This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.
My husband and I sometimes joke that constructive criticism is my love language. I have a probably unhealthy obsession with thinking about how things could have gone better, even when they went perfectly well.
Sounds fun, right?
For me, at least, it really is enjoyable to dream up possible improvements. Or at least it is until the conversation turns to religion journalism, apparently.
I discovered my discomfort with that topic last week when I was asked to write about a new study showing that people around the world aren’t that happy with the way the media covers religion. As I read through the report and worked on my article, I found myself arguing with the results and trying to write off people’s frustrations.
These survey respondents must not know what true religion journalism is, I thought. They must be letting one bad story color their whole view of the industry. I assured myself that, if they only knew me and other members of Religion News Association, they’d love us!
Almost as soon as my story was published, I realized that I needed to stop letting religion journalism off the hook. I heard from several readers, including faith leaders, about how they’d been burned by religion reporters in the past and about a pattern of problems, rather than an isolated incident.
Just this week, a story from The Guardian about lawn care and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reignited a debate about how religious scriptures are often taken out of context in news reports. Too often, journalists go hunting for passages that confirm their preconceived notions, rather than actually listening to the people of faith they’re writing about, tweeted McKay Coppins, a prominent Latter-day Saint, on Monday.
“I don’t mean to pile on — I don’t think that (Guardian) piece was written in bad faith,” he said. “But writing about religion is tricky. It’s very easy to inflate the importance of an obscure tradition or old quotes from faith leaders to fit your angle.”
Tweets like that one hurt my heart, because they remind me of mistakes I’ve made in the past. I shudder to think of times I’ve written about Catholic or Sikh or Jewish traditions without fact-checking my story with a Catholic or Sikh or Jewish person.
I don't mean to pile on—I don't think that piece was written in bad faith. (And Utah's water crisis deserves more coverage!) But writing about religion is tricky. It's very easy to inflate the importance of an obscure tradition or old quotes from faith leaders to fit your angle.— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) September 27, 2022
To be clear, I still think my industry is filled with amazing people doing amazing work. But, in many cases, they’re getting drowned out by others who are cutting corners or by entire news operations that are unwilling to fund thoughtful religion journalism.
There’s not much I can do by myself to solve this global problem, but I emerged from last week more committed than ever to regularly requesting feedback on my reporting and to giving my readers and sources a chance to tell me when I got something wrong.
So tell me: What do you like about this newsletter? What do you wish I covered more?
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Shofar
Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year, began on Sunday night and Yom Kippur will begin on Oct. 4. The two celebrations are referred to as the Jewish “High Holidays” and associated services typically involve a blowing of the shofar, a “trumpet made from the horn of a ram or some other kosher animal,” according to Religion News Service.
“On Rosh Hashana, the sound is meant to awaken the hearers from a spiritual slumber, to make them aware of their actions and their repercussions,” the article noted. On Yom Kippur, on the other hand, the sounds of the shofar signify the end of the holidays’ spiritual journey.
Christians also sometimes use the shofar to connect with their “ancient heritage,” as Christianity Today reported in 2018.
“Christian use of the shofar has grown in certain traditions over the past 25 years, along with interest in the Holy Land,” the article said.
What I’m reading ...
As men across the country struggle with loneliness, a fitness group called F3, which stands for fitness, fellowship and faith, is offering a quiet but important solution, according to The New York Times. The group offers a space for men to find news friends, talk about their feelings and, yes, build up a sweat.
It’s not even Halloween yet, so I understand if you’re horrified to see me sharing a Christmas story already. But I can’t help myself! Variety’s recent look at the big business of Christmas movies was fascinating.
Odds and ends
Just weeks after I interviewed him for this newsletter, the Rev. Herb Lusk, who was the first NFL player to pray in the end zone after scoring, passed away. My friend Daniel Silliman wrote a beautiful obituary for Christianity Today.