A refresher course for journalists: What to do when you hear words like 'God,' 'prayer' and 'faith'

Sunday’s front page of The Dallas Morning News featured side-by-side profiles of the two candidates for mayor of the city of 1.4 million people: Eric Johnson and Scott Griggs.

I was particularly interested in the piece on Johnson since the publication where I work, The Christian Chronicle, reports on Churches of Christ, and he is a longtime member of Churches of Christ.

I was curious to see if the Dallas newspaper — which, as we often lament, has no religion writer — would delve into the faith angle.

This profile, after all, was a “window into his soul” kind of profile aimed at giving voters an idea of what makes Johnson tick. The candidate talked about growing up poor in Dallas, and the reporter interviewed and one of his elementary school teachers as well as childhood friends and a former law professor.

See anybody missing from list of interviewees?

How about a minister or Sunday school teacher or fellow churchgoer?

“Well, maybe his faith didn’t come up in the reporting,” someone might protest.

Actually, that’s not true.

The Dallas Morning News itself includes this quote:

Johnson acknowledged he can be tough.

"I am definitely not perfect," he said. "Something that I pray about and have been working on my whole life is being able to be more patient with people when I feel like the answer should be pretty clear or obvious or people are not seeing things, and when people are not forthcoming with me."

OK, is there any part of that statement that might lend itself to an, um, religious question? Like, what does Johnson believe about prayer? (Seems like I’ve been asking that a lot this week.)

Even more ironic — or maybe frustrating is the better word — one of the photos of Johnson in the part of Dallas where he grew up features this caption:

State Rep. and Dallas mayoral candidate Eric Johnson chats with a Bible study group at Dallas West Church of Christ, which he attended while growing up. (Ashley Landis/Staff Photographer)

So it’s not like the Dallas newspaper doesn’t realize that Johnson has a faith background. It’s just that, evidently, the paper doesn’t see that as an important aspect of Johnson’s background and value system to include in the story.

Here at GetReligion, we often refer to the notion of journalists being tone-deaf when it comes to religion. A quote or a fact in a piece obviously tied to faith comes up, and instead of causing them to pause and ask follow-up questions, they just move right on.

The same holy ghosts haunts an otherwise compelling profile of Oklahoma State softball coach Patty Gasso that I read in the The Oklahoman this week. The story is about Grasso balancing her coaching duties with her family life.

Anybody see a potential religion follow-up question here?:

That gave her affirmation to keep coaching, and a few months later, Gasso led the Sooners to their first national championship in program history.

“God had another plan,” Patty said. “We won in 2000, and my salary changed.”

Note to journalists: When a source uses a word like “God,” “prayer” or “faith,” that’s a clue — a big one — that there might be a religion angle to your story.

In the case of Grasso, asks what she means by “God had another plan.” Find out what her religious background. Find out how her faith (presumably) influences her life and her career. But don’t just move on to another topic without giving readers answers to the obvious questions that a statement like “God had another plan” raises.


It’s really not theological rocket science.

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