Although only a dozen religion reporters gathered to found the Religion Newswriters Association in 1949, RNA now enjoys record member growth, expanded contests and new ventures.
In the early 1950s, RNA's founders "all were aware of a new attitude in their city rooms and across the country toward religion," according to a 1974 history to RNA written by retired Chicago Tribune reporter and former RNA President Richard Philbrick.
The RNA was dedicated, even from the start to "raising the standards of religion newswriting in the secular world of newspapers, magazines, wire services, and news agencies."
Reports at the time touted the religion beat as "the fastest growing news field" of that era.
Both the Associated Press and United Press created a religion beat position within their vast wire service operations. At the same time, increasingly media-savvy religious groups recognized the value of public relations specialists and several journalism programs across the country created programs in "religious journalism."
But just as is the case today, not all editors in the 1950s recognized the growing need for religion reporting or believed it required a high degree of skill and extensive knowledge.
At some publications, clergy who advertised were promised editorial space or commissioned to write articles about denominational events.
Some editors demanded religion reporters belong to an organized faith to cover the beat.
And typically editors rarely interpreted "religion" to extend beyond the nation's dominant faiths of Christianity and Judaism. Reflecting social attitudes of the time, some papers even segregated the "Church Notices" for black churches from all other religion notices.
To help fight these and other concerns about the beat members chose founding member Frank Stewart as RNA's first president. Stewart was widely respected for his religion reporting at the now-defunct Cleveland Press, where he was named religion editor in 1938 after just serving as a sports and state editor.
As membership grew RNA members decided in 1951 to create a newsletter, which Stewart edited. A year later, the group officially approved a constitution and bylaws. The bylaws banned public relations people as members of RNA unless they were correspondents or stringers for the secular media.
Throughout the 1950s, publications were sending religion reporters to national events and in the process, those following the beat began to develop professional and personal alliances, helping to build RNA membership to 88 by 1957.
The momentum for religion reporting was still evident at RNA's tenth annual meeting. Held in Washington, D.C., it included an academic report about religion editors at daily newspapers. The report said the religion editor's post was steadily gaining importance and prestige, with 50 experienced journalists occupying the position.
This same year RNA authorized Richard Wager, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to campaign against the use of the title "church editor." Editor and Publisher's annual yearbook used the term but changed the notation to "religion editor" after RNA's campaign.
Questions about who was eligible to join RNA had persisted. In 1959, RNA reaffirmed the ban on public relations officials. In addition, the group, still named the Religious Newswriters Association, agreed to exclude occasional contributors and essayists on the topic of religion.
RNA meetings of the 1960s increasingly stressed ethics. Discussions included the issue of objectivity and covering religious groups to which a reporter belonged. Accepting awards from non-newspaper organizations and accepting travel money for covering missions also were debated.
One leader in these ethical queries was Harold Schachern of the Detroit News, who was RNA president from 1964 to 1966.
Among his efforts, Schachern pushed to have the National Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings opened to the press. At the time, reporters received NCCB handouts and newspaper editors expected reporters to create the pretense that information was passed onto newspaper readers from first-hand observation. Thus, reporters had little chance to confirm the accuracy of what they wrote.
Schachern died in 1969, three years before the bishops finally opened their annual November meeting to reporters. But Schachern's campaign was credited with affecting coverage of the Second Vatican Council, although those gatherings still included much secrecy.
A debate that had existed almost since RNA's founding was settled at its 1971 meeting when the Religious Newswriters Association became the Religion Newswriters Association.
Also, during the 1970s, RNA officers increased the practice of speaking out on behalf of religion writers, especially when problems developed in press rooms regarding access to information and key leaders.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, interest in religion reporting was spurred in part by the role of the Christian Right in political campaigns. The Rockefeller Institute held a forum that resulted in a 1983 treatise about the beat that featured several leading RNAers.
Throughout the 1980s, there was a debate about allowing members of the broadcast media to join RNA, which was approved at the end of the decade.
As the 1990s began, RNA officers could be found touting the beat at continuing education seminars and meetings of professional groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Poynter Institute.
With membership in the mid-1990s at about 200, with another 100 associate members, the day-to-day business of keeping information current, publishing a bimonthly newsletter, coordinating a contest and responding to other inquiries was becoming a burden to the all-volunteer, professional board that had coordinated all RNA business since its founding.
Thus, at the 1995 RNA annual gathering, members approved hiring a part-time executive director to help administer the contest, edit the newsletter and respond to membership inquiries.
Since then, membership has continued to grow, with 80 new members joining in 1996-97 alone. And in 1997, total contest entries were at an all-time high of 252, up 18 percent from the year before.
