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Finding faith: When journalists cover religion

Published: Saturday, June 11 2011 6:41 p.m. MDT

"Many times the human element, the moral element, is left out of news stories, and yet that's so central to the human response," said Liz Tenety, editor of On Faith.

"We give space to as diverse a group as possible to reflect on central issues. There are emotions, beliefs and values that are unspoken by the nature of journalism. This space is for people of faith and also people who are secular — people who don't have faith, who are agnostic, atheist or humanist — to explore values as they relate to the news, and especially, in our case, to religion and politics," she said.

Each Monday, Tenety sends a question to the 120 On Faith panelists and posts their reflections on the site. On Faith also features bloggers and guest voices.

"They say you should never talk about religion and politics because it's so difficult, and we see that it's difficult on our site," said Tenety. "But that is because these issues are so central. They are important."

On Faith and other online religion sites are also proving that religion stories can generate a lot of web traffic.

When Eric Marrapodi and Dan Gilgoff of CNN launched the CNN Belief Blog in 2010 as a platform for showcasing religion stories, they were hoping for 2 million hits in the first year.

At their year mark in May, they had tracked 82 million hits.

"Just the Belief Blog alone is outpacing on a monthly basis major blogs like the Daily Beast, MTV.com and Rolling Stone in terms of hits. It's a clear indicator that people really care about quality religion reporting," said Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog co-editor.

Marrapodi and Gilgoff had noticed that CNN reporters were coming in contact with a wide variety of religion stories, but that there was no home for collecting them. They had also noticed that the network was picking up a number of former religion reporters being excised from newspaper staffs. "We realized that we had almost accidentally amassed a religion-reporter dream team," Marrapodi said.

In addition to boosting web traffic, the Belief Blog has also contributed to an increased number of religion stories on CNN.

"It's been a great testing ground for TV. If a story kills online and gets a million hits, it's a great driver to push it to television," said Marrapodi. "That's a great way for us to gauge interest in the topic."

Other online media outlets are also tapping into strong interest in religion stories and creating new opportunities for religion reporters.

The Huffington Post's religion section, originally launched in 2009, one month ago hired full-time religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem to augment the mix of commentary and syndicated content already on the site.

While traffic numbers for the Huffington Post are not released, Kaleem did say it's not unusual to get 1,000 or 2,000 comments on a story, and that readers include people who are looking specifically for religion as well as many who stumble across it.

AOL's recent acquisition of the Huffington Post has given the page a higher international profile, but senior religon editor Paul Raushenbush said it is still important to tell local stories. He hopes to use www.patch.com/, another AOL subsidiary that creates online meetingplaces for small communities, to generate local religion news coverage.

"We're trying to think about how we can respond to the increasingly global nature of the Huffington Post Media Group as well as honor really local important stories, because those are the stories that people live with day to day. We want to make sure that we're really honoring how religion is lived in the world," he said.

He described the site's policy toward religion as "generous," giving as an example respectful coverage of religious leader Harold Camping's end-of-the-world predictions. Kaleem canvassed with believers for his story, and the site featured commentary about the role of end-times theology in a variety of religions.

Getting religion right

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