Editor’s note: The Freedom Forum Institute offers limited assistance to CQS alumni who are working as journalists or teaching journalism full time and are interested in attending journalism-related training programs. Scholarship recipients are required to submit a piece about their training experience for the CQS website.
A beat seen through fresh eyes
by Rhina Guidos
Having spent a considerable amount of my life in a casino town, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of heading to Las Vegas for a conference – one that focused on religion writing and reporting, no less. But I propped up in my chair when the speaker with multiple stripes of color in her hair started talking about the organization she represented: Hookers for Jesus, a Christian nonprofit based in Las Vegas. Its good works include helping women in the sex trade as well as victims and survivors of sex trafficking find a new future.
Founder Annie Lobert sounded like the many CEOs, founders and directors of other religious nonprofits I regularly interview in my job as a reporter for Catholic News Service in Washington, D.C. Though I’ve been in the news business for more than two decades, I never trained, nor expected, to become a religion writer, and feel more at home diving into stories about politics, immigration and crime – staples of my past jobs in newspapering.
A beat apart
I still incorporate those topics into my daily production, but there is something different about being a religion writer. It often involves talking to folks about sensitive and deeply held beliefs that shape the way they vote, what they’re willing to sacrifice to follow those beliefs, and their constant defense of some of the actions they take to put those beliefs into play in the world.
I’ve felt like a general assignment writer in a religion writer’s clothing. I always volunteer when a story related to crime or politics breaks, and I find it harder to tap into that intimate side of sources that I sometimes see longtime religion writers dig into. In September, thanks to the Religion News Association and funds for training from the Chips Quinn Scholars Program, I was able to attend the 2019 Religion News Association conference in Las Vegas, which gathered an eclectic group of scribes from national and international outlets and niche publications focused on a variety of religions, and even folks who practice no religion at all.
Some of those who attended the conference ended up in religion writing much as I had, by accident, trying to find a way to remain in journalism as our news organizations were downsizing. Though it’s a beat that involves writing about high profile topics such as politics, religious voters, and religion’s effect on election outcomes, it’s also a beat that requires learning about religious doctrine and dogma, something that many reporters at mainstream organizations are allergic to.
The journalists and others at the conference, however, were a curious and helpful lot, interested in the differences of thought that exist within the same religious group, offering what they knew about the nuances of how different religious subgroups organize and carry out their faith. They also suggested data to look at and people to talk to who bring a different angle to stories that can sometimes become monotonous after a few years on the job.
We heard from journalist Tom Junod, who profiled Mister Rogers in 1998 in Esquire, developing a relationship with him that led Junod to explore his religious beliefs, if only briefly – an experience referenced in the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” We heard from a parish secretary turned whistleblower who helped a journalist expose internal information about abuse cases. I even wrote a breaking news story on an innovative report unveiled at the conference, which seeks to study sex abuse culture in Catholic seminaries.
The conference opened my imagination, leading me to think that I need to look for the unusual in my beat, such as the Hookers for Jesus organization, which perhaps because of its name, may get a snicker but not a deep look at its activities and good deeds in its community.
One of the most important aspects of the conference was connecting with peers who have followed similar steps. I spoke to a former Dallas Morning News reporter who told me of the joy she had found in freelancing religion stories and of the camaraderie of the group, which helped her as she took a different path than the one she had started on. I saw the excitement of young reporters working at socially progressive news organizations and the different lines of thought they were hoping to highlight in their work.
And there were those like me, trying to learn something new, trying a new path to help me learn and explain for a wide audience some of the complexities to be found on what many call the “God beat.”
Rhina Guidos (1998) is a national reporter and Spanish section editor for Catholic News Service in Washington, D.C.