The story on today’s front page may get us in trouble with some readers. Like the rule about Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws: It would be safer for newspapers to avoid talking about politics or religion.
But our religion writer, Steve Maynard, pressed to do this story even when some tried to dissuade him.
Maynard’s goal was to tell the story of churches breaking away from their denominations over the issue of ordination of gay men and lesbians from the point of view of parishioners.
The issue has divided church families, sometimes painfully. It took Maynard months to find people willing to be interviewed by the paper. To be sure, this is a personal matter, but Maynard wanted to help the rest of us understand both the parishes that were separating and those that chose to stay. We also found it interesting that the Tacoma area seems to be a hotbed nationally on this issue.
Maynard’s perseverance resulted in a nuanced story that even lists Scripture verses cited by each side to support its position. The TNT is fortunate to have a dedicated religion reporter, especially one with Maynard’s experience and credentials.
Religion writers used to be more of a staple at daily newspapers, but staffing cuts and changing priorities have greatly reduced the number. Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, estimates that 122 daily newspapers in the United States have religion reporters working at least part-time on the beat. That’s down from about 300 in 2001.
Maynard sits on the RNA board of directors and was president from 2009 to 2011. (To learn more about the organization, go to www.rna.org.) His reporting work has changed over the years, but he has covered religion since he first joined the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in 1979.
After Walla Walla, Maynard worked as a religion reporter at the Houston Chronicle. He moved to The News Tribune in July 1987 as religion/higher education reporter and spent a number of years as a full-time religion/ethics/values reporter. He now covers religion part time; he also covers Pierce County government.
Nationally, religion coverage is hard to find in the mainstream media. On Friday, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Project for Excellence in Journalism released their analysis of 46,000 newspaper, TV, radio and online stories from 2011. The report found that religion accounted for 0.7 percent of national news coverage. Of 25 news topics ranked by Pew, religion came in at No. 22.
“Compared with topics such as politics and the economy, religion does not typically receive a lot of attention from the mainstream news media, and 2011 was no exception,” the report said. “When religion did make news, it was often because of accusations about extremism or intolerance. For instance, among the biggest individual stories of 2011 were a controversial congressional hearing about the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism and the fallout after a Florida pastor staged a Quran burning.”
Maynard’s list of religion stories for 2011 looks quite different.
The biggest local religion event of the year was the appearance in May of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Tacoma Dome. Maynard interviewed Tutu and covered the well-attended event. He also covered the annual Pierce County Prayer Breakfast and the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention. He wrote about a local Easter service depicting Jesus’ death and resurrection in 3-D and about the 100th anniversary of St. Joseph’s Slovak Catholic Church in Tacoma. He sought reactions of local Muslims to the death of Osama bin Laden and helped us understand why a Jewish family would protest having an autopsy performed on their loved one who died while snowshoeing on Mount Rainier.
Even with those stories and a dozen others, there were many more religion stories we couldn’t get to. We remain committed to continuing our weekly church calendar listings and to keeping Maynard on the religion beat, albeit part time.
“Religion news writing remains crucial because stories of faith and spirituality touch and shape people’s lives,” Maynard told me. “It’s a beat that intersects with virtually every other subject, including politics, the environment, sports – and crime when religion is used to abuse. In many cases, knowing the religious component is essential for understanding a broader issue.
“It’s a privilege for me to hear people explain how issues of faith affect their lives. Their stories are never boring and always deeply personal. I learn something new with every article I write.”
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434