2003 Fall Newsletter


  1. Creating Our Own (Not so Urban) Legend
  2. Great Minds Do Think Alike: Panel Ideas Mirror Trends
  3. Call for papers
  4. Call for reviewers
  5. RMIG Listserv revived
  6. Christian Media Come of Age
  7. RMIG Member News and Views
  8. Staffing of Specialists at Newsmagazines Falls to New Low

For these articles, keep reading past the jump.

Creating Our Own (Not so Urban) Legend

By Rick Moore, Boise State University
RMIG 2003-04 Head

Many of us have heard stories about people who have extramarital affairs by way of an annual academic conference. No, this is not going to be a “true confessions” column. I usually assume (at least I hope) that these oft-told accounts are apocryphal. They are “urban legends for academics.” Even so, our familiarity with such tales can be beneficial for making a larger point.

The basic story line is usually the same. Man works at an urban university on the east coast, appears happily married. Woman works at a small private college in the Midwest, also appears happily married. Once a year they get together for four days of amour at a location not-of-their choosing. This year the location is Boise Idaho. Dreadful place for most. But for our romantic couple, this is their one chance to be together in a place and time when nobody suspects anything.

I’ve heard stories such as this on several occasions, usually in a casual group conversation. After a few jokes and a bit of speculation on the possibilities of this actually occurring, someone among the group of listeners will finally say what everyone else was thinking. “Who on earth would want to be in a relationship where you only meet once a year for four days?”

Oddly enough, this is the killer question for any division or interest group in an academic organization. By killer I mean that unless those involved in the interest group can come up with a good answer to this question, it might just meet its demise.

Of course, the organization as a whole (be it AEJMC, ICA, NCA, or any other) isn’t going to meet its demise. The organization has a clear raison d’être. It must exist if academics are going to have a venue for presenting research. So as “publish or perish” becomes the motto of every campus-not just research institutions-more and more of us feel compelled to attend a conference every year and show that we are engaged in scholarship.

Isn’t it romantic?

Not at all. And that is precisely the point of this journey into the land of urban legends. Those who were able to attend the RMIG member’s meeting in Kansas City know that I stressed inclusiveness and involvement as key issues for the vitality of the Religion and Media Interest Group. I said that we need to be a big tent organization that welcomes scholars who are curious about the interface of media practice and religious experience. I also said that we need as many members as possible to take an active role in the interest group. I want to briefly reiterate those points here, and I think they relate closely to the bigger issue of the improving RMIG.

One of the reasons that I stressed the “big tent” nature of our interest group is that I have personally been part of divisions or interest groups where I eventually felt I was not welcomed. I presume that some of you have experienced this. In my case, nobody ever said that I was unwelcome. But, I can recall several occasions where I was a member of a division or interest group and felt that I didn’t really fit in. Usually, my realization of this occurred while attending panels or meetings of the group. Other group members would talk in a way that showed they assumed that all members of the group shared certain values, attitudes, and/or beliefs about their area of study. The intimation was that unless you shared assumptions about certain theories, certain methodologies, or even certain political views, you couldn’t really be a member of the division.

My experience in RMIG is that we tend to do a good job of avoiding such exclusiveness. I want to call all of you to continue this during my tenure as head. I hope that throughout the year we advertise ourselves as a group that has only one objective, to champion the study of religion and the mass media. And, I hope we exhibit truth in advertising, welcoming all scholars and all scholarship that advances our understanding of the relationship between these two important facets of modern human existence (religion and media). If we want to maintain and add members, we need to create a “big tent.”

Of course, one of the problems that big tent organizations face is a lack of passion. If we don’t share a lot of assumptions about theories, methods, politics, etc., why does anybody care to be a part of our group?

I don’t have a great answer to this question. But, I do think one good answer relates to my call for participation within RMIG. That answer says participation in an interest group makes being part of a large organization such as AEJMC much more pleasant and productive. Think about it this way. Does attending a conference anonymously, presenting a paper in front of eight to ten people you do not know, and then disappearing seem like a good way to spend your valuable time? Does it seem like a good way to develop relationships with other people who know a lot about your field of study?

Seen this way, my call for involvement is a call to become better acquainted with other people with whom you will be interacting for many years. For a young scholar, this could be as many as 50 years. Greater involvement in the interest group allows you to interact throughout the year (even if it sometimes in rather perfunctory ways) with the people you will eventually meet in Toronto, San Antonio, and San Francisco.

