Why not three cheers? That line about how “you won’t need to be an expert in religious doctrine” bothers me. ...
I don’t want to read too much into this, and to unfairly knock a good-faith (so to speak) effort. Certainly a general-news “faith and values” correspondent doesn’t need to be able to give a detailed explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, or parse the finer points of sharia according to the Hanafi school. But the reporter certainly should be able to understand why doctrine matters to religious thought and belief. My concern here is that the Times is inadvertently minimizing the importance of religious knowledge, along the lines of, “You don’t really have to understand how religion works in order to report on it in the lives of ordinary Americans.”
Dreher echoes a point that I have been making for decades, in effect asking if you can imagine a great newspaper such as the Times posting a notice such as: "We’re seeking a skilled reporter and writer to probe the work and impact of the U.S. Supreme Court. You won’t need to have a law degree or be an expert on the court and U.S. jurisprudence."
Or how about this: "We’re seeking a skilled reporter and writer to cover the National Football League and our New York teams. You won’t need to know much about football."
More? "We’re seeking a skilled reporter and writer to probe the business and cultural impact of the arts in American life. You won’t need to have studied the arts, arts criticism or anything like that."
Now about that bad acid flashback. Does anyone else remember that famous, or infamous, 1994 religion-beat job posting at The Washington Post?
That notice played a major role in my "Getting Religion in the Newsroom" chapter in the 2009 Oxford University Press book called "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." The chapter included quotes and input from lots of insiders, such as the late Peter Jennings of ABC News, Roy Peter Clark of Poynter.org, former Scripps Howard Inc. CEO William R. Burleigh, Richard Ostling (of Time, AP and, now, GetReligion), Steven Waldman of Barack Obama's Federal Communications Commission team (and many other relevant jobs), University of Colorado religion-news scholar Stewart Hoover, Kelly McBride of the Poynter.org ethics office, omnipresent church historian Martin Marty, Los Angeles Times legend Russell Chandler, Mark "A Jew Among the Evangelicals" Pinsky, former Poynter.org diversity expert Aly Colon and, last, but certainly not least, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press.
The acid-flashback Post memo comes up in the context of my discussion of why elite newsroom managers need to seek out skilled, veteran, award-winning religion-beat specialists when they have a strategic job opening. This is long, but you will see the relevance.
Some newsroom managers believe that religion news is best covered by reporters who are not specialists, by newcomers who offer what some consider a fresh, blank-slate approach and fewer preconceptions.
Debates about this issue often return to a highly symbolic event in 1994, when editors at the Washington Post posted a notice for a religion reporter, seeking applicants from within the newsroom. The "ideal candidate," it said, is "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."
Notice the fascinating use of the word "ideal." Professional religion writers often argue about the pluses and minuses of religious believers working on this beat and I don't expect these arguments to end any time soon. However, I have seen believers and non-believers do excellent work covering religion news, including fair and accurate cover of faiths radically different than their own. Thus, there is no need to debate the appropriateness of the Post editors stating that the "ideal candidate" is "not necessarily religious. What is controversial, however, is the statement that the "ideal candidate" is not necessarily "an expert in religion."
The editors were, in effect, arguing that a lack of expertise and experience can be a plus -- a virtue -- when covering religion news.
Imagine, for a moment, this standard being applied to other news beats. Try to imagine Post editors seeking a Supreme Court reporter and posting a notice saying that the "ideal candidate" is one who is "not interested in the law nor an expert on legal issues." Try to imagine elite editors seeking opera critic and arguing that the "ideal candidate does not necessarily like opera or know much about opera." How about similar notices seeking reporters to cover professional sports, science, film and politics?
Why would editors seeking excellence on the religion beat use a different approach than they would use on other complex news beats?
"The religion beat is too complicated today for this kind of approach to be taken seriously," said Russell Chandler, another religion-beat pioneer who won numerous national awards for his work with the Los Angeles Times. "You need experience and if you don't have experience you have to pay your dues and get some. Then you have to keep learning so that you get the facts right today and tomorrow and the day after that.
"I have never really understood what this argument is about. It's like saying that we want to sign up some people for our basketball team and we don't really care whether or not they can play basketball or even if they want to play at all. Everything will be OK, because we'll teach them to play the way we want them to play."
Hello editors at The New York Times. As Yogi Berra would say, "It's deja vu all over again."
Thus, I went on to note:
... The way for newsroom executives to improve religion coverage is for them to take precisely the same steps they would take to improve coverage on any other complicated, crucial news beat. They should hire qualified, talented specialty reporters who have demonstrated commitment to the beat and then give these reporters the time and resources necessary to do their jobs. Lacking such an applicant for a religion-beat job, they should find a dedicated reporter who is interested in learning.
Call me old-fashioned, call me naïve, but I believe that the best way for journalists to gear up to cover religion is the way they prepare to cover sports, opera, law or the environment. Religion-beat professionals need reporting skills, commitment and a broad knowledge of religion facts and trends, both national and global. To paraphrase the political strategist James Carville: It's journalism, stupid.
The bottom line: Since when is a lack of knowledge and experience a JOURNALISTIC VIRTUE when covering a complex news beat? Why do elite editors seem to have different goals and journalistic standards when hiring pros for the religion beat? Think of the religion-beat talents who could apply for this top-of-the-pyramid job!
Just asking. Again. And Again. World without end. Amen.