By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
When Religion Newswriters Association President Yonat Shimron attended the recent Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, N.C., she said, the blogging was red-hot.
“Prior to the meeting, there were so many heated exchanges on blogs that the denomination-which is the country’s largest Protestant denomination-had to choose someone else as their endorsed candidate for president [of the organization], based on the strength of the bloggers,” she said. “Blogging is a very recent thing. But you have to take note of it.”
Likewise, Jason DeRose, religion reporter for Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ and occasional contributor to NPR News, noted that the blogging was fast and furious at the recent Episcopal conference on the topic of whether or not to apologize for electing and confirming Gene Robinson, the first gay bishop.
Just who is blogging? Some of the bloggers are journalists covering the religion beat. Frank Lockwood, religion reporter at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, started his blog six weeks ago on a road trip to visit churches and a divinity school in Texas. The newspaper’s religion section comes out only once a week, he said, but the blog allows him to write whenever he wants.
He recently blogged on a trip to New Orleans to cover the religious climate at the one-year anniversary of Katrina, and he will be blogging at this week’s RNA conference in Salt Lake City. “By blogging, I have enough for a good column every single week,” he said. “And actually there will be more stories in the newspaper than before I started the blog.”
Some blogs have their roots in academia. The Revealer, which describes itself as a “daily review of religion and the press,” was conceived by Jay Rosen, chair of New York University’s Department of Journalism, and is executed by journalist Jeff Sharlet and staff. One of its services is to provide a list of religion scholars who are experts in topics as diverse as biotechnology and pop culture.
GetReligion.org, which takes its name from CNN political analyst William Schneider’s comment that “The press … just doesn’t get religion,” started in February 2004 as the brainchild of Terry Mattingly. Mr. Mattingly writes a weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service and directs the Washington Journalism Center and the national headquarters of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
The founding editor is another veteran religion reporter, Douglas LeBlanc.
But not all blogs aim for journalistic objectivity. Some of them have a mission or agenda, such as BeliefNet.org, a Scripps Howard site that describes itself as an independent spiritual Web site, not affiliated with any spiritual organization or movement, with an agenda “to help you meet your spiritual needs.” Other bloggers are individuals with strong points of view regarding their denomination, who use blogs as a form of activism.
“It’s hard to tell who is actually writing,” said Mr. DeRose. “A fair amount of time is spent figuring out if this person is legitimate. If they have a pseudonym, you might have to ask 40 people to track them down.” USA Today religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman notes that blogs are of limited value because they are mainly commentary. “Someone has to do the original reporting that they report on,” she said. “Besides, you can read them all day and not get your own work done.”
Kim Lawton, managing editor and correspondent for PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” reads blogs and said that they have played big roles in stories she has worked on. But she still has mixed feelings. “On the one hand, it’s a very democratic way of information gathering and dissemination,” she said. “But there is no filter, no checks and balances. Sometimes it’s just a lot of interpretation, but only from one point of view.”