Arcus Foundation

Religion News Service -- irreplaceable and rocked by turmoil -- faces key journalistic issues

Religion News Service -- irreplaceable and rocked by turmoil -- faces key journalistic issues

The specialized Religion News Service is irreplaceable, not only for its media subscribers but religious leaders and anyone interested in this complex field.

Now it has suddenly been rocked by turmoil as depicted by GetReligion here and here and then here. To grapple with the state of things, let's start with some history.  

America owes a debt to two Jewish journalists and this media innovation they built. Founder Louis Minsky ran “Religious News Service” (later renamed) from 1934 until his death in 1957. Then his longtime assistant, the inimitable Lillian Block (well remembered by The Religion Guy), took charge until she retired in 1979.

Through those 45 years, the agency was subsidized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, established to counter prejudice when Catholic Al Smith became a presidential prospect. But RNS was strictly independent, not an NCCJ propaganda mill. It fused journalistic and democratic ideals, believing that reliable, knowledgeable and non-sectarian religious information enhances interfaith understanding. That remains true, and vital, in 2018.

With strong editors and NCCJ’s hands-off policy, day by day, year by year, RNS chronicled religious affairs with objectivity, accuracy, respect and fairness -- values then shared across the news industry.

The agency thereby gained the trust of “secular” media and, harder to achieve, from a wide range of religious outlets.

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Concerning GetReligion and our history of openly biased commentary on news

Concerning GetReligion and our history of openly biased commentary on news

Anyone who has ever taken the time to read the first essay published at this blog more than 11 years ago -- "What we do, why we do it" -- or who knows how to use a mouse and a search engine well enough to reach Wikipedia knows that one of my closest friends in journalism is a writer whose byline, back when she was a nationally known religion-beat professional, was Roberta Green.

Roberta and I were on the beat during the same era, primarily when I was at The Rocky Mountain News and she was at The Orange County Register. Then, in the pre-Internet era, she vanished from the beat when she married someone she met in a church Bible study. Our paths crossed again a few years later, at a Columbia University conference on religion-news issues, linked to the famous Freedom Forum study called "Bridging The Gap (.pdf here)."

As it turned out, Roberta had married a philanthropist named Howard Ahmanson, who at times has been a controversial figure in Southern California cultural and political life. At this point, I will simply say that if you want to know more about his evolving views on a host of subjects, you should check out his blog -- "Blue Kennel." For those who know political symbolism, it's logical to note that blue kennels might house blue dogs, a label Ahmanson embraced a few years ago when he left the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat.

For the past two decades, Roberta and I (and a host of other journalists and academics) have been involved in many journalism-education projects working with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Global Media Project, Poynter.org, Oxford University Press and now The McCandlish Phillips Journalism Center, a project at The King's College in New York City that honors the legacy of the great New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips. My work with GetReligion.org has been part of all of this, for 11 years.

Like I said, these connections were put into print the day this blog opened. Still, I was not surprised when the GetReligion reader named "Jay," or whoever resides at the lambda98 address at Hotmail, had this response to my recent post about GetReligion, Religion News Service and debates about "church" and "state" conflicts in newsrooms.

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Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

For weeks, I have been hearing from readers asking me when GetReligion was going to address the Catholic News Agency report about the $120,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, which owns Religion News Service.

In one article, CNA noted that the grant listing said that its purpose was to "recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches." When announcing the grant, Arcus officials said this grant would help foster a "culture of LGBT understanding through the media” by funding news reports and blogging posts “about religion and LGBT peoples of color.”

RNS Editor Kevin Eckstrom defended his wire service's editorial independence, stressing that this public relations represented "Arcus’ description of their funding, not ours.” It is also crucial to note that the funding connections between RNS and the Religion Newswriters Foundation are complex, to the degree that CNA needed to correct some fine details. Please read that whole report carefully.

In that story, Eckstrom also noted that GetReligion frequently criticizes RNS because its work does not meet our blog's "standard of theological orthodoxy.”

I did not respond, although there is much to be said on these matters. First of all, please note that GetReligion frequently praises the work of RNS and we certainly recognize its crucial role as the only mainstream news operation dedicated to covering the religion beat. Second, let me acknowledge that -- over the past decade -- RNS frequently took interns from the Washington Journalism Center (which is now being rebooted in New York City). Eckstrom and his team, frankly, did a fantastic and gracious job working with my program's students and I will always be grateful for that.

So what can I say about the "theological" issues involved in this discussion? Let's start with some background on journalism "theology."

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San Francisco Chronicle needed more info on nuns who walked out on pro-gay leafletting

San Francisco Chronicle needed more info on nuns who walked out on pro-gay leafletting

The theological tug-of-war between the Archdiocese of San Francisco and gay advocates shows no sign of ending soon, which means there will continue to be news coverage to dig into, naturally.

The latest soldiers in this battle are a group of nuns who staged a walkout when students passed out gay-rights materials at their school. But the nuns engaged in this battle are not old fogeys. They’re savvy 20- and 30-somethings who know what to do with an iPhone and who understand the cultural wars that are unfolding on their turf. Did this crucial information make it into the story?

Listen to how the San Francisco Chronicle described what happened a week ago:

The divisions within the Bay Area’s Catholic community over gay rights hit Marin Catholic High School full force the other day, when a group of nuns walked out of their classes to protest the sponsors of a program intended to protect gay and lesbian teens from bullying.
The five members of the Dominican Sisters of Mary order exited their classrooms Friday as students began handing out flyers at the Kentfield school promoting a nationwide Day of Silence.
Their walkout came one day after 100 prominent local Catholics attracted national attention by taking out a full-page ad in The Chronicle calling on the pope to oust Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, in part for trying to get teachers at Catholic schools to sign off on a morality clause that characterizes homosexual relations as “gravely evil.”

Let's keep reading, because it takes a while to get to these nuns.

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You're familiar with the Godbeat, but what about the Jesus Beat? It's coming soon to RNS

You're familiar with the Godbeat, but what about the Jesus Beat? It's coming soon to RNS

You're familiar with the Godbeat, but what about the Jesus Beat?

It's coming soon to Religion News Service.

RNS is hiring a national reporter to cover Christians and Christianity.

The full job description:

Religion News Service seeks a National Reporter to cover Christians and Christianity for our award-winning news wire service and online news site. This full-time staff position reports to the Managing Editor and is responsible for filing breaking news, features and analysis. This position includes responsibility for identifying and managing a team of freelance reporters to assist in covering the beat. The position also includes occasional back-up editing to support the Managing Editor. The ideal candidate will have a minimum of five years experience in daily journalism, with a strong preference given to candidates with experience on the religion beat; knowledge of Christianity and a passion for understanding its permutations on a deeper level; knowledge of WordPress; social media savvy; and the ability to represent RNS to the public. This is a remote position.

Your GetReligionistas have a love-hate relationship with RNS.

On the one hand, it's impossible to miss the importance to the Godbeat of a national wire service focused on religion news coverage. RNS' staff includes some of the best, smartest, most experienced Godbeat pros on the planet.

On the other hand, RNS' subtle and sometimes not-too-subtle editorializing on certain topics concerns us. This week for example, RNS' daily Slingshot newsletter linked to a Charlotte Observer story on North Carolina considering religious objection legislation. 

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