Lawton at PBS's "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" is not particularly enthused about the rise of some of the religion websites.
"I'm troubled by the blogs, even some of the blogs that are attached to mainstream media or big names that say, 'We cover religion here.' It is so much commentary. All commentary and no reporting."
She said when fewer journalists are trained to cover religion in a fair and balanced way, information comes from advocates and people who have an axe to grind.
"It is important to have trained reporters who can sift through information and ... weigh what is true and what is not true," Lawton said. "When you only have commentary out there, I think that is very troubling for how people understand religion."
When "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" began in 1997, it was itself a reaction to concerns about religion coverage. Bob Abernethy, a veteran at NBC, saw that there was little meaningful news coverage of religion on mainstream television.
"Our mission is to be journalists who focus on the world of religion, spirituality and ethics. We don't advocate any particular point of view, but we take the tack that religion is important and is a component of many of the major things that are going on in the world ... and as journalists we want to take a look at that," she said.
Similarly, Religion News Service (RNS) fills in where newsrooms leave off by covering religion stories and syndicating them throughout the U.S.
"We cover religious institutions that most reporters wouldn't. We cover them like political reporters cover Congress," said RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom. "We also try to find the faith angle in the stories you see on the front page or the nightly news."
RNS recently announced a partnership with the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), a 62-year-old professional association that offers a vast array of resources for journalists writing about religion, from stylebooks and tip sheets to conferences and grants for religion classes.
"Our No. 1 resource for the last decade has been ReligionLink, an online tool that brings together religion story ideas with vetted sources," said Tiffany McCallen, associate director of RNA. "It serves as a religion journalist's Rolodex, if you will, that they don't have to keep on their own machine."
RNA and RNS are experimenting with a new project they hope will shape the future of religion journalism and preserve local religion reporting. They plan to hire religion reporters over the next several years in 20 markets to create and manage religion hubs that will both produce news about religion and provide services to religious communities.
"We're trying to bridge the gap to the future of what we hope religion news will look like. Our initial thoughts are that it's going to look like a partnership in communities that have no coverage of faith," McCallen said. "We envision the site as interactive and a shared community service."
RNA isn't the only non-profit venture trying to help people in the media get better at covering religion. Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center founded the Faith Angle Forum to educate not just religion beat journalists, but other top reporters as well by getting them together with experts and religious leaders.
The twice-yearly conference is held over two days in South Beach, Fla., and introduces a cadre of invited journalists to luminaries like evangelical pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren and Mormon historian Richard Bushman. The most recent conference featured the Pakistani ambassador to the United States speaking on radical Islam.
Websites like Terry Mattingly's GetReligion.org contribute to the effort by picking over the bones of news stories, looking for missed religion angles and pointing out the best and the worst of religion coverage.
The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life is another non-profit organization with a hand in the education of religion journalists. The Pew Forum conducts in-depth research and analysis on religious trends nationally and internationally, and journalists are some of the biggest consumers of its information.
"Media education is absolutely central to what we do," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "We've always considered journalists to be a critical audience, if not the most critical, for a variety of reasons. It's not just that they need the kind of information we provide — a lot of other people do, too. It's the megaphone function they serve. We want to educate the public and get information to key leaders through the media."
Journalists value Pew Forum research, Lugo said, because it doesn't take sides on religious or political issues. And reporters are increasingly seeking out the Pew Forum for data and analysis of current events.
As reporters become better versed in religion and cover religion stories well, they become educators, says Columbia University's Goldman.
"They are someone who can raise the religious literacy of a newspaper's readers," he said. "You need people who can see the missing piece. And not everyone can. That's why I'm trying to do that work and teach people about religion, so that they cover these stories more intelligently and fully."
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