Why I’m Glad the Godbeat is Changing

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 14, 2013 — 11 Comments

When I first started blogging about religion and Paganism, I was an active follower of sites like Get Religion, The Revealer, and the many personal blogs of “Godbeat” religion journalism pros. I didn’t so much consider myself one of their number, more an essential link between mainstream religion journalism and my increasingly diverse community. An advocacy journalist hoping to see better reporting about modern Paganism.  Back in 2009, when the existential crisis of traditional media upheaval was in full swing, I even wrote about the exodus of longtime religion journalists and what that meant for us.

“What has become ever-clearer to me is that it may be years before the mainstream media reorganizes and stabilizes enough to start spending resources on religion reporting again. In those years the only religion stories that will be getting regular coverage are those that will involve millions of people or dollars (or votes). Religious leaders will have to be powerful (or scandalous) enough to demand attention from reporters on the “hard” news-beats. This will leave minority faiths with an ever-dwindling access to news that could have a direct effect on their lives. Religion coverage could increasingly become an editorial page instead of an investigation [...] if we can’t report on ourselves, we may find no one else willing or able to.”

GetReligion_bioFast forward to 2013, and niche mainstream journalism, especially religion reporters, are finding it tough as the “news hole” shrinks. As ever, Get Religion, now part of the Patheos empire, sounds a somewhat somber tone.

“It will be interesting to see if the Tennessean, a Gannett paper, fills Smietana’s position. USA Today, Gannett’s flagship paper, lost its longtime religion writer Cathy Grossman earlier this year when she took a buyout. If USA Today has hired a new religion writer, I’d love to know about it. I know that The Associated Press had two full-time national religion writers until a few years ago. As far as I know, Rachel Zoll is the only one left. The Dallas Morning News, which once had an award-winning religion section and three or four full-time religion writers, has no Godbeat pros, as far as I know. And after my last post, Kevin Palau informed GetReligion that The Oregonian’s religion and ethics writer Nancy Haught told him in an email that she had been let go.”

The truth is that disruptions caused by the rise of digital “new” media (which isn’t that new anymore) haven’t really abated. We saw former religion-site king Beliefnet slide into feel-good irrelevance, CNN and HuffPo launch religion sections, the rise of Patheos (which even hosted this site for one year), and the rise of the Washington Post’s opinion-centered On Faith section (which has sort of faded a bit in recent years). Meanwhile, the old Godbeat pros keep moving to greener pastures. The shift has very much been in favor of opinion forums over journalism, because everyone loves a soapbox, and paying professional journalists to cover a beat costs money (while many people are willing to give their opinion for free). Sites like Religion News Service seem increasingly like a newsy oasis in a sea of commentary.

Looking at the state of religion reporting today, my words from 2009 seem somewhat prophetic. Few institutions are interested in pouring more money into religion journalism, and the religion journalism we do get is almost exclusively focused on major scandals, whatever the Pope said this week, and whatever conservative Christians want to argue about. Good incisive coverage of modern Paganism, or of religious minorities in general, has been few and far between. The recent victory of getting Asatru and related terms added to the Religion Stylebook only came about because of a mainstream media blunder regarding reporting on the Thor’s Hammer symbol being approved for veteran’s grave markers and headstones.

“[Religion Newswriters Association President] Ann Rogers. After reading about my interactions with Public Radio international over its poorly researched and disrespectful coverage of Ásatrú (“Æsir Faith,” the modern iteration of Old Germanic religion), Ms. Rodgers asked me to pick ten terms important to Ásatrú and write definitions for the online guide. Before my submissions, the guide contained no entries related to Ásatrú.”

Beyond that? We enter the realm of tabloid sensationalism. Bad coverage of a star’s adherence to an African Traditional Religion,  dirt-digging masquerading as interest in better coverage, and bottom-feeding trolls hoping to get somebody offended. If you look closely, you’ll notice a trend: Paganism, when it hits the national wires, usually does so from editorial writers or tabloids, not from the serious “Godbeat” pros that places like Get Religion lionize. We’re simply not on their radar, despite a number of compelling and important stories involving modern Paganism. For instance, a lot of ink has been spilled lately on the upcoming Supreme Court hearing for Town of Greece v. Galloway, but not a single one has noted the important role modern Pagan faiths have played in shaping invocation policy, or the fact that a Wiccan was one of the non-Christian prayer-givers that Greece put forward to inoculate themselves from lawsuits. We have literally been invisible because the “Godbeat” is too busy parsing the Pope (or scanning the classified ads, I suppose).

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

“These cases, and the “model invocation policy” itself, are haunted by the involvement and activism of modern Pagans. It isn’t just that Greece included a Wiccan sectarian prayer among thousands of Christian prayers. The ADF’s policy blueprint was partially constructed around two 4th Circuit cases involving public prayers and modern Pagans: Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped create the so-called “Wiccan-proof” invocation policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. These two cases helped set the precedents that advocates of sectarian prayer have been navigating through, and their efforts at mob-rule prayer sectarianism will finally be tested by America’s highest court.”

