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Panel Discussion Remarks

Given by Adelle M. Banks
Senior Correspondent, Religion News Service
at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion
annual meeting, October 25, 2003

I’d first like to thank Scott Thumma and Kyle Cole for organizing this panel discussion. It’s nice to spend time in the same room and at the same conference with people who I usually only get to speak to on the telephone.

I often have said that part of the reason I ended up being a journalist rather than a novelist or some other kind of creative writer is that I enjoy talking with people and sharing what I learned with the people who read the publications that have employed me as a reporter. So my basic answer to the question of this session, “Are We Public Educators?” is yes. I think journalists like the religion reporters on this panel can help educate readers and viewers but I think sociologists and other academicians like you can aid us in better educating the people who read the newspapers and listen to the broadcast programs across the country.

I have covered the topic of religion full-time for the Syracuse Herald-Journal, The Orlando Sentinel and, since 1995, Religion News Service. RNS, based in Washington, is a wire service with more than 200 clients, including secular newspapers, religious publications, broadcast outlets, and consumer magazines. Other RNS clients include the White House, Billy Graham, and university professors. We are owned by Advance Publications, which includes the Newhouse newspapers across the country in cities such as Syracuse, New Orleans, Newark, N.J., and Portland, Ore. The overall company owns Conde Nast publications as well as the New Yorker and Parade.

RNS is a wire service like the Associated Press, but it focuses specifically on religion, ethics, morality, and spirituality. My beats include evangelical Protestants, predominantly black churches and denominations, the White House, music, church-state issues and chaplains.

RNS has had a busy October - from the pope’s 25th anniversary to the Anglican primates’ meeting in England to a hearing on Capitol Hill about the proper selection of Muslim chaplains.

I wish I could say that my job permits me to talk to people like you every day because I often find interviews with scholars to be extremely helpful. Many stories require a rather quick turnaround – sometimes within hours – and so I’m lucky to get the so-called two sides of a story by my deadline.

However, when I do get to talk to you and your colleagues, the comments and background I obtain in interviews help me write a better and more complete story. There are actually more than two sides to many stories and experts like you can help provide balance and perspectives that journalists often don’t get elsewhere.

Let me give you a few examples from my coverage.

Earlier this month, I attended a rather unusual reunion of veterans who were part of what was known as “Operation Whitecoat” from the 1950s to the 1970s. This project was a unique cooperation between the Army and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members were willing to serve in the military but did not believe they should be involved in combat. Through this operation, more than 2,000 men volunteered to take part in experiments where they breathed in or were injected with biological agents like Q fever or potential vaccines for diseases like the plague and various types of equine encephalitis.

I went to the reunion in Frederick, Md., and interviewed some of the volunteers. Beforehand, I spoke with Army and church officials. But I needed at least one other voice that could speak to the ethics of the situation and who had actually heard of Operation Whitecoat. With the help of Kyle Cole and ReligionSource, I was able to interview Jonathan Moreno, the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia. He gave me the perspective I needed, telling me that these experiments were done in an appropriate manner for the time and that they were probably the only example of such an arrangement with a religious group. He also had talked to some people who were unhappy after the operation, but said they were a distinct minority.

“So many of them are feeling favorable about this project that they come back for reunions,” he said, giving me an ending quote that tied response to the operation to the event I was covering.

Early last year, I completed a project on race relations and congregations in which I strove to find examples of churches that were intentionally trying to be racially integrated. It was a scholar’s statistic, which I placed in the fifth paragraph of my story, that crystallized how Sunday morning worship remains a mostly segregated time of the week. At that time, sociologist Michael Emerson of Rice University estimated that 5.4 percent of U.S. churches are racially integrated, which he defined as having no one group make up more than 80 percent of the congregation.

His quote about this that I used was: ``If you go back historically, the leaders of denominations have been denouncing racism and separation for at least 100 years and the people in the pews have been ignoring those pronouncements for at least 100 years. … There’s a complete disconnect.’’

My story included statistics I gained from various denominational offices and firsthand accounts of worship featuring an interracial baptism and a multicultural choir, but the stats from Emerson made the story, specifically backing up its main point about how unusual such worship experiences remain.

More recently, when the White House announced new rules concerning President Bush’s faith-based initiative, Ira Lupu, a George Washington University Law School professor, interpreted the meaning of the regulations. My interview with him is an example of a scholar who is willing to talk even when all the information isn’t in. In this case, the complete language of the rules had not been published at the time of my interview – and my deadline – but Lupu was still willing to give general comments.

I noted in my story that he was commenting before all the information was out and said he thought a rewritten rule from the Department of Housing and Urban Development was “likely” to prompt legal questions. That rule permits prorated funding of a building that includes some rooms used for secular purposes and perhaps one for a 12-step program.

