The religion beat’s disappearing act
Veteran religion reporter Julia Duin posted a state of the God beat on Get Religion. It’s illuminating. And depressing. But I can’t say it’s surprising. When the Religion Newswriters Association held its annual conference in Austin this past fall, it seemed that every other person I talked to was a former staffer at one newspaper or another. Many were freelancing, which is a hard way to make a living.
Julia provides some grim anecdotes about the disappearance of the religion beat in newspapers across the country. I’m sad to see the beat fade at my local paper, the Austin American-Statesman. But in this day and age, specialty beats are an endangered species. As an advocate of religious literacy, I see the lack of a dedicated religion beat — and, for that matter, the lack of dedicated newspaper readers — as a real problem. Good religion writers educate us not only about people with different beliefs from our own. They also shed light on our own beliefs, our own tribe, so to speak. Again, you need readers to be effective. The bright spot in Julia’s GR post is what’s happening with Religion News Service, which has assembled a freelance team of some of the best faith reporters in the country.
But — there’s always a but — I do take issue with one of Julia’s observations on coverage of atheism and secularism. She writes:
… [S]pecialists have had to get current with the fast-growing ranks of the “nones,” which, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, are an estimated 19.6 percent of the American population. Their numbers have ballooned in recent years, as have the numbers of outspoken atheists, creating an interesting conundrum for religion-news specialists because coverage of the non- or anti-religious gets tossed in the lap of the religion reporter. On one level that’s logical, but, still, stop and think about that for a minute. How many stories do sports writers produce about people who hate sports? Do fashion writers cover those who hate fashion?
This comparison doesn’t work. Atheists are actively engaged in the discussion about the role of religion in public life. Many of the “nones” are searching for meaning and rituals and are crafting their own set of beliefs and traditions for their families. Heck, we even have atheist churches now. And on top of all that, Christian leaders are constantly talking about reaching the “unchurched.” They are constantly lamenting secularism in this country. Believers and skeptics go hand in hand when it comes to comprehensive religion reporting.
Otherwise, this is a post worth reading and reflecting on. Where are you getting your religion news these days?