Why the religion beat poses unique challenges for some reporters

As countless others before her have done for centuries, Michelle Boorstein recently sought rabbinic advice on a difficult decision she faced. Boorstein, who has been the religion reporter at The Washington Post since 2006, had decided she was going to report on Pope Francis’s historic visit to Washington, rather than reporting to synagogue for services on Yom Kippur, the culmination of the Jewish High Holidays and one of the year’s holiest days. But she wanted guidance on how she could observe the holiday, at least in spirit.*

“I had two reactions at the same time. One was: I’m the religion reporter here, and this is a major, major news event. There’s no question I’m covering this,” Boorstein said. “At the same time, I’ve never worked on Yom Kippur in my life, and it’s very disorienting to be working on Yom Kippur and during Kol Nidre,” the day’s inaugural prayer.

Conflicts that require being in two places at once aren’t new to journalism; breaking news is sure to collide with celebrations, tragedies, doctor’s appointments, and a variety of other forces that wrestle their way onto journalists’ schedules. But a unique challenge facing many religion reporters like Boorstein involves the need to be in one place as a person of faith, and another as a reporter.

There’s a well-established tradition of not participating in sports on the Jewish High Holidays. Oct. 6 will mark the 50th anniversary of Sandy Koufax’s decision not to pitch a 1965 World Series game on Yom Kippur; Hank Greenberg, after playing on Rosh Hashanah in 1934, spent Yom Kippur at services rather than on the field. But Boorstein considered that her job might be a gray area. So she asked rabbis and others whose knowledge of Jewish tradition she trusted whether covering a papal visit, which was sure to touch on themes that are also central to Yom Kippur, could be viewed as in-line with the High Holiday.

“Part of me thinks: OK. These two themes are very similar. We are talking about mercy, forgiveness. It’s reasonable. I could observe this holiday in important ways while covering this story,” she said. “Then I’ve also thought, you’re just rationalizing. This is your job; it’s nothing more. The pope wouldn’t approve of it.” Asking Jewish experts, including rabbis, about an appropriate way to cover the papal visit, Boorstein says, made her feel like “the anti-Sandy Koufax.”

“The thing that supersedes the rules is to preserve life and to protect life. And I think that giving people information is … a contribution to that.”

Among those Boorstein consulted, some stressed the importance of the larger holiday period of reflection and atonement over the 24-hour period of Yom Kippur, while others were adamant that it was unacceptable, Jewishly, to work on the holiday. The latter, she says, were willing to concede that if she did work, she should focus on the good she could do through her reporting.  She tried to identify synagogue services near the papal visit sites she was covering that she could pop into, and she initially planned to look over Yom Kippur readings and to meditate on the significance of the day during the hours she was required to spend at sites, for security reasons, before the pope arrived. But when the day came, she discovered that reporting required all of her time and attention.

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Manya Brachear Pashman, the Chicago Tribune’s religion reporter since 2003 and president of the Religion Newswriters Association, decided not to work this Yom Kippur. As a “not that observant” Jew, she has gone in the past to High Holiday services at synagogues that she was covering, but she said, “If something happens on Yom Kippur, then I just don’t go to synagogue.”

But when Pashman and her husband had a child last year, they decided to join a synagogue in Chicago and attend family-friendly services. On Sept. 14, Rosh Hashanah, Chicago’s archbishop, Blase Cupich, called a press conference, and Pashman thought there was a very good chance he would make big news. “Suddenly I was faced with the very dilemma that I had never really been faced with before,” she said.

Pashman and her husband decided that Yom Kippur was more important to them than Rosh Hashanah, so she would cover the archbishop’s announcement and then take the 10 Days of Awe—the span between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—for reflection. She planned to take the day off work to attend services on Yom Kippur, she said in a pre-Yom Kippur interview.

“I’m not covering [the papal visit] on the ground. I’m not covering it from a distance either, because that is my day off. I am putting my foot down and saying that is the day that I set aside for my family for my religious tradition. I kind of made a trade,” she said. “Frankly the archbishop didn’t really make big news that day. Of course I was kicking myself at the end of the day for doing that. You live and you learn.” (As it turns out, she fell sick on Yom Kippur, so she didn’t end up in synagogue.)

At Religion News Service, a nonprofit, non-sectarian wire service with offices in Washington and Columbia, Mo., there is no procedure for coverage on religious holidays, but the staff is small enough that everyone knows which days colleagues need to take off for religious reasons, according to Yonat Shimron, interim editor-in-chief.

