Why I don’t plan to teach religion reporting any more


Photo courtesy of the Missouri School of Journalism

By Debra L. Mason, Teaching Chair
I joined the teaching ranks 24 years ago as a teaching assistant while I was earning a PhD at Ohio University.

But it wasn’t until 2008 that I first taught religion reporting. That’s because I was teaching at a small liberal arts college trough the 1990s with too few students to create such a specialized course. After that, I went into nonprofit management for a few years before joining the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism in 2006.

I learned soon enough that competing with a growing number of elective skills courses and other specialized media courses in environment, investigative journalism, arts coverage and health reporting was difficult. And there was a good reason why.

During these years, we saw the religion “beat” undergo many changes, including many layoffs. In part religion was swept up with the overall downsizing of newsrooms. In part, religion was not viewed as a vital beat in the same way as education, city government or sports were. And no one had been able to get religion to support itself via designated religion pages.

The trend was well-known enough that students were picking up on it. At the same time, it was hard to find a place for students to intern or be mentored by experienced leaders on the beat. My religion reporting classes were always very small—under 10 students every time.

Let’s be clear: every one of MU’s 2,000-plus journalism students gets some religion. That’s because I guest lecture about religion in all sections of the Cross Cultural Journalism course that’s required of every journalism student. Some instructors in the course require that students read examples of religion reporting or read a chapter from Judith Buddenbaum’s religion reporting book.

I lecture on problems of religious bias, religious literacy, secularity, stereotyping and other flaws in reporting or strategic planning when religion is involved. It was only one lecture, but it had repercussions in class assignments, readings, and projects. I always felt as though it was much better than nothing. Now, I’m pleased that a new cross cultural textbook my colleagues at the University of Missouri are writing will include a full chapter on the topic, using many of the same examples and issues I’ve lectured about the past six years.

But I’ve decided that teaching a specific course on religion reporting is not the approach that will reach the most students. Instead, I’m trying to figure out how to expand the religion content in Cross Cultural Journalism. And I’m refining an experimental course called, “From Amish to Zoarastrianism: What every journalism student needs to know about religion.” It’s sort of a world religions course for journalists. It includes data about the religiosity of journalists, why demographics of religion are peculiarly complicated, specific ethical quandaries and of course, aspects of major world religions important for journalists to understand.

I’ve come to believe that the most valuable lessons I teach in religion reporting are more about religious knowledge and less about the writing or reporting itself. These are lessons about etiquette, courtesy, muting personal biases, respect for diversity and important nuances of religious language. They’re lessons every journalism student needs to understand, because religion is always lurking as a component for many of today’s most important topics.

Another reason I think my religion reporting course itself is no longer necessary is the work of a student chapter of Religion Newswriters Association. Mizzou RNA, one of three student chapters in the country, has created dynamic programming, field trips and Google hangouts with experienced reporters—some of the identical content my religion reporting course offered. By nurturing and advising the group, I have reached not just journalism students but some religious studies students who want to know how to write for public audiences. It’s an exciting development that reaches not just students in their higher level courses but freshmen and sophomores, too.

My hope is that a broader course and this focused student chapter of a professional trade association of religion specialists will reach more students and perhaps, spark a deeper interest in the topic. That way, I can mentor individual students who are passionate enough to stick it out through tight job markets and limited internships.

The market doesn’t have room for three dozen new religion reporting wannabes joining the market each year. But there is certainly room for a few talented, exceptional journalists who fall in love with the religion beat the same way I fell in love with it. And thank goodness; without them, the beat’s future would surely be in doubt.

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