Spring 1999, Vol. 2, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Civil Religious Affair

Covering the Bible Belt I: Montgomery Wars:  Religion and Alabama Politics

Covering the Bible Belt II:  A Freethinker's Testimony

God in the Press Box

Excommunication in Rochester

No National Conspiracy

Religion on the Small Screen

Epic Respectability

Covering the Bible Belt III:
Liaisons Religieuses

by Tom Tweed and Yonat Shimron

In the rush to beat deadline, a reporter will often frantically call an academic for a pithy quotation. Sometimes the call builds trust and creates a vital new link in the journalist’s informal information network. But not often. Mostly, the transaction is unsatisfactory to both sides.

In July 1996, shortly after the News & Observer of Raleigh introduced a "Faith" section, Tom Tweed, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Yonat Shimron, the paper’s new religion reporter, sat down to discuss how to improve communication and deepen religion coverage. Tweed found the News & Observer’s coverage of religion simplistic and sporadic. Shimron found scholars unavailable or unwilling to talk. They wondered if the situation might improve if there were a formal relationship between the religious studies department and the newspaper.

Over lunch at a Chapel Hill restaurant they worked out a plan in which Shimron would call Tweed once a week for help getting answers to such diverse questions as "Who decided what books should be included in the Bible?" and "What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim?" They proposed the idea to their superiors. The newspaper needed some professional assistance on a regular basis; the department wanted to be a resource to the community. The chair supported the arrangement by making media liaison an assigned departmental task, and the Faith section’s editor agreed to print a weekly acknowledgment of the department’s role.

On the Beat: Yonat Shimro

As a new religion reporter with little formal education in the subject, I was intrigued with the idea of an ongoing relationship between the News & Observer’s Faith section and the UNC Department of Religious Studies. Here was an opportunity to broaden my knowledge of the beat with a ready group of experts only a phone call away. The department was not affiliated with a denomination and had a strong commitment to neutrality and pluralism. I felt confident our cooperative venture would pose no professional or ethical conflicts. But I doubted my editors would agree to such a novel arrangement.

Fortunately, I was wrong. I had just been asked to write a weekly Q&A column in which readers posed difficult questions: For example, "Did the Roman Catholic Church sell indulgences?" and "Do Jews believe in life after death?" Answering these questions accurately, and in a way all readers could understand, required a good deal of research. I needed the help of scholars and my editors, eager to see the new section succeed, agreed. Knowing I could turn to the department on a weekly basis was a tremendous relief.

From the start, the relationship has worked beautifully. Professors have helped clarify my own observations, provided me with invaluable historical context, and taught me to ask important questions. My reporting is richer and deeper because of our cooperation-on the Q&A column and beyond.

What I didn’t anticipate was how the relationship would challenge my own half-conscious prejudices. Like most reporters, I was committed to treating all religions fairly, but to me that meant the five giants: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Scholars at UNC have pushed me to stretch that repertoire to include fringe groups as well.

This has often gotten me into trouble-with both my editors and my readers. A day after news of the Heaven’s Gate suicides broke, an editor came out of a morning meeting and asked me to write a story outlining all the major cults in North Carolina.

His motives were pure. He felt an obligation to provide readers with a guide to help them stay clear of dangerous groups and better understand their tactics. I had a lot of explaining to do. Fortunately, I had already written about cults in my weekly column and understood from faculty members that thousands of so-called "new religious movements" spring up each year. Most keep a low profile, harm no one, and eventually die out. Targeting one or two groups would be unfair, and besides, it would be impossible to predict which group might turndangerous.

Luckily, I was able to reason my way out of that assignment and ended up writing on another angle of the tragedy.

I had a much harder time with my readers after I wrote a front-page story on the first Messianic Jewish congregation in Raleigh. Yakov Ariel, a UNC professor who was studying Messianic Judaism nationwide, helped confirm that the group was indeed growing. I knew from my own reporting that Messianic Jews were becoming more prominent in evangelical circles, including Promise Keepers and the Southern Baptist Convention. But I never anticipated the outrage from the Jewish community. Although I thought my story was fair and balanced and explored the objections of traditional Jews, many Jews nonetheless felt betrayed that the paper would acknowledge Messianic Judaism so prominently. Some even insinuated there might be anti-Semitic motives behind my story.

The experience taught me a lesson. Neutrality and equal treatment are ideas most people fight for in government and political arenas. They’re not quite so willing to advocate these principles when it comes to religion. Balancing the academic perspective, which treats all religions alike, and those of my readers, who (here in the South) tend to think their religion is superior, is a challenge I face daily.

