Keeping the Faith

How can journalists’ personal understanding of faith strengthen their reporting? Given that faith is central to the lives of many Americans, does sharing it help us see the country better? In newsrooms, religious practice often goes unspoken—but maybe it can be an edge. On this week’s Kicker, Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, hosted a roundtable featuring three journalists of faith. This is an abridged version of the conversation; to listen to the podcast in full, go here.

 

Participants:

McKay Coppins is a staff writer at the The Atlantic. He was previously at BuzzFeed. 

Ari Goldman is a professor of religion and journalism at Columbia University and a former New York Times religion writer. He is the author of four books, including the memoir A Year in Kaddish, about mourning his father, and Being Jewish.

Aysha Khan covers Muslim Americans and millennial spirituality for Religion News Service. She writes a newsletter called “Creeping Sharia.”

 

Kyle Pope: We’re in a political moment where what we believe as journalists has become forefront. Do we believe in facts? Do we believe in truth? Do we believe in objectivity?

I’m a Christian, I go to church, and I have a set of beliefs. My sense was that this is fairly rare in journalism. But when I asked colleagues at the Review, I was surprised at the number of people who said, I do that, too. It got me wondering, how does this influence the kind of journalism that we do?

 

Ari Goldman: When I was a reporter at the New York Times covering transportation, everyone would stop by and say, you won’t believe what I saw on the subway this morning, or I couldn’t get a taxi, or you’ve got to do something about the potholes. Everyone had a story for me. Then I became a religion writer, and nobody got near me. I thought, why don’t people come up and say, you won’t believe what my pastor said in church? So I’ve found newsrooms to be pretty divorced from religion.

In more personal, private moments, though, people would come to me almost like I was the pastor of the newsroom. And I’m not even a Christian.

 

KP: The conventional wisdom is that faith isn’t on the radar for a lot of people in this business. Do you think that that’s contributed to the sense that most newsrooms aren’t writing about the stuff that people really care about?

 

AG: Absolutely. Dean Baquet said one of our mistakes was we didn’t cover religion well in 2016. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we thought Hillary was going to win. We weren’t in the churches, so we didn’t realize the power of the church and its support for Trump.

 

KP: You consider yourself a religious person. How do you think that’s affected you as a journalist?

 

AG: I come out of an Orthodox Jewish tradition, and I am a practicing, observant Jew today. I studied Talmud, this great body of Jewish law and practice. The Talmud always has many points of view. It’s a model for me of having a discussion. I think it’s one of the reasons that I became a journalist.

 

KP: McKay, your religious beliefs became a conversation when you were covering Mitt Romney. Was that something that you leaned into, or was it awkward?

 

McKay Coppins: At my first job interview with Ben Smith, who was then just starting as the editor in chief of BuzzFeed, we met at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. He said to me, “You being a Mormon is a huge plus in my eyes.” It was 2011, and Mitt Romney was the likely nominee at that point. I was not very experienced in covering presidential campaigns, but this was one area where I could add value.

 

KP: You did a piece on Mormon underwear. 

 

MC: “A brief guide to Mormon underwear.” I think that’s the highest trafficked piece I’ve ever done. Romney was wearing a white shirt, and you could see his undershirt collar. I wrote a 900-word explainer, and it was well received by people who were genuinely just curious. It made me realize, oh, this is something I should lean into. The most basic function of journalism is to give information to the public that they don’t otherwise have.

 

KP: What do you make of the taboo of religion in newsrooms?

 

MC: Newsrooms at the national level are fairly secular places, in my experience, and much more secular than the country as a whole. When I talk to reporters and editors at local news outlets, it seems like they’re much more likely to have experience with religion or church.

 

KP: Aysha, what percentage of your work for Religion News Service is focused on the US Muslim community?

 

Aysha Khan: Almost all of it. When I started at RNS, I realized that there were some things that I just knew inherently by virtue of growing up Muslim. During Ramadan, I saw that there were a lot of Muslims around the country concerned about food waste. Mosques have tons of food they’re producing every night to feed people at the end of the day of fasting. At the end of the night, they have a surplus, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with it. That’s not a story that you would know unless you’re embedded within these communities.

 

KP: What’s striking about the coverage of the Muslim community is that the president made this his focus upon coming into office. And yet editors said let’s just get whoever is available to cover it. Is that still the way that Muslims are covered in most of the press?

