Eric Frederick, managing editor of newsobserver.com, recently spent a week in Washington, D.C., feeding the homeless and doing yard work for the elderly. For Frederick, a member of First Presbyterian in downtown Raleigh, it was his ninth church mission trip.
When it comes to coverage of religion, many Americans are wary of news organizations. In a Pew survey released this spring, 35 percent of respondents said reporters and the news media were unfriendly to religion.
Of those polled, 38 percent thought journalists were neutral and 19 percent said they were friendly to religion.
At The N&O, we do not advocate one faith or another or any faith at all. Our country was built on religious freedom and that remains a core American value. The Triangle has a large, diverse and vibrant faith community.
My hope is that readers find our coverage respectful of all faiths (and of those who choose not to believe).
A naturally skeptical lot
Frederick said reporting on faith can be a minefield. Some believers want reporting that supports their views and are disappointed by stories that challenge them.
Also, Frederick notes that journalists naturally are like Doubting Thomas. People who gravitate toward journalism prefer the concrete, the thing that can be confirmed, and probably are a little more skeptical than the general public, he said.
E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post, said journalists would have wanted two sources to confirm the virgin birth. Journalists skepticism can strike religious people as wrong and ungodly, Dionne told the Deseret News in Utah. On the other hand, he said, some skepticism is unavoidable and often healthy.
At The N&O, many reader complaints end up at the desk of Metro Editor Thad Ogburn, who oversees local news. He is a member of Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, where occasionally he has encountered some criticism from fellow church members.
Last year, The N&O published a front-page story about atheists purchasing billboards around the Triangle. Ogburn edited the story.
In Sunday school, a church member said it was terrible that The N&O gave the story prominent play. Ogburn said it was news that the atheists had such a public campaign and that his faith wasnt threatened by a few billboards.
Institute focuses on fairness
A 2002 survey found journalists less likely to claim religious affiliation than the general population. I have no way of knowing if that is true at The N&O.
The World Journalism Institute in New York recruits, equips and places journalists who are Christians in mainstream newsrooms. The Christian in journalism aims to be fair, accurate, honest, impartial and humble in chasing the story, the institute says.
We have had several interns at The N&O sponsored by the institute. As with interns sponsored by other journalism groups, The N&O makes all decisions about the interns work.
Paul A. Specht, one of the World Journalism former interns, said the group does not promote the infusion of religion in stories or evangelism in the newsroom. Above all, WJI leaders reminded me to be accurate, fair and unbiased in my reporting, said Specht, who we hired as a full-time reporter.
The group points out that its approach to journalism is not uniquely Christian. Indeed, those journalistic values accuracy, fairness, independence serve all journalists well, regardless of religious belief.