Moreover, the people with whom you will be interacting have a wealth of knowledge and experience in an area where you presumably have interests. Within RMIG we have a group of scholars with an impressive list of publications. In addition we have in our group people who engage in media practice related to religion. Some of our members see themselves in both of these roles.

So if it is passion you are seeking, I highly recommend that you continue and deepen your involvement within RMIG for the next year. One way of facilitating this is to simply keep in touch through the RMIG listserv Debra Mason has revived. You can read more about this in this edition of the newsletter. Along with this, I highly recommend that each of you actively seek some way to be more deeply involved in the operation of the interest group. One way of starting this process is to choose an officer and let him/her know that you have time and energy to devote to the cause. You can find these people simply by clicking the “Officers” button to the left. Don’t hesitate to e-mail any of them and let them know you are a willing/able volunteer if they have projects to do. In some cases, they might ask you to creatively think of new projects within their area that would strengthen the interest group.

On the subject of contacting officers, don’t hesitate to occasionally e-mail these individuals to do something else. Give them thanks for their willingness to take formal leadership roles with the group. Each of these individuals does exactly what I am calling for in this article. They work throughout the year to make sure RMIG looks better (and indeed is better) at every annual convention.

Finally, I want to take just a moment to give special attention to Debra Mason, who was head of this group for the last year. Most of us are unaware of the amount of time she devoted to our interest group. She steered RMIG through some crises that were invisible to most of us. And she steered in such a way that we not only survived as an interest group, but became stronger. Overall, Debra exemplifies the kind of involvement in RMIG that I have alluded to throughout this article. She clearly has passion for this interest group; she enjoys contributing to it; and she enriches her own profession life and that of others in the process. If all of us show these characteristics, we’ll have a great year as an organization.

Great Minds Do Think Alike: Panel Ideas Mirror Trends

By Michael A. Longinow, Asbury College
RMIG vice-head

Funny thing about journalistic genius. It just seems to kick in better under time pressure. That was true with the panel ideas for RMIG this year. Early in the semester, when everyone had plenty of time, there was but a trickle in the email boxes of your elected officers. But in the two- to three-week period just before deadline – when all our boats were swamped with mid-semester waves — “Sploosh!” They came bursting in like a mid-afternoon shower. Thanks to those of you who contributed. Nobody’s boat got swamped (we hope) and we got our list to the eastern shore by deadline.

But what’s interesting about about the panels this year is how closely many of them followed religious media trends in print, electronic and online media–the growth of religious niche publications, difficulties of describing same-sex marriage among clergy, religious media surrounding pilgrimage-style tourism, legal fine points of religious coverage, and the policy-making connections that religious media can spark in the post-9/11 era, history of revival in the U.S. and how it helps explain leaders like Franklin Graham and the Promisekeepers.

Will they all fly? Hard to tell. Chip-negotiations are tricky to predict. But the exciting thing to note is that we have an interest group within AEJMC that matters enough to people in other divisions and interest groups that they keep us in mind as they craft their research or PF&R brainstorms.

We got queries from the Ethics Division, Civic Interest Group and a few others this year, as we have in the past, and I think we can count on the trend continuing.

Keep up the good work, and get those research papers polished up for the April deadline. You should hear back from us about yea or nay on panels by January at the latest.

Call for papers

The Religion and Media Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication invites submission of research on any topic related to religion and media. RMIG is interested in papers using any recognized research method and any recognized citation style. Please note that RMIG is interested in research presentations, rather than essays or commentary. Possible areas of focus for the research include but are not limited to studies of religious group members and uses of secular media, exploration of media coverage of religious issues and groups, studies of the audiences for religious news, media strategies of religious organizations, religious advertising, religious and spiritual content in popular culture, and so on. The competition is open to both faculty and students. Papers will be considered for presentation for research panels and a research poster session.

IMPORTANT: Please follow the guidelines for the AEJMC Uniform Call for Papers (available on the AEJMC website, www.aejmc.org). Please note the maximum length of 25 pages, excluding endnotes and tables.

Presentation: The best papers will be presented at the AEJMC 2004 convention; thus, an author must be there. The convention will take place August 4-7, 2004 in Toronto, Canada.

