Vol. 2, No. 1
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
God in the Press Box
Excommunication in Rochester
No National Conspiracy
Religion on the Small Screen
the Bible Belt III:
by Tom Tweed and Yonat
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 journalists 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 papers new religion reporter,
sat down to discuss how to improve communication and deepen religion coverage. Tweed found
the News & Observers 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
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 "Whats
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 sections editor
agreed to print a weekly acknowledgment of the departments 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 & Observers
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
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
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 didnt 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 Heavens 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. Theyre 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
denominations 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 dont 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.)
Thats 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 Miamis
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 Heralds coverage of religion also was uneven, and
my experience with its reporters was alternately satisfying and frustrating. My regular
consultations with the papers 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.
Yonats 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
newspapers reporting of breaking news also is more informed and judicious. Consider
Heavens 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
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, thats 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 Yonats 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
So when Heavens 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 papers 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.