After 25 years, familiar religion-beat questions

By Terry Mattingly Modified: April 24, 2013 at 10:29 am •  Published: April 24, 2013
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The other big mystery, for me, is why professionals who lead newsrooms rarely seek out experienced, even trained, religion reporters. Discussions of this topic often reference a religion-beat opening posted by Washington Post editors in 1994, noting that their "ideal candidate" was "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."

Please note the word "ideal." Try to imagine editors saying their "ideal" candidate to cover the U.S. Supreme Court would be someone who is not an expert in the law. How about similar notices for reporters covering politics, education, sports, science and film?

"The religion beat is too complicated today for this kind of approach to be taken seriously," said Russell Chandler, who covered religion for years at the Los Angeles Times. I interviewed him for "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," from Oxford Press.

"If you don't have experience you have to pay your dues and get some. Then you have to keep learning so that you get the facts right today and tomorrow and the day after that," he said. "I have never really understood what this argument is about. It's like saying that we want to sign up some people for our basketball team and we don't really care whether or not they can play basketball."

This logic also rings true for Moskos, who noted that he once interviewed five skilled sportswriters when seeking someone to cover University of Tennessee football -- a quasi-religious subject for locals. Why not take that approach to religion news?

"If you send somebody out to cover the Oak Ridge National Laboratory," he concluded, "you'd better find yourself a journalist who knows something about science. ... If people are going to get the job done covering religion then they need to find some journalists who know a thing or two about religion."

(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)

(EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Kendra Phipps at kphipps@amuniversal.com.)

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