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Finding faith: When journalists cover religion

Editor's note: This article is the second in a two-part series looking at the mainstream media's efforts to cover religion. Part one examined the reasons religion stories are often not covered.

On the first day of Ari Goldman's "Covering Religion" class at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he likes to begin with a question.

"How many of you have ever been to a mosque?"

About two of the 16 students typically raise their hands.

"How many of you have been to a synagogue?"

About half raise their hands.

"To a church?"

Almost all hands go up.

"In the last 10 years?"

Hands go down again.

Goldman's first goal is to bring his students up to a level of religious literacy.

"Before I can teach (students) how to write about religion, I have to teach (them) some religion," Goldman said. "I'm not just training religion writers, I'm training reporters who can see a religion angle in a bigger story and not just dismiss it as superstition or fear."

A lot has changed in the 17 years since Goldman began teaching aspiring journalists about religion. The rise of the Internet and the shifting economics of news production have turned the journalism industry upside down, leaving graduating students — especially those who aspire to a specialty beat like religion — wondering about their future. And with massive changes in journalism, even veteran reporters live with uncertainty. News organizations are struggling to adjust and to cover stories about religion with fewer religion reporters. At the same time, they are recognizing new outlets for religion news and commentary on the Internet and are scrambling to keep up with growing interest in stories about faith.

Whether or not religion journalists are around to cover them, religion news stories continue to surface. Last year, for example, was a banner year for religion stories.

According to the Pew Research Center, religion stories accounted for 2 percent of all coverage, up from 1 percent in 2009. The uptick in coverage was driven by a few big stories, including controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque and Pastor Terry Jones' plan to host a Koran-burning event, said Alan Cooperman, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"There are years when, for no particular reason, just because of serendipity, there are some religion stories that just get an enormous amount of coverage, and there are other years when religion has a lower profile," he said.

But even when religion is not a top story, it still plays a role in coverage.

Kim Lawton is the managing editor and a correspondent at "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" on PBS television, a program that covers religious news and examines moral issues.

"The religion beat has been especially cut back, and that really concerns me as a religion reporter," she said. "Understanding religion helps us understand our world better. Because I cover religion, I cover politics, I cover war, I cover pop culture, I cover judicial cases, I cover interfaith relations. Because I cover religion, I cover all of those things, because religion touches on all of those things."

Going virtual

As newsrooms across the country struggle to find new ways to cover religion in the face of downsizing, many are turning to the Internet to fill gaps.

On Faith is an online forum at the Washington Post that facilitates conversations between religious experts, activists, other opinion leaders and readers.

"Many times the human element, the moral element, is left out of news stories, and yet that's so central to the human response," said Liz Tenety, editor of On Faith.

"We give space to as diverse a group as possible to reflect on central issues. There are emotions, beliefs and values that are unspoken by the nature of journalism. This space is for people of faith and also people who are secular — people who don't have faith, who are agnostic, atheist or humanist — to explore values as they relate to the news, and especially, in our case, to religion and politics," she said.

Each Monday, Tenety sends a question to the 120 On Faith panelists and posts their reflections on the site. On Faith also features bloggers and guest voices.

"They say you should never talk about religion and politics because it's so difficult, and we see that it's difficult on our site," said Tenety. "But that is because these issues are so central. They are important."

On Faith and other online religion sites are also proving that religion stories can generate a lot of web traffic.

When Eric Marrapodi and Dan Gilgoff of CNN launched the CNN Belief Blog in 2010 as a platform for showcasing religion stories, they were hoping for 2 million hits in the first year.

At their year mark in May, they had tracked 82 million hits.

"Just the Belief Blog alone is outpacing on a monthly basis major blogs like the Daily Beast, and Rolling Stone in terms of hits. It's a clear indicator that people really care about quality religion reporting," said Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog co-editor.

Marrapodi and Gilgoff had noticed that CNN reporters were coming in contact with a wide variety of religion stories, but that there was no home for collecting them. They had also noticed that the network was picking up a number of former religion reporters being excised from newspaper staffs. "We realized that we had almost accidentally amassed a religion-reporter dream team," Marrapodi said.

In addition to boosting web traffic, the Belief Blog has also contributed to an increased number of religion stories on CNN.

"It's been a great testing ground for TV. If a story kills online and gets a million hits, it's a great driver to push it to television," said Marrapodi. "That's a great way for us to gauge interest in the topic."

Other online media outlets are also tapping into strong interest in religion stories and creating new opportunities for religion reporters.

The Huffington Post's religion section, originally launched in 2009, one month ago hired full-time religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem to augment the mix of commentary and syndicated content already on the site.