0f5d2972-2c89-4c6e-aaee-9ad8ede31df9I suppose I shouldn’t blame them, resources are tight, and you’ve got to sell papers/draw page-views, but I think the fact that Religion News Service published a story about the “abused goddesses” ad campaign without talking to a single Hindu is telling (note to reporters, I rounded up some responses here for you). The message to religious minorities (intentional or not) is clear: we’re too busy, and too strained, to care about what you’re doing, even if it has larger ramifications outside of your communities. Local media outlets are somewhat better, and you can still find a number of “meet the Pagans” articles every year around Pagan Pride Day season and Halloween, but we’re trapped in a never-ending introduction loop. Always shaking hands, never getting to that serious discussion we wanted to have. So the job of reporting on our interconnected communities will increasingly fall on our own shoulders.

Just as in the early to mid 1990s, we are entering a period of intense mainstream pop-culture interest in the occult, ghost hunting, the paranormal, and above all, Witchcraft. That means eventually the attention will come, but it may not be the kind of attention we might like. We are more diverse than ever before, and the need for Pagan journalism to inform our community, and to in turn influence mainstream narratives, has never been greater. We need to redouble our efforts, and I’ve been happy to see more sites like A Bad Witch’s Blog and Invocatio working to report on their geographical/theological corner of our larger community. This November, at The Wild Hunt’s annual fund drive, I hope to expand what we can do, but we’ll speak on that another time.

Perhaps the Godbeat as we knew it needs to fade away, so a new kind of God(s)beat can emerge. One not so beholding to the all-Christianity, all the time, reporting lens. So In that sense I’m glad the Godbeat is changing, because for us, it truly can’t get any worse.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I share your glum perspective that the Godbeat must die for a Godsbeat to emerge, and your exciting suspicion that we will have to build the latter ourselves.To be fair to GetReligion, Terry Mattingly is always bemoaning the lack of Religious Left media content, including the non-Christian, and while I was a regular there (under a different screen name) I was openly Pagan and never given any crap for it. But the whole getreligionista crew is deliberately chosen for “traditional” (not in our sense) religious views and is itself somewhat captive to Christocentric selection of topics. Again, I must be fair: their coverage of Muslim issues is wider than The Wild Hunt’s because TWH deals with it when there are clear implications for other minority faiths (where Islam is a minority).Your maintenance of TWH and nurture of a Pagan news service make you a key figure in the future of the Godsbeat. Please don’t step in front of any moving trucks.

    • kenofken

      Mattingly is a five-star tool whose work is only concerned with advancing the narrative that conservative Christians can’t get a fair shake in media. He neither initiates nor fosters nor even tolerates any serious discussion which might shed light on the complexities of religion and the dynamics of the news industry. His blog masquerades as a serious, almost academic forum for exploring media-religion interactions, but he’s just shilling for the Christian persecution narrative. Any comments which fail to give an unconditional “hell yeah” to that premise never see the light of day. We stand about as much chance of seeing diverse minority religion reporting under David Barton as under guys like Mattingly.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I share your general dis-ease at Mattingly but don’t thing he goes as far as Barton. Even if it’s a façade, he does welcome Religious Left content and some commentary.Where he and his crew are total hypocrites is when they demand that comments stick to journalism issues when they themselves have sprawled all over the substantive issues in conservative rhetoric.His premise about the media and religion still gives me a heartstring tug in that, both as a Pagan and before that as a Humanist, I’ve seen Cleveland’s metro daily write some critic’s words about my religion and never interview the people being discussed, the First Deadly Sin to the getreligionistas.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Part of reportage is giving people what (you think) they want to hear, isn’t it?

    The majority of people, I am guessing, either do not want to hear about religious news or, more specifically, do not want to hear about Paganism.

    The fight is against Public apathy at least as much as it is about entrenched interests.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I must disagree with one element of your comment: Reportage is about giving people what might interest them, not necessarily what they want to see. The latter is advertising.But our different perspectives may derive from the continents we live on. European papers are much more likely that American to reflect the line of one party, which is akin to reporting what readers want to see. Mattingly frequently props up the American model as preferable but, like me, it’s what he’s used to and, in his case, works in.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        There is a fine line between “what might interest people” and “what people want to see”.

        I tend to get my news from Google News, which I have tailored according to interest. This means that I can remove entertainment and sport. Essentially culling the cult of celebrity from my news feed. Which is how I want it. (That celebrity crap doesn’t interest me.)

      • Michael Dolan

        There used to be a time when reportage was about giving people what they NEEDED to know…

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          But that time is long gone. We are well and truly in the age of the populist press.

          Unsurprising, really. In a hyper-consumerist society, how else can a media outlet viably compete (as a profit making model) unless it appeals to the largest segment of its chosen demographic?

          It says a lot that the UK’s biggest selling daily newspaper contains a half naked woman, trashy ‘horoscopes’ an overly substantial sports section and most of the rest is dedicated to ‘celebrity gossip’. The lowest common denominator has a lot to answer for.

          • TadhgMor

            America hasn’t even made it to half naked woman in newspapers yet. I remember the French magazines we used to get at my university, the stuff the print in an add without thinking would be relegated to the “dirty mags” here.

            Or capitalism is still restrained by Judeo-Christian morality.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            America is still a very young country.

            Constrained capitalism sounds like a good thing. Judeo-Christianity not so much.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Religious news, as news, usually involves people blowing themselves up, either figuratively or literally.