Friday, September 11, 2009

60 Years of Wisdom . . . in a Couple Conversations

Minneapolis, MN—I'm at the 60th anniversary conference of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), a smart and gracious group of about 160 (in attendance) professional reporters who have the audacity to believe that religion as a beat still matters. That's no small thing. When the general media is laying off or reassigning veteran religion reporters (the RNA president mentioned in his welcome address that he'd heard of two religion reporters in the last 24 hours who'd lost their jobs), it's encouraging to find journalists here who still recognize the far reaching implications and roles that belief systems play in shaping a culture. After all, everyone believes something. And most of the time, our behaviors come out of what we most believe. So to cover the stories that emerge from the world's major religions either in our towns or trends is an essential service to citizens. Religion reporting helps people make sense of current issues as well as the individuals in their communities, their neighbors.
     So I asked (or eavesdropped on) a couple reporters or speakers here about the insights they might have for new journalists, for those entering the field that is requiring different skills while still reporting the human elements we need to be self governing. Here's what a few said:

   "The pay is low, but don't fear the small town newspaper. That's where you get thrown into the action right away, covering everything from city hall or education to small businesses. Be willing to learn, because often you're learning with your editor. That's what I did."—William Taylor, assistant editor, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA;
    "In covering a recent and troubling story here (on the disappearance of Somalian young men) I began to see that this was revealing something much more complex than what appeared on the surface: many young men were wondering where—or how—they fit into U.S. culture. There's always something more behind the story."—Allie Shah, metro reporter of the Minneapolis Star Tribune;
     "I've found the news media generally very fair on their coverage (of religious issues). In fact, I've had more difficulty with the press within my own denomination than those outside." —Dr. Frank Page, President of Southern Baptist and "resident fundamentalist Christian (his words)" on President Obama's council of faith based initiatives;
     "Learn everything you can about new ways of doing journalism while also mastering the traditional methods of reporting. That means being the best writer/reporter you can be, asking the right questions, checking the facts, being accurate and fair so that you have the best content to fit into these new media. What do I love about reporting? Talking to fascinating people and then sharing their thoughts/stories with others. There's nothing like a goooood interview!"—Adelle Banks, senior correspondent, Religion News Service. (That's Adelle in the photo preparing her recorder, computer ready for note taking.)
     So there's good stuff to be gained in the community of such wisdom. It comes in many lectures, conferences and mostly, conversations. And it comes always in paying attention. Remembering to observe, especially this day, Sept. 11, how religion reporting took on another new and essential role. As one who lived in New York City in 2001, I offer you my own reporting from that day: The End of the World (Trade Center), posted on 9/11/01.

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