Religion writers in Los Angeles: Do religion (and religion news) need to be 'reimagined?'

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When you live in a near-rainforest climate as I do, the chance to spend a few January days in the sunshine is irresistible. That (plus the fact I got some scholarship money) is why I flew from Seattle to Los Angeles for a few days to attend “Reimagining Religion 2018: New Stories, New Communities,” a conference co-sponsored by the Religion News Association and the Religion Communicators Council.

I was one of 225 people (a mix of students, journalists, ministers, writers, activists and educators) who spent a day in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism building. We listened to a parade of folks tell us how or why so many religious groups are reinventing themselves or “reimagining” their faith in different ways. There was quite a bit devoted to how the “nones” -- people who are spiritual but practice no organized religion -- see the divine.

One problem covering the latter, said Jason DeRose, the West Coast bureau chief for NPR News, is that reporters don’t know how to ask questions to “nones” and the “nones” have not figured out how to articulate the answers.

Also: Are the “nones” a movement or lack of a movement? And is a lack of doctrine actually a kind of doctrine?

So there was a lot of thinking through of the what-will-the-future-of-faith-look-like question at this conference. Which made for some really intriguing panels plus some discussion on the present state of the religion beat. 

I arrived at the meeting 15 minutes late, thanks to the really nasty LA traffic on Interstate-5. (Must say, if you’re not a person who prays before coming to LA, you will become one. That city is the one place where I truly wonder if I’ll make it down those trash-strewn freeways alive). I’d also forgotten how beautiful the USC campus is.

So I only caught part of a talk by Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture speaking on what reimagined communities look like. (You can read about the CRCC’s wide-ranging research here). New religions are actually quite rare, he told us. People usually adapt old ones.

An interesting thought. He spent a lot of time talking (and showing a video about) about Laundry Love, a ministry started by Episcopalians an hour to the north of LA in Ventura as a way to provide clean clothes to the homeless. And their work was impressive and they sure did form community but it was unclear to me where the worship part was in it all. Someone said that service is their worship. It must be, as their current web site shows no connection to religion at all.

My GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross dealt with Laundry Love and its coverage a few years ago. Anyway, Richard’s message was that religious groups need to reimagine themselves -– or their traditions -- to fit in with the current zeitgeist. That’s an idea that would horrify a lot of synagogues, mosques, temples and churches I know in that fitting in with 21st century culture is not on their bandwidth at all. 

Should it be? What’s changed the game so much in the past 20 years, Richard said, is technology. (Note: I was typing fast and trying to catch peoples’ every word, but the quotes in this post are approximate. The RNA should be posting videos of the presentations shortly, so if you want to hear this person’s quote in context, listen to the recordings).

“Digital technology has changed the way we think about authority,” he said. “If religion is about anything, it’s about authority. If I can look up something on a phone, I don’t need your authority.”

But is authority the same as information? I can know a lot about a faith but I still may need someone to tell me how to practice it. What if you look up the Catholic Catechism on your smartphone?

The next session featured a plenary on religion and ethics in entertainment media. Joy Gregory, the executive producer of CBS’ “Madame Secretary” showed us some scenes from there and an earlier drama, “Joan of Arcadia,” for which she was executive story editor, to illustrate just how one infuses spirituality into prime-time TV.

You would have to listen to her entire speech (and watch the accompanying clips) to get the full impact of her talk on how one can convey evil in a TV script and how to make ethics and morality palatable to a watching public. Raised Catholic, she says her faith definitely affects her screenwriting and that other peoples' faith affects their work. As an example, she cited the Hayao Miyazaki movie “Tortoro” (one of my daughter Veeka’s and my favorite flicks) as having a Buddhist world view.

It's true that a movie about tree spirits inhabiting the giant sycamore in the back yard does contain a world view although some would say that Miyazaki's concepts are more Shinto than Buddhist. Asian religions tend to get a pass in film. Monotheistic religions: Not so much.

“Religion on TV is not deep,” she said (and again, this quote is approximate). “There’s a resistance in the atheist world when we wish to talk about faith. It’s a blind spot among those who preach tolerance in other parts of their lives. The trick is how to reach out and include people who don’t feel included in the community of faith and bring them in.”

Where she differed from the journalists listening to her is how she saw their dramas as a way to unify the American public and get people to ask questions and think through "deep things" as part of a vast networked community. No reporter I know writes a story with the intent to unify anyone. Then again, people watch TV to be entertained, not to get the day’s news. That’s not to say TV can’t deal with life-changing ideas.