“We anticipated that our Jewish staff would not be available to cover [the pope’s] arrival,” which took place on the eve Yom Kippur, as well as the events of the Yom Kippur day, Shimron said. Jewish staff would then relieve non-Jewish colleagues after Yom Kippur ended.

“On Christmas, we often have the Jewish staff volunteer and fill in for Christians who are taking off for Christmas Eve and for Christmas. We’re able to work around it,” she said. “It’s not always easy, but you plan for it.”

Shimron, who was the religion reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh for 15 years before joining RNS in 2011, chose to take Yom Kippur off this year, after working on Rosh Hashanah. “I just felt that there was too much work,” she said. “I would like to take [Rosh Hashanah] off next year, but I realize that sometimes life gets in the way. I’m trying to be flexible.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman, senior national correspondent at Religion News Service who previously spent 23 years at USA Today, where she created the paper’s religion and ethics beat, was never asked to give up a religious holiday in her time at USA Today or in the 17 years she spent at the Miami Herald.

“It was the tradition in any newsroom I’ve been in, including ours, that the Jews work the Christian holidays, and Christians fill in for the Jews,” she said. “There was always that kind of handoff, and it was never an issue.”

She rationalized working the papal visit this year “Jewishly,” she said, as she would coverage of 9/11 or an attack on the president. “The thing that supersedes the rules is to preserve life and to protect life. And I think that giving people information is … a contribution to that.” She also elected not to work during Kol Nidre, which is the most important part of Yom Kippur observance to her.

The coincidence of Yom Kippur with the pope’s visit offers a dramatic example of a conundrum that often confronts religion writers in their day-to-day dealings with sources: How much of their own spiritual practice or beliefs should they share with the people they cover?

Unlike some of her colleagues, Grossman doesn’t like to talk about her religious tradition publicly. “I’m a very old fashioned girl about this. I think that when you are a reporter, you actually are not the story,” she said. “In a straight news story, I want to get out of the way.”

When sources she is interviewing try to turn the tables and ask her about her own faith, Grossman changes the subject immediately. “The only people who’ve ever asked me about my ‘walk with God’—it’s always phrased that way—are evangelicals,” she said. “They are taking seriously the Great Commission, and they would like to include me in that. Whatever their positive motive is, if I answer them, I’m not talking about their story anymore.”

Shimron, also of RNS, has been asked by sources about her faith “quite a bit,” and she thinks it’s up to individual reporters to decide what, if anything, they want to share.

“While some reporters refused to answer in any way, I felt that because I was asking such intimate questions of my sources, that I owed them some kind of answer as to my religious preferences,” she said. “I didn’t want to start a discussion about it, and I certainly didn’t want to be proselytized. I would typically say that I was Jewish and try to move on from there. Not make a big point of it; just point it out and move on.”

The Post’s Boorstein also doesn’t have a problem sharing her own faith with her sources—and like Grossman, she only gets the question from Christians. “People want to know: Are you part of my tribe or no?” she said. “If people ask me, I take advantage of the opportunity to show them that I care about my faith. That I think about it, that I practice it.”

In Chicago, Pashman handles questions about her faith on a case-by-case basis. “If I’m going to ask deeply personal questions of sources then it seems almost hypocritical to turn around and remain mum when they ask me the same questions,” she said. But she has found there can be a fine line between building relationships of trust with sources and revealing things that lead her sources to make assumptions about her.

“If I get a sense that a source is going to clam up if I reveal my religious background, then I’ll hold off and not do it right away,” she said. And if, say, a Catholic source—of which there are many in Chicago—asks her if she is Catholic, it’s often to make assumptions about how well she understands the liturgy. “I say, ‘I’m not Catholic. I understand it, but why don’t you assume that I don’t [know the liturgy]?’ ” she said.

But when sources ask her how she feels about something on her beat, she clams up. “I have to say, ‘I cannot share how I feel about it.’ Or I often say, ‘I’m a journalist. I find it fascinating. And I find all 11 arguments, both pro and con, fascinating,’” she said.

Ultimately, Pashman feels that religion reporting serves a “greater purpose in explaining these very important concepts to people and exploring religious beliefs and [their] impact on the greater good,” she said. “I don’t have to be sitting in synagogue or fasting. I’m honoring God by doing this job. I’ve definitely made that call before.”

*This paragraph has been corrected to reflect that Boorstein had already made up her mind to work on Yom Kippur, and was not trying to decide between covering the pope and going to synagogue.

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Menachem Wecker is a freelance journalist covering culture and the arts, religion, and education for The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, Deseret News, National Catholic Reporter, and Jewish Daily Forward, among others. He lives in Washington, DC.