Top Papers – The RMIG Division is also sponsoring an “Award Winning Paper” competition for top faculty and student papers at this year’s convention. The “Top” paper in each category will be selected from among the refereed papers submitted to the RMIG competition. The top paper winners will receive $100 and a certificate. In the case of multi-authored papers, all authors must be students to qualify for the Top Student Paper award.

All submissions must be sent Priority or First Class and must be postmarked by April 1, 2004, and must be received by April 6, 2004, for consideration.

All submissions should be sent to:

Dr. Eric Gormly (RMIG Research Chair),
Dept of Journalism,
University of North Texas,
P.O.Box 311460,
Denton, Texas 76203-1460.
940-369-5975 (voice);
940-565-2370 (fax);
gormly@unt.edu (email).

Call for reviewers

The Religion and Media Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication is looking for reviewers for papers submitted for our upcoming conference. If interested, please contact Eric Gormly (research paper chair) via email with your contact information. Your interest and support are greatly appreciated.

Dr. Eric Gormly (RMIG Research Chair),
Dept of Journalism,
University of North Texas,
P.O.Box 311460,
Denton, Texas 76203-1460.
940-369-5975 (voice);
940-565-2370 (fax);
gormly@unt.edu (email).

RMIG Listserv revived

By Debra L. Mason, Religion Newswriters Association
Webmaster / RMIG newsletter editor

After at least a two year hiatus, the RMIG listserv has been revived, in part thanks to AEJMC headquarter’s decision to create Website and listserv space and support for any of its divisions or interest groups.

Most of you are probably familiar with listservs, but if you aren’t, there are two key things to remember: 1.) Civility and respect is vital and 2.) Any reply on the listserv goes to EVERYONE ON THE LIST!

No matter how often I repeat this last point, you can bet sometime soon someone-perhaps me-will mistakenly send a personal message to the entire list. It’s so easy to just hit “reply” that it’s easy to forget where we’re replying to. But if we all work hard on this, perhaps most of the time we’ll remember to type in an individual’s personal email address when that’s our intent.

The listserv is pretty easy to use and you can unsubscribe at any time. If you are reading this newsletter and haven’t yet received a listserv message, you may not be on our email list. We only have emails for a portion of our members, and although a kind assistant in RMIG Head Rick Moore’s office went through our RMIG member list to glean emails from the AEJMC directory or elsewhere, we still know we’re missing some. So please, if you’re not connected and want to be, send me your email.

The listserv is moderated, and only people on our list as RMIG members can post.

The instructions for the listserv are posted on this site, accessible from the menu bar on the left side of this page.

Thanks also goes to Randy Reddick of Texas Tech University, who is the “techie” making the listserv happen. He serves this function to the entire AEJMC and several of its divisions and interest groups. He makes it all seem easy.

Christian Media Come of Age

By Michael A. Longinow, Asbury College
RMIG vice-head

The task of trying to put journalistic structure to the ways and means of religious popular culture has perhaps never been more perplexing. Yet in its own way, it all makes sense. Christian pop culture, in particular, has come a long way. It used to be that Cornerstone, the Christian answer to Rolling Stone, was about the only Christian magazine on the rack that put heavy-metal artists on its cover while tackling tough topics like same-sex state benefits, racial reconciliation in places like South Africa–or Detroit–and corruption within ministry. Now Cornerstone has been joined by a mainstream-marketed magazine called Relevant. This is a slick-page publication that runs the kinds of photos Cornerstone ran (and still does), along with headlines like “Coming out in the church” and “Mission Aborted: A Personal Account of Abortion Recovery.” Relevant also reviews books with titles like “Blessed are the Cynical.”

Christian singer Sandi Patti’s divorce at one time caused massive undercurrents in the Christian evangelical world. Amy Grant’s did, too, but now Amy Grant is back on the shelves and has kicked off a new tour, while a group called “Mercy Me” is getting air time on secular radio stations for a piece about heaven, and Sixpence None The Richer’s music is running background to a daytime soap.

Focus on the Family, once essentially an organization centered around a radio show has sprouted a publishing empire that includes publications putting foul-mouthed rappers on the cover–to spur Christian kids to think hard about the lyrics they’re dismissing as harmless.

What makes all of this so interesting is that it’s part of a coming-of-age of a Christian media movement that began with the founding of Christianity Today more than half a century ago. It’s the voice of those who defy cubbyholes and other forms of boxed-in thinking.

