5Q+1 interview: Ken Chitwood on teaching ‘Religion and the News’ at University of Florida

Godbeat 101.

That’s not the name of the course Ken Chitwood will teach at the University of Florida next semester. But it’s close.

Chitwood is a religion scholar and Ph.D. student, studying Religion in the Americas and Global Islam (with the Center for Global Islamic Studies).

His writings — both academic and popular — cover topics such as religion in the U.S., Islam in the Americas, glocalization, transnationalism and Christian-Muslim relations (and many more).


“I am also fascinated by the intersection of religion and popular culture and write and speak on this topic as both an academic and a journalist covering 'the Godbeat,’” said Chitwood, who characterizes himself on his personal website as a “forward-thinking Lutheran theologian.”

In a 5Q+1 interview with GetReligion, he discussed his plans for the “Religion and the News” course that he’s developing.

Question: Please tell us a little about the course and how it came about.

Answer: This course will explore both the production, and reception, of religion in the news. Through the course and its assignments, students will investigate what it takes to be on “the Godbeat” and what kinds of conversations such a beat creates, (along with) questions and critiques.

Such a class, and conversation, is vitally important in this present moment. It is impossible to think about religion without noticing the news. It is impossible to be a journalist without understanding something about religion. Religion is at the center of multiple headlines and news stories the world over. How do we make sense of these stories? How do we critique the coverage or question the approach of the journalists? How could we play an active part in producing and analyzing such news? 

These questions will help participants cover the importance of religion reporting in an age of simultaneous religious pluralism and illiteracy and discuss news as a primary portal for knowledge about religion. It aims to give students an opportunity to give voice to why they report on religion, from a personal perspective and familiarize students with the multiple representations and expressions of religion, discussing how we can define religion in a pluralistic age.

Students will also get the chance to know what resources, methods and theories are available for religion newswriting and then to write and publish blogs, articles and analysis pieces for public consumption. This is not a passive class with a theoretical end, but an active class with practical and real-time applications and assignments. 

Q: What in your background has prepared you to teach such a course? In other words, what makes you an expert in this subject area?

A: “Expert” is a word I try to avoid and which I do not like to bat around too much. I am one to follow the wisdom of Paul Riceour, who said, “The purpose of thinking is not to gain knowledge, but to learn to consider the world in light of our irremediable ignorance.” I am dedicated to being a lifelong learner and student of all things, whether I am serving as an instructor or not.

With that said, I have been analyzing, commenting on and writing religion news for several years with various outlets as both a freelance journalist and a religion scholar. My work has been featured in Religion News Service, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and many other mainstream and religious publications, in addition to book chapters and refereed journal articles.

Building off these experiences as a freelance journalist, news analyst, active Religion Newswriters Association board member and researcher engaged in the academic study of religion, I feel competent to offer this course in partnership with the University of Florida's Religion department and Journalism School (one of the Top 10 in the U.S.).

Q: What value do you see in students studying "Religion and the News?”

A: It takes all of five seconds on any major news site to see that religion matters. The top stories streaming on the world’s leading news networks testify to how religion continues to capture our imagination, challenge our stereotypes, confirm our fears or confront our own worldviews. Whether it is politics, personal issues or the palpable effects of religious extremism in the public sphere, religion plays a significant role in the world. To ignore this fact is to do so at our peril.

Students will find value in this course as we attempt to appreciate religious diversity and seek to develop objective religious observation and reporting. All the while, we will not deny real religious differences, nuances in coverage and the need to appreciate local stories in dynamic dialectic with global trends. This will help journalists, or analysts, avoid dogmatism and instead promote reports on the mutually shared human quest to understand the transcendent, share it with the people of the world and do so from a perspective of generous curiosity, humble awe and equitable scrutiny.

At the very least, students will learn more about religions, what it means to study and report on religion, about news and how to critique coverage as well as produce news pieces on religion and religious individuals, institutions and incidents.

Q: How would you characterize the overall quality of religion reporting in the mainstream press?

A: I am invariably impressed with the quality, and creative, content that religion newswriters are able to produce on complex topics, obscure stories and the intersection of religion with politics or pop culture. With that said, there are occasionally weak stories, missed opportunities or the need for more nuance or critical insight. However, I tend to see generally first-rate coverage of religion by journalists on the beat.

Nonetheless, I think religion reporting is missing feature stories, which are the pulse of the beat. While religion is very much a part of “hard news” and needs up-to-the-minute reportage, there is also a pertinent need to feature and underwrite in-depth background pieces, explainers, profiles or human-interest stories. Long-form journalism is so rich and so necessary, especially when it comes to religion, which needs nuance and texture.

Q: On a related note, where do you get your religion news?

A: Where do I get my religion news? I am a digitally native millennial through-and-through, and so I tend to get my religion news via various Twitter accounts and podcast subscriptions. I often find myself reading stories from Religion News Service, watching CBS Religion & Culture, HuffPo Religion, local papers in the U.S. and abroad, and general news sources such as BBC News and Al Jazeera.

Q: GetReligion has noted the demise of the Godbeat at some major publications. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of religion news reporting in America?

A: The whole field of journalism is going through a slimming and transformative period, which has been going on for a couple of decades. With that said, the crunch is particularly potent among religion newswriters.

Qualified journalists are losing their jobs, award-winning sections are being cut, and local newspapers are struggling. The shame is that people don’t cry out when religion news gets cut … unless, of course, they happen to be religion newswriters. Yet, just because the beat is undervalued does not mean it is not valuable. We need, as leaders in religion news, to think of creative ways to adapt to rapidly changing realities in the “why, what and how” of reporting in general and create new connections between beats, broaden our global connections and reach within the religion beat and continue to put forward quality coverage for people to read, work with and wrestle with as they seek to understand the world around them — whether it be events in far-flung lands or their new neighbor next door.

To that end, I am cautiously optimistic. Religion reporters are a driven and diverse community with a copious amount of talent and flexibility — it comes with the beat itself.

Also, the Religion Newswriters Association — its members and leaders — of which I am an active part, is an organization fervently dedicated to navigating the challenges that the beat faces. As economist Paul Romer said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Romer contended that “growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable.” The same can be said of religion newswriters.

To “not waste” a crisis, effective leaders must take intentional action and be sure to assess why the crisis is occurring, what resources the community possesses and how to rearrange resources to best continue to develop into the future. I think we are doing that.

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