Finding faith: When journalists cover religion

Published: Saturday, June 11 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

Photo Illustration By Aaron Thorup

Editor's note: This article is the second in a two-part series looking at the mainstream media's efforts to cover religion. Part one examined the reasons religion stories are often not covered.

On the first day of Ari Goldman's "Covering Religion" class at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he likes to begin with a question.

"How many of you have ever been to a mosque?"

About two of the 16 students typically raise their hands.

"How many of you have been to a synagogue?"

About half raise their hands.

"To a church?"

Almost all hands go up.

"In the last 10 years?"

Hands go down again.

Goldman's first goal is to bring his students up to a level of religious literacy.

"Before I can teach (students) how to write about religion, I have to teach (them) some religion," Goldman said. "I'm not just training religion writers, I'm training reporters who can see a religion angle in a bigger story and not just dismiss it as superstition or fear."

A lot has changed in the 17 years since Goldman began teaching aspiring journalists about religion. The rise of the Internet and the shifting economics of news production have turned the journalism industry upside down, leaving graduating students — especially those who aspire to a specialty beat like religion — wondering about their future. And with massive changes in journalism, even veteran reporters live with uncertainty. News organizations are struggling to adjust and to cover stories about religion with fewer religion reporters. At the same time, they are recognizing new outlets for religion news and commentary on the Internet and are scrambling to keep up with growing interest in stories about faith.

Whether or not religion journalists are around to cover them, religion news stories continue to surface. Last year, for example, was a banner year for religion stories.

According to the Pew Research Center, religion stories accounted for 2 percent of all coverage, up from 1 percent in 2009. The uptick in coverage was driven by a few big stories, including controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque and Pastor Terry Jones' plan to host a Koran-burning event, said Alan Cooperman, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"There are years when, for no particular reason, just because of serendipity, there are some religion stories that just get an enormous amount of coverage, and there are other years when religion has a lower profile," he said.

But even when religion is not a top story, it still plays a role in coverage.

Kim Lawton is the managing editor and a correspondent at "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" on PBS television, a program that covers religious news and examines moral issues.

"The religion beat has been especially cut back, and that really concerns me as a religion reporter," she said. "Understanding religion helps us understand our world better. Because I cover religion, I cover politics, I cover war, I cover pop culture, I cover judicial cases, I cover interfaith relations. Because I cover religion, I cover all of those things, because religion touches on all of those things."

Going virtual

As newsrooms across the country struggle to find new ways to cover religion in the face of downsizing, many are turning to the Internet to fill gaps.

On Faith is an online forum at the Washington Post that facilitates conversations between religious experts, activists, other opinion leaders and readers.

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