Peter Dahlgren and Colin Sparks’ Journalism and Popular Culture points out that what makes the study of journalism within popular culture so difficult and so fascinating is that journalism–and the cultures within which it operates–is a moving target. Each is like a river within a river.

The harder mainstream journalists try to get the camera focused on what Christian life and culture is all about, the less likely they seem to be able to get the whole picture. (Christian media doesn’t do all that well with it, either.) Not that they shouldn’t try. Ben Bradlee once said that the best journalists keep stepping up to the plate even when their batting average drops occasionally. We’re telling the truth as much as we can. And what’s true about Christian culture and its media marketplace is changing under our very feet.

As the editor of Good News magazine once put it, “God shows up everywhere.” That’s a paraphrase of what Mark Silk said to help close his Unsecular Media study of news within religion in American life.

The ways of God and of those who pursue and express their faith about God in the world are endlessly surprising and endlessly frustrating to grasp. Maybe we’ve forgotten how expected the unexpected should be.

Stewart Hoover’s point in Religion in the News, backed up by Judith Buddenbaum’s Reporting News About Religion, is that what we’re seeing in these 21st century publications and surrounding media is the kind of movement that sparked whole eras in our nation’s media history.

Rather than try to box them in, perhaps we should just cover them–as best we can. And leave the unanswered questions to the next edition. Or the next generation.

RMIG Member News and Views

Did you receive tenure? A promotion? Get married or have a child? Do you have a teaching tip? Send us your latest news and we’ll publish it here.

Anthony Hatcher
Elon University

Anthony Hatcher was awarded a fellowship to attend a week-long seminar on “Reporting on Faith, Religion, and Values” at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. the week of Nov. 3, 2003. Hatcher will incorporate material from the seminar into his yearly course on Religion and Media.

Along with another Elon communications professor, Hatcher will lead 31 Elon students to Great Britain and Europe in January 2004. The winter term course, titled “From Gutenberg to the Web: The Impact of Media on Western Society,” involves a three-week excursion to England, Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. Students see the sites of the Reformation and the beginning of the printed word in Western Europe, and studied Nazi propaganda techniques and the development of the World Wide Web.

Holly Stocking
Indiana University-Bloomington

Holly Stocking writes, “I have added to my ethics course a module on personal beliefs, including religious and spiritual values. The main question we consider: How can students negotiate these values in media organizations without violating professional norms? In the module, I draw from sociological research on Catholic and Evangelical journalists; in the study, journalists talked, among other things, about how they have transformed religious language into professional language so as to operate within accepted professional boundaries. I also draw on some research by my Indiana University colleague David Boeyink; Dave interviewed journalists about the relationship between their religious values and newsroom practices. I have found these research studies of great value not only for my students, but for myself, when I consider my own role as a college professor who is a practitioner of an Eastern spiritual path.”

Stocking also wrote the lead chapter in Desperately Seeking Ethics, edited by Howie Good. The chapter, drawing on the thoughts of Morrie Schwartz, looks at journalists’ decisions in the aftermath of 9/11, through the lens of love and compassion. Schwartz was the subject of the popular book Tuesdays with Morrie.

Dane S. Claussen
Point Park University

Dane S. Claussen’s fourth book, Anti-intellectualism in American Media: Magazines and Higher Education, is being released in November by Peter Lang Publishing. On Oct. 23, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania approved his institution’s charter change, to become Point Park University. As chair of its Graduate Council, Claussen was deeply involved in policy changes facilitating its new status and name.

David Scott
University of South Carolina

The September edition of Critical Studies in Media Communication published David Scott’s article, “Mormon ‘Family Values’ versus Television: An Analysis of the Discourse of Mormon Couples Regarding Television and Popular Media Culture.”

Staffing of Specialists at Newsmagazines Falls to New Low

By Debra L. Mason
Executive Director
Religion Newswriters Association

Publishers of the nation’s three major newsweeklies – NewsweekTime and U.S. News and World Report – have long known that covers featuring Jesus create “a buzz” that helps them outsell most other covers.

Yet the laying off of U.S. News and World Report religion specialist Jeff Sheler earlier this year leaves only Time magazine with a fulltime beat writer after more than 13 years in which all three newsweeklies had fulltime religion reporters or editors. Until 2002, both Time and Newsweek had had fulltime religion writers for over 50 years.