“The problem is how do you make sure that government money is not being diverted for religious purposes?” he asked.

I point this out as an example of how scholars can help a reporter even when all the T’s haven’t been crossed nor the I’s all dotted. Sometimes just explaining what some of the questions are regarding a controversial matter helps add important analysis to a story.

I have a few suggestions for future cooperation with reporters.

As I’ve said, we have deadlines. I have received return calls from scholars days after my story has been transmitted to our clients. I realize we are all busy and you cannot always drop what you are doing to talk to a reporter. But sometimes, 15 minutes – and if necessary, five minutes – of interviewing can at least give the reporter the sense of whether he or she is heading in the right direction on a story. And there’s no question that such an interview can be mutually beneficial – the reporter gets the perspective of an expert and the scholar, potentially, gets his or her work mentioned in a local, regional or national publication or broadcast.

I would encourage you to return the call of reporters, whether they work for a nationally known media outlet or a local paper or station. In many cases, you know more than the reporter does about the subject, so you may play a key role in helping a journalist report accurately on what is usually a complex topic. And, as public educators, we should want to see responsible reporting on the subjects we know and care about in the Daily Press as well as the New York Times.

You do not always have to wait for a phone call from a journalist, however. Working, perhaps, with the public relations departments of your colleges and universities, you can be proactive in getting your research in the hands of reporters. I got a call the other day from a researcher updating me on recent discussions between Hispanic religious leaders and scholars as well as a new paper on Hispanic ministries. He e-mailed the information to me and I reviewed it. Some of the information he sent me could turn into a story, but it may just be background material for me to hold on to for a later date.

Some may think it is shameless self-promotion to send out a media advisory about “experts” on a subject. Maybe it is. But it’s also a helpful tool for reporters, an up-to-date miniature sourcebook with the go-to people on a timely matter.

Please understand that what’s timely for one reporter may be too late for another.

I got suggestions from publicists about contacts for the pope’s 25th anniversary on the day that Religion News Service was running our stories on that milestone. As a wire service, our so-called “advance” stories went out days before a Sunday newspaper story might have been published or a similar television report might have aired because our clients needed them early to consider whether they wanted to use them. For a reporter putting together something more quickly, a notice a couple of days before the anniversary might have been appreciated.

But communication is key. Once I know someone is an expert on something – from music to church-state relations to the conservative-moderate battles in the Southern Baptist Convention – I keep that information so when something comes up, I know who to call.

I’ve called Scott Thumma for that project on race relations and he told me that nondenominational churches are more successful at having interracial worship. I have phoned sociologist Nancy Ammerman, now at Boston University, when I’m writing about Baptists. I’ve called John Witvliet at Calvin College’s Christian worship institute for his perspective on why “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” is an Easter hymn that crosses denominational, ethnic and racial lines.

But, with all due respect to the experts I’ve already called on, I want to learn about new and different people that I should contact. Reporters need to know who you are and what you know so when the time is right, we can contact you to help us on the topic you know best.

I’d also like to recommend that you be willing to share at least nuggets of your research before your work is published. Long before there is a book to sign, you have knowledge that can be shared and statistical research that can help give a reporter the numbers they need to back up anecdotal information they may have received elsewhere. You may have interviewed focus groups of Promise Keepers or determined the percentage of congregations that use overhead projectors rather than organs. Those insights help us and may give you some publicity for a forthcoming book.

When I speak to experts on particular aspects of religion, I try to end my interviews by asking if they have other areas of expertise that I should know about for future reference. Feel free to mention to reporters as you close the conversation that you’ll be doing research on another topic that might interest them later. It not only helps the reporter have a reason to call you another time, but helps prevent you from being pigeonholed as the expert on one particular area when you have more diverse specialties.

I suspect some of you have had the frustration of spending as much as an hour on the phone with a reporter who then doesn’t quote a single word you said in his or her report. I can tell you that speaking with scholars has prevented me from putting mistakes in my stories even if I don’t give them credit for that in the written text. Often, just bouncing the gist of my story off an expert to know that I’m on the right track is a key part of an interview. If I get a great quote that I can include in the story, all the better.

Although, in a sense, both scholars and journalists can be public educators in the realm of religion, we’re not always on the same team. We each, honestly, have our own goals. A reporter needs the quote from you or verification of a fact to make his or her story more complete. The scholar may want publicity or the chance to get reaction to research.

But when a story appears in print or on the air that has balance and new information, I hope scholars and journalists can be satisfied that together they’ve increased the understanding of the complex area of religion among viewers and readers of the media. We need more of this kind of cooperation and I hope discussions like this one will lead the way for that to happen.




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