“People don’t want to deal with the beauty and complexity of theology in TV,” she said, “so you have to draw them into it.” And then she told us how screenwriters used the idea of quantum physics to express –- in the words of one of the characters -- how God wishes the universe to be beautiful. It was my favorite presentation of the day and quite profound.

After lunch, I attended a session of reporters (Jaweed Kaleem; who covers race for the Los Angeles Times but used to cover religion for the Huffington Post; Deepa Bharath who is the religion writer for the Orange County Register; Ian Lovett, the LA-based religion writer for the Wall Street Journal and Liz Kineke, a producer for CBS’ religion and culture unit) who talked about how they got on the beat. (Deepa, Liz and Jaweed are pictured in the above photo). 

Ian said that when he got hired in 2016, the beat was described as religion and social movements. “The challenge is selling that as hard news,” he said. “There has to be an impact of some kind … or there’s a lot of money involved … or there’s conflict.”

As for the “nones,” they’re growing in numbers, he asked, but are they growing in influence? 

Liz, who puts together four half-hour stories about religion a year, took the job in 2005. “I didn’t know the beat existed in this form and I’m now totally immersed,” she said, adding that she tries to cover religious minorities as much as possible.

Jaweed, who grew up in a Muslim family and didn’t know what the word “evangelical” meant until he began working at the Miami Herald back in 2008, said he feels the diversity in religion reporting has diminished in recent months. It’s become more “siloed,” he said, meaning that news assignments come packaged as evangelicals-and-politics or Muslims-and-the-travel ban.

Deepa, who cut her teeth on the religion beat by breaking the story about the Crystal Cathedral going bankrupt, is actually assigned to cover health as well for the paper. Orange County is incredibly diverse in its religious mix and she has her pick of great stories.

There was some discussion as to why the Los Angeles Times does not have a religion reporter and why the New York Times, 18 or so months after it advertised for a second religion reporter; that is, a "faith and values correspondent," has yet to fill that spot. Jaweed, who was put on the spot to respond for the Los Angeles Times, said the paper used to have several religion writers at one point.

The paper still covers the beat, he added, but that’s not the same as having someone dedicated to it. “I think we’re missing a lot of great and important stories,” he said.

One of the weirder moments in that panel came when the journalists were asked where they went to get their news about the religion beat. Nearly all of them pointed to Twitter. Ian threw in that he looks to RNS and Christianity Today. The USC sociologist sitting next to me and I both rolled our eyes: Twitter for breaking religion news?

The rest of the afternoon was filled with more panels, including a lot of broadcast and radio folks; people we don’t get to hear from as much at RNA conferences, which are still dominated by folks in the print media. Which isn’t necessarily bad, in that the vast majority of religion reporting out there is still being done by print reporters.

Some of the broadcast folks were like Jody Hassett Sanchez, who found her former job at ABC TV too confining and opted to go independent.

“I knew it was time to leave the network when the time I had allotted to my stories went from eight minutes to four minutes,” she said. “That was my clear sign that it was my time to try something else. … Documentaries are what the evening network news used to be.”

She added, “The biggest shift I’ve made as a filmmaker … is to bring my own perspective to stories [which] I couldn’t do as a journalist.”

After one fascinating panel that featured a female United Methodist pastor heavily into LGBTQ ministry; a black inner-city pastor intent on giving social justice a hearing at his church and a feminist Muslim speaker who told us of ways Islam s reinventing itself, I realized something. I hadn’t heard a presentation (OK, maybe one) all day from any conservative Catholic, evangelical Protestant, messianic Jew, Eastern Orthodox Christian or anyone remotely connected with conservative forms of religious faith. But a ton of folks from faiths on the religious left, openly gay speakers and activists for various other causes were showcased there.

So my one suggestion would be to include some diversity, as in believers from the other side of the spectrum. I specialize in following Pentecostal and charismatic networks and their brands are doing just fine, these days. These new revivalists see no need to reinvent or reimagine anything. 

Still, I felt it was a stroke of genius to have a conference in this welter of religions that is southern California. LA is definitely the place where things get thought out and tried out. There was enough scholarship to keep the academics happy and enough talk about strategies and techniques to make the newcomer to religion reporting happy. 

One last quote from Jason DeRose: "A big thing we talked on the religion beat years ago was how we were trying to get off the church page and onto the front page. That meant covering religion angles on other stories. … What I hear quite often in under-covered communities is they want the church page back or the belief/spirituality/faith page. We thought there it was a ghetto no one cared about."

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