Ideas on Transforming Religion News into the Small Journalism Program

By:Julia Duin, RMIG Member and Snedden Fellow
Journalism Department at the University of Alaska

The Religion and Media and Small Programs interest groups combined forces on the last day of the recent AEJMC conference  to present “Putting Religion into the Nut Graph: Ideas on Transforming Religion News into the Small Journalism Program. The panel was proposed by Julia Duin, who taught at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks during the 2014-2015 year. As one of the panelists, she offered research naming specific general journalism textbooks commonly used on college campuses and how none of them teach on religion reporting.

Other panelists included Wally Metts, of Spring Arbor University; Regent University professor Stephen Perry and Biola University professor Michael Loginow. What follows is the part of Julia Duin’s presentation that would interest R&M members:

I suggested this panel because I was so disgusted with the lack of any kind of instruction on religion reporting in the typical journalism textbook. There are chapters on sports writing, business writing and several other specialties in these textbooks. But to paraphrase the late George Cornell of the Associated Press whose famous 1994 piece comparing money spent on religion vs sports, people spend millions on sports but billions on religion. This priority is not reflected in the typical basic journalism text.

I’ve taught religion writing at two different places: the University of Maryland and the University of Alaska. The latter, located in Fairbanks and known as UAF, is where I’ve been this past year. Both times, I had to put together 15 weeks of instruction not only about how to report on various religions but also some basic information about the religions themselves. Fortunately, I’ve master’s degrees in both journalism and religion and have covered religion for more than 40 years.

Most students at state universities, I’ve found, know next to nothing about religion and even at a Baptist university where I taught two years ago, their knowledge was limited to their own group. When I’ve taught other journalism courses, there’s been no lack of textbooks to use. In teaching religion reporting, there’s very little out there. I spent the early part of this summer going through every textbook I could find. I split them into before 9/11 and after 9/11. As for the “before” ones, you’d expect the investigative ones to have something on religion. Cults have been big since the 1970s, so this omission was inexcusable. Even advanced reporting textbooks like “Getting the Story: An Advanced Reporting Guide to Beats, Records and Sources (McMillan Publishing Co., 1994) had sections on labor, business, education, environment, science, medicine and health. Religion wasn’t even mentioned in the index!

The only thing out there – and this was published in 1995 – was Judith Buddenbaum’s Reporting News About Religion.

As for the post-9/11 – and post Catholic sex abuse crisis which came to a head in 2002 – textbooks, the choices weren’t much better. For instance, recent editions of Marvin Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing book has whole chapters on sports and business reporting and education. He briefly mentions religious stereotyping, mentions creation science in the education chapter and gives a half page to religion in an ethics chapter way at the end of the book. Specifically, it was the last chapter and it’s called “The Morality of Journalism.” As most of us know, it’s the rare journalism class that deals with the final chapters in a textbook.

Tim Harrower’s Inside Reporting book, which is very popular and has cool graphics, has sections on covering meetings, politics and sports. On one page, they list other specialized beats, including religion, environment, children/families, obits, health, biz and education.

John Bender’s Writing and Reporting for the Media, which is one of my favorites, does say in a chapter on feature reporting that you might have to cover Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and St. Patrick’s Day but makes NO mention of the religious beliefs behind these days and how to be on the alert for them.

I also checked out News Reporting and Writing, published by the Missouri Group. They had chapters on sports and business but only threw in two mentions of religion in a chapter on ethics.

And then there’s Routledge, which has specialty books on everything from AIDS, health, Bollywood and digital storytelling to family communication, climate change in China and family communication language in public spaces in Japan. Also, business, cyberspace law, gender, branding, comics and graphic novels. I went through 840 listings to find Daniel Short’s 2012 book Media and Religion, which includes chapters on world religions and denominations, cultural religion, the Internet and entertainment and the media. I’d like to know if anyone is using it but I will suggest that its $41.95 price tag is high. That is the closest to a recent textbook. There were related titles such as Mindful Journalism and New Ethics in a Digital Era: A Buddhist ApproachReligion and HipHop,Japanese Religion on the Internet and God, Jews and the Media, which is about religion and Israeli media. All very interesting but none are quite what I’d need for a beginner course on the God beat.

And then there’s the ReligionLink web site, which has suggestions and resources for everything from Pope Francis’ “going green” encyclical to a religion stylebook, reporting guides and a religion primer by Debra Mason and the late Diane Connolly. Some things are very up-to-date; other things like the religion calendar, are not. But it’s the main game in town.

As good as many of these resources are, they’re not part of the main course for the typical college journalist. We’re out there as a specialty but we’re not good enough to be included up there with politics, sports and business.  I’m thinking the answer is not to write yet another textbook on religion reporting but to think up ways to get a chapter in existing textbooks. Some of these are already adding material on gender, which is a much newer subject area than religion. If we do not strategize how to do this, we may lose this opportunity forever.


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