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Why we JOURNEY. No. 6

Journeying decenters power from our editors to the reporters and the audience

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Illustration collage by Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Illustration collage by Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Our editorial policy of reporting whatever and whomever we encounter on the street diminishes the power of our editors to dictate what stories he or she deems “Important.” All too typically, our editors are tempted to believe that their editorial judgment on religion is based on a superior news judgment when actually they may have minimal first hand knowledge and care little for the particular religions being reported upon except as a spittoon for gloppy messes of articles. Somehow, an editor, who doesn’t know that Jesus was raised from the dead and not raised to heaven, feels entitled to decide what religious stories, voices and facts should be reported. We need a little humbleness in our editorial rooms.

Anticipating criticism of religious coverage, our editors might defensively appeal to their “fairness” of an evenhanded inclusion of every religion known to man in the coverage for the year. So, one article on Catholics, one of Hindus, one on Muslims, one of Rastafarians, one on Protestants, one on Jews, one religious yoga, and so on. This method is not news judgment about religions in New York City, but the creation of a blur of stories that ignores the actual practices, news events, and innovations of all sorts of religious people in the neighborhoods of our city. The implied assumption is that there is not much interesting news out there about many religions, but because we need to cover all religious people, we should make sure we cover all our bases. Implicitly, the audience is stroked with public relations-friendly feel good articles but not fed anything truly useful about their own religions. The articles are good bulletin board pin-ups next to the new babies, but the articles are not useful for developing deeper discussions and contributions to the democratic good.

Another editorial problem is a tendency of our training toward prioritizing bad news and exposing scandals about religion. This bias follows from the training and rewards that give highest esteem to investigative journalism. There are some good functional reasons for this reward structure. Like another type of reporting--combat journalism, investigative journalism is difficult and legally, and sometimes, personally dangerous. The rewards for great and brave investigative and combat reporting are well-deserved and highly necessary. But that praise doesn’t mean that these types of journalism should be the paradigm for all journalism. We need our combat and investigative journalism, but the swords sometimes need to be sheaved so that everyday religious life can be richly covered. Investigation, snark and culture war are not appropriate paradigms for understanding the spiritual lives of most people at most times.

Reporter at work

Reporter at work?

We should add that our editors are also a curious bunch. If they are surprised with an unexpected stream of religion stories, they will wonder if there may be more great religion stories out there. Their strategy will likely be to follow their curiosity by sending reporters to find out what is going on. Maybe, they will commission a social survey. We believe that it would be optimum if they would send their reporters on their own journeys with the sole injunction, find me some good religion stories at the places you visit. Like Marco Polo, the good reporters will likely come back rich with marvels.

How can news media convince the public that it is producing useful news for people of various faiths when its editors and reporters don’t share those faiths? For some time, the faithful have had many reasons to distrust reporters. We wanted a way to step back the editor a little bit from the role of authority about deciding what is a good religious story. We encouraged our audience--the religious and the non-religious, and reporters to be in dialogue with the faithful on the streets about what might be their most interesting stories. At the beginning the role of our editors is more like a mentor, an adviser of best practices and strategies for developing the stories. Later, our editors try to make the stories the best possible reads.

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Also see:

Why we JOURNEY

Why we JOURNEY. No. 1

Why we JOURNEY. No. 2. Charting the geography of faith sites in New York City.

Why we JOURNEY. No. 3. Getting to know the peoples of New York City.

Why we JOURNEY. No. 4. Spiritual maps of the city.

Why we JOURNEY. No. 5. The best way to do hyperlocal reporting.

 

 

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