 

AK: I’m very annoyed by the basic coverage of Muslims that I see every day. Muslims are covered almost like another ethnicity or nationality, as opposed to another faith group like Christians or Jews. A lot of the coverage of Muslims ends up being about diversity or national security. There is very little human-interest storytelling. And then there’s explanatory reporting; it’s a part of service journalism, but when coverage of Muslims is limited to “what is the hijab?” or “what is jihad?” this is a disservice.

 

AG: I loved Aysha’s example of the story about the extra food. That is a story that just says Muslims are like everyone else. They’re worried about waste. They think about social service. They want to be sure that people are fed. It’s not making them into something exotic.

 

KP: McKay, what kind of stories do you see that we’re not doing?

 

MC: In mainstream outlets, faith is covered as it intersects with politics or international affairs or business or terrorism. I understand that this makes the religion beat newsworthy to the average reader, to a certain extent. But when journalists don’t have experience with or knowledge of religious faith, their coverage can be distorted, one-dimensional, and lacking in texture.

I see this a lot in coverage of evangelical Christianity, which is focused on conservative white evangelicals and their politics, and, lately, their relationship to Donald Trump. This leaves readers with an impression that evangelicalism is primarily a conservative political movement. The coverage doesn’t account for black and Latino evangelicals. It doesn’t account for progressive evangelicals. It doesn’t account for evangelicalism as a force in people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, what they read, what their church is like on Sunday, what kind of sermons they hear, how faith shapes the way they experience the small moments of daily life.

I’ve seen it with Mormonism as well. In 2018, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Thomas Monson, passed away, and the New York Times ran an obituary. The framing of it was, “Thomas S. Monson, who failed to expand LGBTQ rights in the church and extend the priesthood to women, passes away.” Those are important stories, but if you ask the average member of his religious community, “What do you remember him for? What was his effect on you?” it just isn’t going to be those political issues.

 

KP: We’re talking about a tendency to turn religion into some sort of controversy, as opposed to writing about it as a part of the fabric of people’s lives and belief systems. Another example is climate coverage. Newsrooms tend to segment out climate coverage and have only climate reporters do it, as opposed to showing that climate is integrated into all of our lives and everything that we do. It’s made it very ineffective. There’s something about the way newsrooms are structured now that makes cross-disciplinary thinking and reporting hard. Why do you think that is?

 

AG: One of the best religion stories I read in the last few days was in the sports pages of the New York Times. It was about a little church near where Kobe Bryant’s helicopter went down. It was a profile of the pastor of the church, what happened that day, and what a church means to a grieving community, to the first responders, to the families. The Times didn’t say, “this is a religion story,” but it was a beautiful story.

 

KP: Aysha, do you have any thoughts about how newsrooms could approach these stories in a more holistic way?

 

AK: I think it’s important for reporters to have more Muslim voices in their Rolodex, whether you are covering the world of business, start-ups, immigration, or climate change. Have more Muslim experts and sources. These voices can point you toward the impact that these stories have on marginalized people, and it will naturally change the way we approach storytelling.

 

KP: This is part of a broader need to diversify our source lists and our staff. Does it bother any of you that you’ve become the go-to person for questions on these issues?

 

AG: Not at all. Newsrooms have to have people who understand how faith motivates people. It’s something people build their lives around, how they make a decision about who they marry, where they live, what kind of medical care to get, and what kind of food to buy. Hiring people of faith is important because they know the importance that this plays in people’s lives.

 

MC: During the Romney campaign, I was the only Mormon in the press corps that followed him around the country. My nickname was the Mormon Wikipedia. You know how it is. They’re all racing to meet deadlines and they just need a quick explanation. I was happy to fill that role.

But I sometimes worry that in being the only Mormon voice, I’m not doing the best job in representing the diversity of the Mormon experience. It would be great if there were three or four people, or even just one other person, with a different perspective. I understand that this is not always because newsrooms don’t want more voices of faith. There are systemic biases. A lot of journalists are not advertising their faith when they start their careers. You’re not allowed to ask about people’s religious faith. So it does make it difficult, I think, to increase the diversity.

 

AK: I’m happy to fill in gaps in knowledge, but I look forward to the day when I share the responsibility with many more. I look forward to the day where there are a lot more black Muslim journalists, when we have Shia reporters, when there are more reporters in newsrooms who speak Arabic, who have contacts in mosques around the country.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.