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How much should religion reporters reveal?

October 5, 2011

Several years ago, at a journalism conference in Maryland, I met a newbie on the religion beat. She worked for a newspaper in the South, was professional, gregarious and eager to learn, and wore a big gold cross around her neck. I remember a couple of the more veteran religion writers tsk-tsking this blatant display of Christian belief. We were, after all, attending a conference on how to cover Islam. What would Muslims or Jews or other non-Christian sources think when she sat down to interview them with that gleaming symbol of Jesus?

Most journalists will strive for (at least the appearance of) neutrality in reporting. Political reporters, for example, don’t put political bumper stickers on their cars (or at least shouldn’t). But that doesn’t mean they don’t vote or don’t have an opinion about an issue or a candidate. They just don’t (or, again, shouldn’t) advertise those views.

Religion, though, can get tricky. What if you’re a Muslim woman who wears hijab? What if you’re an observant Jew who shows up for High Holy Day services at a synagogue you cover? What if you’re a Catholic who’s spotted with a smudge on your forehead on Ash Wednesday? You can be discreet but you can’t always keep your religion a secret from your sources.

Which brings me to this post on Get Religion and the question of whether a true believer can be an effective religion reporter. Sarah Pulliam Bailey looks at AP writer Tom Breen’s piece on covering the Catholic sex abuse crisis and finding himself drawn to Catholicism. (Bailey had interviewed Breen last month on GR. A really interesting Q&A, which shocked the folks at Media Bistro [more on that below].)

Breen, who was baptized Catholic but not raised in the church, went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and now considers himself a devout Catholic.

Ironically, it was my work covering elements of the sex abuse scandal that led me to become an “official” Catholic; I learned all I could about the faith to make sure my stories were accurate, and my learning convinced me this was the truth.

Interesting, especially when you compare Breen’s experience to William Lobdell’s. The latter’s reporting on the sex abuse coverup for the LA Times led to a crisis of faith and a book about losing his religion.

But the question: Who is better suited to cover religion? A person of faith or a skeptic? And should reporters talk openly about their faith or skepticism? OK, so more than one question.

Oh, and, lest I forget, the Media Bistro reaction. Matthew Fleischer, following up on Breen’s conversion, writes:

To each his own. The Catholic Church undoubtedly has a rich cultural tradition that draws many to the fold. And the Church is certainly bigger than Cardinal Mahony and crew. But it’s still tough for us to understand choosing to believe in the sanctity of any entity that has people like that under/holding its umbrella.

I don’t find it that hard to understand. Breen obviously found something in Catholicism that resonated with him. One can definitely become inspired by and attracted to the religions one covers. But is it wise for a religion writer to reveal in an interview that he believes the truth lies in Catholicism? Maybe it’s not a disaster. But, personally, I think it’s wiser to be discreet. Discreet on the beat. How’s that?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aeren permalink
    October 6, 2011 11:21 am

    You post an interesting question and I’m sure a dilemma for some religious writers covering religious news. I like the way you compare religious and political writers, there seems to be a fair comparison there. I think, however, that the “tsk, tsk” of the other religious writers was telling also.

    If the person you are interviewing is secure in their faith and you are secure in yours there should not be discomfort or insult. I am a Christian who enjoys healthy dialogue with Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists. Funny, I have less enjoyment when talking to Catholics (probably because I was raised Catholic and became disenchanted with the church’s hierarchy).

    My point being that it shouldn’t matter if you wear and outward symbol of your faith. Just remember, what you say, do, and write about may also reflect on your religion, so I think you end up with a greater responsibility than just reporting the news in an objective manner.

  2. eeflynn permalink*
    October 6, 2011 1:54 pm

    You make a good point. In fact, I know that in many cases, some folks would find it easier to open up about their beliefs if they knew they were talking to a person of faith — even if that faith was different from their own. And ultimately, it’s about presenting the information fairly and accurately. And readers will learn to trust a reporter who does this, whatever that reporter’s beliefs happen to be. Thanks for your comment!

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