Other cuts have hit the newsweeklies hard as well, including reductions in bureaus and correspondents that religion writers often used to expand the number of religion stories published.

“The cuts at the magazines have hurt,” said Kenneth Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek and religion reporter there for over three decades. “If you look at them, there’s a lot less religion being run now. A lot less.”

Sheler, 54, of Portsmouth, Va., was part of U.S. News and World Report‘s latest round of layoffs last June. He worked for the magazine 23 years, 14 of those on the religion beat that he pioneered there as its first fulltime religion specialist.

Recently elected as president of Religion Newswriters Association, Sheler remembers some of his editors’ skepticism when the magazine ran his first religion cover story in April 1990. The cover on “The Last Days of Jesus” detailed research and debate about the historical Jesus.

The newsstand sales figures from that issue “blew everyone’s mind,” Sheler said, and at the time it was the second all-time highest selling issue, second only to a cover featuring Hitler. Over the next two years he wrote eight cover stories.

“In the 10 years I worked at U.S. News before covering religion, I can only remember one religion cover, and that was when the pope died … so it was a tremendous increase in the space and attention devoted to religion,” Sheler said.

Newsweek also lost its fulltime religion writer when religion reporter Kenneth Woodward retired in 2002 to become an essayist and contributing editor after 38 years at the magazine.

Now, the only fulltime religion reporter at a national newsmagazine is Time‘s David VanBiema, on the beat for over four years. VanBiema, whose actual title is senior writer, is asked to write on other topics from time to time, but his primarily focus is faith.

New definitions of news

Sheler’s dismissal and Woodward’s retirement are only the latest changes in how newsweeklies cover religion, although most other changes have more to do with the nature of newsmagazines in general than the beat itself.

When Time magazine was founded in 1923, its first issue included a topic heading of “religion.” Time founder Henry Luce was given credit for bringing high visibility to religious leaders by putting them on Time‘s covers. Newsweek and the magazine now called U.S. News and World Report, both founded in 1933, followed Time‘s lead and included religion in their mix of news.

But all three newsweeklies tended, in their first 40 years, to cover religion as hard news, reacting to events around the world. Time and Newsweek first hired dedicated religion reporters during World War II, but even then those journalists’ focus was on events and institutions.

“News magazines these days do not feel obligated to be like a newspaper,” said VanBiema. “Newsmagazines feel they can do stories they are interested in at this point. It’s more of an opportunistic thing and less of a beat thing.”

Although Woodward says he stopped denominational coverage 30 years ago, Time magazine’s transition was more recent. At U.S. News, Sheler’s focus was on in-depth, big-picture stories that were reported and written by himself.

Sheler’s style of religion coverage “was the direction that Time later went,” said Richard Ostling, religion reporter for Associated Press and Time‘s religion specialist for over two decades.

Fewer collaborations

The collaborative writing and reporting process that is a hallmark of news magazines has changed as well-for all beats. Ostling and Woodward agreed that at least through the 1980s, Time and Newsweek each had extensive bureaus and correspondents to help report a story. Many bureaus are now closed or have fewer journalists. Ostling said Time‘s writing staff is half as large as it was in the early 1980s.

Even so, VanBiema said other reporters often help on the Time stories he writes, particularly cover stories.

At Newsweek, Woodward said more stories now are written and reported by one person.

Specialist or not?

Editors at newspapers and newsmagazines have long debated the merits of specialists vs. generalists. But for now, two of the three newsmagazines appear to prefer having religion coverage parceled out to “generalists” – writers who cover a variety of topics. But others say religion-with its many possibilities for inaccuracies and lack of context-requires a specialist who recognizes the potential pitfalls.

“I think it matters a lot because it’s such a difficult field. I would contend it’s one of the most challenging fields that is covered in journalism,” said Ostling. His successor at Time, although he did not start out a specialist, agrees.

VanBiema said having a designated religion reporter helps put the topic as an agenda before the editors and prevents it from being a totally random and reactive story.

But at U.S. News, Sheler’s former boss Sara Sklaroff said she has some “incredible generalists” who will maintain its level of religion news.

“There’s no way there will be a significant change in the amount of religion news we cover,” said Sklarof, the education and culture editor who oversees religion coverage. “We’re certainly going to cover it just as much as we always have.”

Used by Permission, Copyright 2003. Religion Newswriters Association

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