#FFWgr16, Part 2: “Media work that’s missional”

The perfect glassware for journalists' favorite beverages.

Some more souvenirs from this year’s FFW.

As I mentioned in my last post, journalism was a major topic at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing. In fact, for the first time in all the Festivals I’ve been to, there were so many journalism-related sessions that I couldn’t make it to all of them — and even the ones that weren’t explicitly about journalism still touched upon it. (I appreciated Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post and my fellow Medill grad Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today explaining in their session on how to pitch to online editors how the realities of the digital age shape how they respond to inquiries from writers.)

Religion journalism was a big topic, as it has been at previous Festivals, but the future of the industry as a whole was also discussed. As I reflected on my past journalism jobs and experience in journalism school, I took note of the following:

  • Jaweed Kaleem said coverage of Islam by the U.S. media vastly increased after 9/11. (He was in high school at the time, only 20 minutes from the Pentagon, and wrote for his school newspaper.) “We have to cover bad news, but also be accurate and balanced” and “proportional,” he said. He likes to report positive stories, such as interfaith dialogue and “positive solutions to the world’s problems.” Kaleem noted that “It’s not just Islam that has coverage problems,” and “there should be more people of all kinds in the media,” although they don’t necessarily need to share the faith of the people they report on. In fact, he noted that as a Muslim, he learned a lot about Catholicism by covering it. (I found that to be true for me as well, as a Christian who did stories on Islam and Buddhism in graduate school.) He also wanted journalists to pay attention to diversity among American Muslims regarding race and their level of observance.
  • Patton Dodd and Bob Smietana shared how Facebook and blogs have changed how people consume and create news and also emphasized the need for neutral mainstream coverage of religion (as opposed to publications affiliated with particular religious groups). Dodd called Facebook “our front page,” where audiences see stories selected by algorithms as well as curators. Smietana said Facebook is “a great sharing mechanism,” and he noted that the Internet and blogs make information on religious scandals much more available to journalists and the public now than in previous decades.
  • Maria Ebrahimji said she did not tell her newsroom colleagues about her Muslim faith until after 9/11, and that others also didn’t discuss their own beliefs until she started doing so. Since “religion intersects so many aspects of life,” she wants to “make faith part of the conversation” and believes “people want to talk about their faith.” I’ve found that to be true when I’ve interviewed people of various religious backgrounds. And although I’m younger than Ebrahimji, I usually felt relatively comfortable discussing my own faith with my colleagues and classmates, and many of them were not shy about mentioning theirs as well.
  • It’s no secret that the news business is in dire straits financially and has been for some time. (Who knows how the latest news will play out?) That affects what gets covered, and how. Dodd made a strong case that nonprofits such as ProPublica could be part of the solution by encouraging “media work that’s missional,” protecting not just “the integrity of journalism” but the role of journalists as “curators of the attentional commons, what people give their time and minds to.” He did note that there is sometimes “a challenging exercise to keep independence” with nonprofits, and that “great journalism should be the goal.” He cited sports journalism as one area that could benefit from a nonprofit approach that puts more distance between news outlets and the major college and professional leagues.

Looking ahead to FFW 2018, I hope there is even more fruitful discussion of journalism. No matter what happens in the industry in the next two years, there should be plenty to talk about.