From a very interesting GetReligion.org interview, conducted by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, with Associated Press reporter Tom Breen:
In your role at the AP, how do you boil down everything into a brief story and still maintain nuance, balance, complexities, etc.?
The AP’s very talented religion editor once described the faith beat as “intimidating,” and I think that’s absolutely right, for precisely this reason. There is no government, economic philosophy or baseball team on the planet with a back story as rich, detailed and complex as, say, Judaism. Or Christianity. Or Islam. Or Hinduism. You get the idea. What we strive to do is work in our “pre-reporting” to identify the telling details, wise sources and most salient facts to make sure that even an 800-word story has enough nuance and balance to meet our standards. When writing about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the wide-ranging debate it prompted, for example, I knew in the earliest stage of the story that I wanted to talk about the Christian theologian Origen in the context of universalism. I hit the books, talked to some sources, and spent maybe half an hour boiling down what I learned into two paragraphs that I could then bounce off editors who are religion pros (to make sure it was accurate) and editors who don’t know Methodism from method acting (to make sure it was right for a general audience). Knowing what’s going to be important in terms of background and detail to augment the main news in the story is a huge help when it comes to “front-loading” our reporting.
Where do you get your news about religion? Have blogs, social media, etc. changed how you read and then cover religion news?
My news about religion comes from a lot of sources: newspapers and broadcasters, the denominational press, tips from sources, friends and acquaintances, press releases, etc. But the most important day-to-day aspect of covering the beat is social media and blogs, something that’s a huge change from when I started in daily journalism 10 years ago. Twitter in particular is a chance to monitor international conversations about faith as they happen, with everyone from Rick Warren to the person in the next pew pitching in. And for reporters looking to go beyond the usual pundits, officials, experts, talking heads, etc. and get deeper on a story, there’s nothing like social networking. On a story about American Catholics’ reaction to the beatification of John Paul II this year, I was able to write a story out of Raleigh with voices from all over the country thanks to finding folks on Facebook and Twitter and contacting them for interviews. Blogs have also changed the way the beat works, moving from commenting on stories or developments to breaking news; the questions about Ergun Caner’s resume being a good example of a story that was broken first by bloggers. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do a good job covering religion today without daily use of those resources.
Most interesting, however, is that Breen returned to the Catholic Church "after educating himself on the Catholic abuse scandals for his journalism job." Asked by another writer about that decision, Breen states:
“The coverage of the scandal was the motivation to learn more about Catholicism, and I really can’t overstate the extent of my ignorance at the time; I mean, I couldn’t even name all the sacraments, let alone explain them. So my desire to get up to speed wasn’t just a desire to learn about the context of the scandals, it was an effort to learn, basically, everything I could, from church history to theology to the formal name for that hat bishops wear. It was through that effort – which lasted for years, and took in everything from lots of reading to hanging around pilgrimage sites and talking to people – that I eventually decided Catholicism was for me.”