Controversial stories

Do editors only want controversial religion stories?

David Gibson has been covering religion full time since 1994, first at the Bergen Record and then at the Star-Ledger in Newark. He was born in Plainfield, N.J., attended Furman University in South Carolina and covered the Vatican for several years in the late 1980s. He now works for Religion News Service.

By David Gibson
The Star-Ledger*

Most editors are somewhat schizoid when it comes to religion coverage. They want Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah stories one day. Then the next day they want the embezzling priest nabbed in a sex scandal.

Why? Because “crime” stories have a built-in immunity to criticism. There is no arguing about whether a pastor has been indicted or not. The grand jury has spoken.

Also, make no mistake: controversy sells. So if there’s a juicy story that will break news and make headlines, the editors will take their lumps. And they should. Controversy is part of the religion beat, just as it is part of politics and everything else in the newsroom. The key here is to get the editor to let you cover controversies that are more complex than mere venality. Those stories will up your street “cred” in the pews, because people will recognize that you are taking their faith seriously, really engaging it.

That brings us to the question of how much time you should spend covering strife within congregations or misuse of finances.

Caveat Number One: If there is a good story, go for it. Pursue it as best you can. But first, remember Caveat Number Two.

Which is: No week will go by without someone calling you, at least once, about an incredible, shocking, horrifying scandal/controversy/cover-up going on in a local congregation.

If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself chasing down nothing but red herrings, and wasting a lot of time. Not that there aren’t occasionally a few legit stories in there. But you’ll quickly find that congregations are like small towns, where the gossip is intense and never-ending. Cliques and factionalism reign, and, depending on which faction you are talking to, the pastor is either a sinner or a saint.

Always, always ask for documentation. If they can produce something, anything, except a ranting letter-to-the-editor, then you can pursue it. Chances are the accusers can’t. And you need internal documentation because you have to realize that congregational records are extremely opaque. Congregations are not public entities, and they don’t have to open their books for most of their operations. And the filings they do submit are generally bare bones. You will run down lots of blind alleys unless you can get good, solid proof from the inside.

In general, I have often found the best approach to controversies is to look for the larger issue it might illuminate. For example, the gay priest in the pulpit, a decision to remove the kneelers, a nasty fight over the Sunday School curriculum.

Take the story from the particular to the general. Universalize it. That reduces the “He said, she said” quality of a story that will send it right inside the local pages. Instead, explain why this is a controversial issue, where the controversy came from, and where it may go, not just for this congregation, but for all congregations.

That is a good rule for any story, on any beat.

It is the Golden Rule for good religion writing.

*This article was written in 2001, at the time David Gibson was writing for the Star-Ledger. Gibson now works for Religion News Service.