Religion in the newsroom

Do editors care about religion coverage?

David Gibson has been covering religion full time since 1994, first at the Bergen Record and then at the Star-Ledger in Newark. He was born in Plainfield, N.J., attended Furman University in South Carolina and covered the Vatican for several years in the late 1980s. He now works for Religion News Service.

By David Gibson
The Star-Ledger*

Okay, your editor has just created a religion beat and tabbed you to fill it. Going on the assumption that you lobbied for this job, you are jazzed, and you ought to be.

So the question: Does your editor care about religion coverage?

The short answer is: No.

Surprised? Don’t be. The long answer explains why and how to cope.

For starters, it is not that your editor- or any editor-is irreligious, unreligious, non-religious, whatever.

Sure, he or she may be, but more likely, you will find your editor and your fellow reporters are religious to a degree you would never have known and media bashers don’t like to acknowledge.

The central problem is that editors have probably never supervised a religion writer before, and their only experience with “religion” stories is fielding the angry calls when a reporter-usually not on the religion beat-has written (badly) about a church, synagogue, mosque or holiday.

Also, editors, like you, probably grew up in a certain faith and have a passing knowledge of that faith, but can’t begin to answer criticisms about coverage of any other religion.

Editors, like most reporters, gravitate toward coverage of politics and crime. These are topics on which everyone is an expert, and they are stories that don’t require a lot of interpretation or debate. A corpse is a corpse is a corpse.

But the editor has recognized that readers want to read about religion. More newspapers are establishing religion beats, and there are so many religion stories out there-Sept. 11, 2001, anyone?-that no media outlet can afford to ignore the topic.

So what do you do? You can either write puff pieces that offend no one, end up on the Saturday religion page and are read and appreciated by the six people you quoted …OR… you can prove your editor-and your readers-wrong.

You do that by tackling tough, controversial and complex topics head-on. You research, interview, research some more, and write insightful pieces that will get the editor reading and thinking, and will do the same for your readers. Make it so balanced and so fair and so true that people will have no chink in the armor. They’ll have to love you. And your stuff.
Do that and your editor will find himself or herself realizing religion is a great beat-interesting, challenging, provocative.

One more thing. Everyone always wants to come away from these “how-to” exercises with The Secret. So here it is: Make your religion copy read like good political beat copy. Make it authoritative, analytical, with solid sources, and give it the insider’s edge. Treat your beat like every other beat and you’ll get the respect the others do. At least in the newsroom.

*This article was written in 2001, at the time David Gibson was writing for the Star-Ledger. Gibson now works for Religion News Service.