Journalists or Advocates?

When you write about religion for a religious publication, what exatly is your job? Are you a journalist? A public relations worker? Or something in between? Several practitioners of the craft of religion writing tackle that question in this article from Associated Baptist Press.

Writing about religion can be like wandering into a journalistic minefield. What is the role of the religion writer? Are we hard-nosed journalists? Cheering advocates? Something in between? That's the question addressed in this story,which comes to us courtesy of Associated Baptist Press.

MACON, Ga. (ABP) -- Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's fall from grace in 1987 moved religion reporting from the church page to the front page. Coverage by the Charlotte Observer exposing a multimillion-dollar fraud launched a wave of investigative reports of scandals involving televangelists.

While much faith-related news remains relegated to inside pages once a week, religion reporting has grown more sophisticated in the last 13 years. Journalists that cover religion acknowledge it can be a tricky beat.

Religious views are held deeply, and adherents can take it personally when their faith becomes the focus of controversy. Journalists say they try to be sensitive to readers' feelings but must also use the same professional standards as with any other story.

"We try to follow all the same rules, guidelines, standards that you would follow for covering any kind of story," said David Anderson, editor of Religion News Service. "In some ways covering religion is no different, you just come at the story from a slightly different perspective."

Anderson, a veteran journalist, said in addition to being accurate, religion reporting must be fair to all sides in a story and complete in the coverage.

"Fairness is going beyond the perception that news is just two points of view," Anderson said. "We are learning as we cover ethical issues that they are very complex, and religion is a particularly sensitive issue for people, so a particular kind of sensitivity is required."

David Waters, religion editor for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., said being sensitive doesn't mean avoiding the truth. And finding the truth often means digging deeper than the surface.

"More important than getting the facts is getting the truth," Waters said. "And that is especially true for religion. Look at the Bible. These guys had amazing problems, and the Bible is amazingly truthful. So we should not be afraid of the truth."

Secular publications, with diverse audiences used to varying viewpoints and controversy, find that easier than the religious press. While sharing the responsibility to print the truth, denominational papers have a harder time navigating divisive issues without alienating an internal audience.

In the spring of 1997, the Alabama Baptist-funded University of Mobile found itself practically bankrupt, with a debt exceeding $10 million. That led to the forced resignation of President Michael Magnoli amid charges of fiscal irregularities.

Though problems had been hinted for two years and insiders knew trouble was on the horizon, Alabama Baptists learned of the scandal not in their Baptist newspaper but had to wait for The Mobile Register to break the bad news.

Alabama Baptist Editor Bob Terry makes no apologies for that approach. Working for a publication that is partially funded by the state Baptist convention and governed by a convention-elected board of directors, Terry understands the dilemma of reporting the news without tearing down the organization.

Given the political mood in Alabama Baptist life at the time, Terry feared investigative coverage of Mobile would make the paper appear to be taking sides between factions. Terry said it wasn't his paper's job to break the story but to cover it accurately and honestly once it went public.

"I don't have to write the lead that is hard-hitting and award-winning if it will jeopardize our opportunity to continue our ministry," Terry said. "I don't have to hit people over the head with a baseball bat just because I can. I have to handle information with respect for the relationship, the cooperative nature of Baptists and the Bible's teaching of handling situations with love."

Trennis Henderson, editor of the Western Recorder, the state Baptist newspaper based in Louisville, Ky., always reminds people that as a Christian journalist, both words in the title are important. "As a journalist, I must be accurate, balanced and objective," he said. "As a Christian, I am also seeking to temper that with sensitivity and compassion."

But others warn that emphasizing sensitivity and compassion can invite trouble where journalistic integrity is concerned. Jeanean Merkel, president of the Religion Communicators Council, a professional organization with members from across the religious spectrum, says religious publications must uphold the industry's standards because readers will detect and reject shoddy journalism.

"Most audiences are sophisticated media consumers, so to succeed the newspapers and magazines need to follow journalistic principles in order to be credible," Merkel said. As director of communications for the national leadership conferences for Catholic religious orders, Merkel has witnessed the increasing professionalism of Catholic news.

"The days of a diocese newspaper being the voice of the bishop are gone because people don't want that," Merkel said. "The audience is demanding higher standards."

But Marv Knox, editor of the Baptist Standard in Texas, says too many readers view truthful information not as good journalism but as an attempt to stir up controversy. "We have a commitment to trust people with information, even if it is unpleasant," he said.

"People say they want a publication to be fair, but what they want is to have an advocate," Knox added. "The standard for fair is, 'Is it told my way?'"

Greg Warner, executive editor of Associated Baptist Press, says the best religious reporting should include the best general reporting standards without losing sight of a higher calling to support faith. Trying to skirt controversy on doctrinal issues or sensitive topics, Warner says, ignores a Christian responsibility to accuracy in reporting.

Warner says the power struggles in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s ultimately made Baptist reporters and editors better journalists. But it also created a large constituency unhappy with news critical of the denomination and its leaders.

"The pendulum swing is going back to weaker Baptist journalism to the point that some define Christian journalism as subjective, which I totally disagree with," Warner said. "There are fewer true, objective Baptist reporters."

Knox notices a similar trend and is fearful of the future. Pressure from state-convention executives or trustees to force Baptist editors to promote only certain positions threatens the journalistic integrity of Baptist journalism generally, Knox contends. And that, he says, ultimately hurts all Baptists.

"Every sphere in Baptist life functions democratically, trusting people to make their own decisions," Knox said. "If Baptists are lied to, they may be happier in the short run, but in the long run they will not be informed."

Observers cite recent actions by Baptist Press as evidence of what can happen when promotion becomes a priority. Critics say the news service abandoned basic journalistic principles in issuing stories aimed at swaying public opinion against the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Will Hall, the SBC Executive Committee's new vice president for convention news, declined to be interviewed for this article about the role of Baptist Press. When asked by Baptist editors last winter what qualifications would be sought in a new leader for Baptist Press, SBC Chief Executive Officer Morris Chapman responded that his first priority was finding "someone who is loyal to me and the conservative cause."

As the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press has long been the primary supplier of news to state Baptist papers. Now many of those editors are expressing a low level of trust in Baptist Press as a source of reliable and balanced news. At least three state papers have recently run retractions of BP stories.

Though Baptist Press realizes its trust from some Baptist editors is dropping and that secular religion reporters often question its news judgment, the news service no longer needs either. With the advent of Internet technology, Baptist Press can still get information to pastors and other church leaders with or without state papers.

While increasing numbers are using the Internet as a primary means of information, experts warn that there are dangers. With no trained eyes to safeguard that news meets basic journalistic standards before reaching readers, advocacy journalism is finding a large audience through the Internet and other technology.

Most journalists, however, say they don't fear such an approach. They believe accurate, fair and truthful information will continue to be respected and requested by the majority.

Anderson is encouraged by the future. As a religion reporter since 1967, he has seen the evolution of religion coverage in the religious and secular publications, and he anticipates more.

"In the '70s and '80s, a lot of people did 'religion' journalism as a way to do 'religious' journalism, trying to propagate the gospel," Anderson said. "But now there are more and more bright people interested in religion journalism as a serious career."

Waters, too, sees potential for better religion reporting. Taking the lead from the religious press, he hopes religion coverage becomes more mainstream throughout the newspaper, revealing its importance in all aspects of life -- politics, business, sports.

"I hope we keep pushing the envelope,' Waters said, "Pushing religion out of its own section and into every section of the paper to show people that faith matters."

Johnny Pierce contributed to this story