Off to San Diego

I'm off to San Diego on Thursday and don't know if I'll have a chance to blog before I go or while I am there. Now what I've dealt with clones and the Washington water problem, there's one more thing that's been on my mind the last few weeks.

Back in January, Books and Culture published an essay on Religiously Ignorant Journalists by Dr. Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I've seen it since at The Revealer and on the Evangelical Press Association site.

Here's the gist of Dr. Smith's argument.

"most "religion journalists" actually seem quite ignorant about religion generally. Which is precisely why they are calling me. It is not because they have an informed background and close familiarity with religion, and are simply looking to pick up a few good quotes to add color or an air of authority to the story. No. They call knowing almost nothing about what they have been assigned to write on and are essentially asking me to take the good part of an hour to educate them about it. . . .

Having gotten their free hyper-crash course in whatever religion subject they are asking about, they then write up their article as best they can figure it out, publish it, and move on to the next story. Even then, in my experience, they often don't really "get" many of the ideas we have discussed, sometimes to the point of positively misreporting on religion in their stories.

He then suggests that only qualified religion reporters--who "know religion just as well as their publication's political reporters know politics and their sports reporters know sports."

Even if Dr. Smith's suggestions were put into practice, I think he would still be dissatisfied with religion coverage, the way that many sports figures and politicians are unhappy with the way they are covered.

Here's why--any who covers religion is an amateur. That is, they will never understand all the nuances of a particular religion story the way someone involved in the story does. They won't have the lifetime of experience and history that members of a specific congregation or denomination or faith have. We may get the Episcopalian / Episcopal distinction right--but we'll never really "get" the story the way an insider will.

More training and knowledge will help. But even that will fall short. But the best religion writer will know that they are ignorant--they will know what they don't know. And that is crucial.

It's not religiously ignorant reporters that Dr. Smith ought to worry about. It's religiously arrogant ones--who don't know what they don't know. Like the reporter who called the church where John Kerry went on Easter Sunday “a kind of New Age church." That's arrogance--someone who didn't know what they were missing.

A couple of years ago, while doing a long piece on religion and media I came across a perfect example of a religiously arrogant reporter--someone who has just enough information to be dangerous.

In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal relate a story told by Laurie Goodstein, who covers religion for the New York Times.

Here's an excerpt from the piece I wrote in 2001

A reporter was covering a group of Pentecostals who were meeting on the steps of the U.S.
Capitol. The reporter described the meeting, and then wrote, “At times, the mood turned hostile towards the lawmakers in the stately white building behind the stage.”

The reporter was referring to a speaker who said, “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone
in the Capitol.”

Unfortunately for the reporter, said Goodstein, when a Pentecostal asks God to slay someone, they mean being slain in the Spirit or “praying that they are overcome with the love for God, for Jesus.”

“It made for an embarrassing correction,” said Goodstein.

This reporter did not know how to ask an ignorant question to the speaker that day or to someone in the crowd--just one clarifying question would have saved an embarrassing correction.

It seems to me that's our job as reporters who write about religion--to ask the questions that might show of our ignorance and then to follow up till we get the right answers.

And if we did ever become the kind of experts that Dr. Smith is hoping for, it may lead to lead to the kind of positive religion coverage he seems to want.

At least that's Terry Anderson, the one time chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Pres who later became a journalism professor, told me in 2001.

“I doubt seriously that you want more intelligent new coverage,” he said, "because if you ask for that you might get it. Then they are going to come and look at your church and its problems and they are going to put them in the newspaper and you are not going to like that."


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