Ironically, when I write about the middle ground, the bread-and-butter stories about North Carolina Baptist infighting or United Methodists challenging their denomination’s strictures on gays, I rarely turn to faculty members for guidance. UNC religion professors do not include mainline Protestantism among their scholarly interests and with rare exceptions they don’t follow these unfolding dramas. On these more newsy stories, I do better talking to activist ministers and lay people, denominational spokespersons and, from time to time, scholars at other institutions. (The media referral service of the American Academy of Religion has been especially helpful.)

That’s as it should be. Scholars can provide the big picture. They can temper my zeal for trendy stories by showing me historical cycles. They can introduce thoughtful questions that only a trained scholar might ask. My role is to translate their insights into language newspaper readers can understand-and to report the news for myself.

From the Scholar's Desk: Tom Tweed

I first encountered journalists while I taught at the University of Miami in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Because I was the only specialist in U.S. religion within several hundred miles, local print and television media called on me regularly to pontificate about national stories like the fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. I struggled to make sense of local religion news too, including the controversy surrounding Miami’s Temple of Love, a new religious movement led by a man who was charged (and convicted) of ordering apostates murdered.

Of the television journalists who occasionally called, some were highly skilled while others showed little understanding of the issues and expressed little interest in the complexities. The Miami Herald’s coverage of religion also was uneven, and my experience with its reporters was alternately satisfying and frustrating. My regular consultations with the paper’s religion reporter initially went well, even though she knew little about religion. We began to cultivate a working relationship that met our professional needs: She got her quotes, and I got more nuanced coverage. But that reporter took another job less than a year later. Her successor confessed to complete ignorance about religion and I quickly learned that she was not being falsely modest. But she was eager to succeed in her new position and we worked together well. However, just as she was learning the local religion scene, she left the job too. And so the process began anew.

My experience with journalists in Miami shaped my initial encounters with the news media in North Carolina, where I moved in the Fall of 1993. By the time I met Yonat, I had firm convictions about how to improve religion coverage. Above all, it seemed to me that we needed to establish stronger and more enduring bonds between journalists and scholars. And, overall, the formalized collaboration between my department and the News & Observer has worked exceptionally well.

Yonat’s weekly Question and Answer columns are informed and textured. I am most impressed by her willingness to take on controversial topics with subtlety and evenness. No small matter in the Bible Belt! For example, her historically informed columns on the biblical views of slavery and the formation of the biblical canon stand out. In these and other columns she quotes scholars from UNC, Duke, and other institutions around the country to offer the latest scholarship, even when doing so stirs controversy. The newspaper’s reporting of breaking news also is more informed and judicious. Consider Heaven’s Gate. Unlike some papers, the News & Observer did not ignite public anxiety with the shrill cry of "cult." The paper avoided the scare stories, covering the event with more evenhandedness than most of the best journalists in the national media. The relationship has had its minor and predictable challenges. It takes time away from other duties, professional and personal. When we began our collaboration the telephone conversations were almost weekly, and usually long. That has changed, but still Yonat sometimes calls just as I am preparing for class. I usually agree to talk, but then hurry off-always a bit guilty-without reviewing my notes or rereading the assignment.

A second intractable challenge has to do with the principles and ethos of journalism itself. I cannot convert myself to the view that only dramatic conflict and absolute novelty make a story newsworthy. A newsworthy story, it seems, must record an event that provokes a battle between two-always two-groups, or it must document an unprecedented trend that will irrevocably alter human history. OK, that’s hyperbolic, and Yonat seems much less driven by these twin concerns for conflict and novelty than most journalists. Still, the concerns lurk in the background, and sometimes move to the center.

Not long ago, Yonat asked a colleague and me to brainstorm about how to sell her editor on a story about a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the religion department at UNC. The milestone, which marked our department as one of the oldest in North America, and the impressive lineup of speakers, were not enough to make the story newsworthy. We had to trumpet trends that would alter religion in the new millennium.

However, the complaints are minor. Why has the collaboration worked so well? In part, it is because of Yonat’s diligence and curiosity. But the regular contact and enduring relationship have also been important. As I learned in Miami, the more usual pattern is for scholars and journalists to talk only in crisis, when news breaks and deadlines loom. Because Yonat and I chat in more relaxed moments too (over lunch, in seminars, on the phone), real understanding happens. And the encounters change both of us. I begin to see more clearly her professional demands; she understands how I might approach a story.

So when Heaven’s Gate broke, Yonat did not even have to call. She already knew what I thought about the dangers of misrepresenting new religious movements, and she could focus on shaping her paper’s coverage. Such moments are especially satisfying for me because it is generally otherwise. If our collaboration is any indication, enduring relationships, formalized arrangements, and regular contact make a difference.