This past summer, I announced that The Revealer‘s foundation funding had come to an end. But that doesn’t mark its death. Starting this fall — now — The Revealer takes on a greatly-expanded staff of graduate student journalists, who’ll be providing much of the commentary in our “Today,” “Timely,” and “Timeless” blog columns below and occasional features in our sandwich-board spot (here). Many of these students will be working on The Revealer a graduate seminar I’m teaching for New York University’s Department of Journalism, titled “Journalism Faces Faith.” (It’s a pun. A bad pun.)The course is a magazine writing workshop, but the students — many of whom are working journalists already — will proceed on the premise that feature writing requires the ability to examine media critically and tease out the “master narratives” of the news. We’ll also be defining news broadly enough to encompass a much greater range of “cultural production” than what’s within the confines of journalism. You can see an abbreviated version of the syllabus they’ll be working from here.
Although The Revealer‘s media crit mission will continue, its goal now becomes both more pointed and more broad: the development of a school of journalists and documentarians who in turn will develop new methods of “reporting” religion. Some of these students may move on to (or back to) God beat jobs at daily papers; more will incorporate questions about the role of religion into their work on any number of more general subjects. All, I hope, will be not just journalists, but also artists, working toward a literature of fact about faith and its absence.
During the last two years, The Revealer has often pointed out news stories that pigeonhole religion and belief as either innocuous spirituality or dangerous fanaticism. We’ve suggested more nuanced questions we’d like reporters to ask (or to push their editors to allow them to ask). That’s necessary work. But now I’m putting The Revealer‘s money down on “narrative nonfiction,” the journalistic genre I see as possessing the greatest potential for the better coverage of religion The Revealer‘s been dreaming of since its inception: “Sharper thinking. Deeper history. Thicker description. Basic theology. Real storytelling.”
“Putting money down” is, of course, a loaded phrase. The Revealer continues now not as a foundation project, but as the project of a group of talented young journalists working with New York University’s Center for Religion and Media (one of them will be The Revealer‘s former managing editor, Kathryn Joyce, who’ll be returning from a stint at Beliefnet on a part-time basis while she works on a book about women, religion, and politics). Support is also coming from the Knight Chair of Media and Religion at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. Financial support, yes, but more importantly, the other half of The Revealer‘s new, de facto staff will be journalism graduate students enrolled in Diane Winston‘s new course, “Sex, Politics, Hollywood and Science: Reporting about Religion.” Diane’s been a contributor to The Revealer since its inception, and now joins on as the West Coast editor of The Revealer reloaded. Diane has worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. She and I became friends several years ago after I wrote about her first book, Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army, for The Chronicle of Higher Education (I’m teaching Red-Hot this semester in a course on 20th century evangelicals and media). Diane’s also co-editor of Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture. And she brings to The Revealer the scholarly strengths I lack: She holds a Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University, an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University, a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and B.A. from Brandeis University.
Following are Diane’s thoughts on why religion reporting matters and how she’ll be directing her half of the new staff of The Revealer.
Sex, Politics, Hollywood, and Science: Reporting About Religion
By Diane Winston
Since 9/11 you can’t open your car door without butting a budding Islamicist. Likewise, what parent hasn’t wondered whether Barney was co-existent with Adam and Eve? Just how have issues of religion, spirituality and morality crept into — hmm, taken over — our national conversation? And when are reporters going to illuminate (as opposed to muddling, mystifying and obscuring) what’s happened?
As a professor of journalism and religion, I get to think about both the problem and the solution. My course, “Sex, Politics, Hollywood and Science: Reporting about Religion,” provides a basis for critical thinking and intrepid questioning about matters of faith, spirituality and ethics. It’s geared to reporters don’t want to write about religion full-time but who would like the confidence, skills and intellectual background to interrogate individuals and organizations that claim to speak for God.
The class looks at the social, political, and cultural context for religion’s current place in public life. Is America a Christian nation? What does the Bible (or Qu’ran or Vedas) say about gender and sexuality? Why did ‘The Passion of the Christ” become a media phenomena? Historical awareness makes it easier to report on the story of the day. For example, if, as a recent Pew poll reports, “most Americans (64%) say they are open to the idea of teaching creationism along with evolution in the public schools,” a reporter’s first question should be: How did creationists manage this stunning comeback in the century since the Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution?
Learning the facts is a start; equally essential is penetrating the haze of clichés, catch phrases and hackneyed frames that stunts journalism’s explanatory power. What do words like “puritanical,” “fundamentalist,” or “lifestyle liberal” cover up? Rather than repeating them into reality, reporters could explain what they actually mean. Likewise, what if we freed our coverage from the constraints of predetermined narratives? Some stories may follow traditional arcs of malfeasance, healing or redemption; others might reveal something other than what we thought we knew.
If you agree with Jay Rosen’s critique of newsroom religion, then yes, it’s probably time to lose yours (religion, that is.) That’s why asking journalism students to write for The Revealer is a great idea. Even as they topple old idols, they can appreciate the worth of honest reporting, critical thinking, and keeping an eye on things unseen.
“Behold I make all things new,” declares the New Testament. Amen to that.