While traffic numbers for the Huffington Post are not released, Kaleem did say it's not unusual to get 1,000 or 2,000 comments on a story, and that readers include people who are looking specifically for religion as well as many who stumble across it.

AOL's recent acquisition of the Huffington Post has given the page a higher international profile, but senior religon editor Paul Raushenbush said it is still important to tell local stories. He hopes to use, another AOL subsidiary that creates online meetingplaces for small communities, to generate local religion news coverage.

"We're trying to think about how we can respond to the increasingly global nature of the Huffington Post Media Group as well as honor really local important stories, because those are the stories that people live with day to day. We want to make sure that we're really honoring how religion is lived in the world," he said.

He described the site's policy toward religion as "generous," giving as an example respectful coverage of religious leader Harold Camping's end-of-the-world predictions. Kaleem canvassed with believers for his story, and the site featured commentary about the role of end-times theology in a variety of religions.

Getting religion right

Lawton at PBS's "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" is not particularly enthused about the rise of some of the religion websites.

"I'm troubled by the blogs, even some of the blogs that are attached to mainstream media or big names that say, 'We cover religion here.' It is so much commentary. All commentary and no reporting."

She said when fewer journalists are trained to cover religion in a fair and balanced way, information comes from advocates and people who have an axe to grind.

"It is important to have trained reporters who can sift through information and ... weigh what is true and what is not true," Lawton said. "When you only have commentary out there, I think that is very troubling for how people understand religion."

When "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" began in 1997, it was itself a reaction to concerns about religion coverage. Bob Abernethy, a veteran at NBC, saw that there was little meaningful news coverage of religion on mainstream television.

"Our mission is to be journalists who focus on the world of religion, spirituality and ethics. We don't advocate any particular point of view, but we take the tack that religion is important and is a component of many of the major things that are going on in the world ... and as journalists we want to take a look at that," she said.

Similarly, Religion News Service (RNS) fills in where newsrooms leave off by covering religion stories and syndicating them throughout the U.S.

"We cover religious institutions that most reporters wouldn't. We cover them like political reporters cover Congress," said RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom. "We also try to find the faith angle in the stories you see on the front page or the nightly news."

RNS recently announced a partnership with the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), a 62-year-old professional association that offers a vast array of resources for journalists writing about religion, from stylebooks and tip sheets to conferences and grants for religion classes.

"Our No. 1 resource for the last decade has been ReligionLink, an online tool that brings together religion story ideas with vetted sources," said Tiffany McCallen, associate director of RNA. "It serves as a religion journalist's Rolodex, if you will, that they don't have to keep on their own machine."

RNA and RNS are experimenting with a new project they hope will shape the future of religion journalism and preserve local religion reporting. They plan to hire religion reporters over the next several years in 20 markets to create and manage religion hubs that will both produce news about religion and provide services to religious communities.

"We're trying to bridge the gap to the future of what we hope religion news will look like. Our initial thoughts are that it's going to look like a partnership in communities that have no coverage of faith," McCallen said. "We envision the site as interactive and a shared community service."

RNA isn't the only non-profit venture trying to help people in the media get better at covering religion. Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center founded the Faith Angle Forum to educate not just religion beat journalists, but other top reporters as well by getting them together with experts and religious leaders.

The twice-yearly conference is held over two days in South Beach, Fla., and introduces a cadre of invited journalists to luminaries like evangelical pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren and Mormon historian Richard Bushman. The most recent conference featured the Pakistani ambassador to the United States speaking on radical Islam.

Websites like Terry Mattingly's contribute to the effort by picking over the bones of news stories, looking for missed religion angles and pointing out the best and the worst of religion coverage.

The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life is another non-profit organization with a hand in the education of religion journalists. The Pew Forum conducts in-depth research and analysis on religious trends nationally and internationally, and journalists are some of the biggest consumers of its information.

"Media education is absolutely central to what we do," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "We've always considered journalists to be a critical audience, if not the most critical, for a variety of reasons. It's not just that they need the kind of information we provide — a lot of other people do, too. It's the megaphone function they serve. We want to educate the public and get information to key leaders through the media."

Journalists value Pew Forum research, Lugo said, because it doesn't take sides on religious or political issues. And reporters are increasingly seeking out the Pew Forum for data and analysis of current events.

As reporters become better versed in religion and cover religion stories well, they become educators, says Columbia University's Goldman.

"They are someone who can raise the religious literacy of a newspaper's readers," he said. "You need people who can see the missing piece. And not everyone can. That's why I'm trying to do that work and teach people about religion, so that they cover these stories more intelligently and fully."