The word "historic" was bandied about this past June when the General Assemblies of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. ("Southern") met simultaneously in Louisville. It was only the second such joint gathering since their Civil War schism. The glamour of the proceedings had been diminished by the lagging timetable in the effort to reunite the two denominations, but nonetheless dozens of reporters were on hand to examine the current state of Presbyterianism.
Besides the joint meeting, there was a large press turnout in part because the reporters were quietly making a bit of history themselves. Characteristically, the press folks spent little time seeking publicity for their own celebration. Louisville was the site of the 25th anniversary convention of the Religion Newswriters Association, which is made up of reporters who specialize in covering religion for the "secular" press. As it happened, the R.N.A. had been born at another General Assembly, that of the then Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in May of 1949. In the late 1940s, a number of religion writers had begun to sense that their "beat" was coming of age, and that they should organize to gain some visibility for their specialty and-in the words of the R.N.A. Constitution-"to advance the professional standards of religion reporting in the secular press." On the side, of course, the reporters wanted to get together to swap anecdotes, story ideas, tips, and contacts. And to have some fun in the process.
In the early years of the association the membership rules were drawn loosely, and a number of church editors and public relations men who were part of the "old boy" network of that era automatically became members. In fact, the trio credited with pushing the idea and summoning the Buffalo meeting included not only Frank Stewart*, who had been the Cleveland Press's religion editor since 1938 and served as the first R.N.A. president, but Henry McCorkle of Presbyterian Life and Erik Modean of the National Lutheran Council.
Modean, however, did not attend that first Buffalo get-together. The other founding members were: George Dugan of The New York Times, Terry Ferrer of Newsweek, Harrison Fry* of the Philadelphia Bulletin, Louis Gale of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Caspar Nannes of the Washington Star, Jo-ann Price of the Milwaukee Journal, Walton Rankin* of the Presbyterian information office, James O. Supple* of the Chicago Sun-Times, Margaret Vance of the Newark News, and Lance Zavitz of the Buffalo Evening News.
The relationship to church employees was a nagging issue during the R.N.A.'s first decade. Finally in 1959 the current membership rule was adopted: active, voting membership was limited to persons " regularly employed in covering religious news for the secular press," with "associate membership" provided for members who had left active general circulation coverage. This eliminated two of the thirteen founders. An exception was made for Modean because of his key role from 1952 to 1968 as editor of the R.N.A. News Letter, which has the smallest and most é1ite readership, and some of the most fascinating content, of North America's "religious" periodicals. Modean's successor as editor is the Rev. Lester Heins, public relations man for the Eger Lutheran Home of Staten Island and formerly of The American Lutheran Church. Heins qualifies for associate membership as the former religion editor of the Toledo Blade. In 1963, the association debated whether to eliminate "press" from the membership rule, but no change was made because then-as now-no radio or TV correspondents specialize in religion news.
The sense of independence from organized religion was reinforced subtly in 1970 when the association changed its name to "Religion Newswriters" from "Religious Newswriters," which implied something about the spiritual state of the membership. The change fit the facts because the members encompass the breathtaking breadth of American faith, from near-atheism to near-fundamentalism. Several years ago Christianity Today provided a detailed poll of the beliefs of the religion reporters in general circulation news. Although a number of Jewish members have joined in recent years, religion reporters are predominantly Christian and, for some reason, predominantly Protestant.
A significant number of the new personalities on the "beat" in recent years are also ordained clergymen or former seminary students. For some news executives, the title of "Reverend" raises problems of conflict of interest, and they refuse to hire clergy for religion coverage. For others, however, the title and training ensure that their religion specialists are well-prepared for their job. Many of the laity in the R.N.A. are also well-read in the field or have done academic study in it. The executives who refuse to hire clergy have a basic misunderstanding of the nature of faith. The laity can be just as firm-or infirm-in religious opinions as the clergy. Strong private opinions have never barred individuals from covering politics or other fields.
Over the years a number of well-known laity in the R.N.A. have served their religious bodies in a variety of functions on their own time. Willmar Thorkelson of the Minneapolis Star, for example, went on leave to assist the World Council of Churches' information office, and Louis Cassels, the United Press International senior editor and religion columnist, served on an Episcopal Church committee that decided how to deal with "heresy" charges within that pluralistic denomination. A striking example of the purist approach of some executives occurred recently at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Its religion editor, Ed Briggs, was informed that if he wished to continue on that assignment he would have to quit the vestry of his local Episcopal congregation.
The decisions on religious activity are up to individuals, not the R.N.A., but the organization aired the problem at its 1967 convention, with no meeting of minds. Richard Philbrick of the Chicago Tribune said he had gained insight into church operations by serving on the national public relations board of the United Church of Christ. But he thought a person should serve only for limited times on fairly large boards, and abstain from voting on decisions involving press coverage. Philbrick added that reporters should help out because "most church officials understand news no better than small children." But George Cornell of the Associated Press said that if the church needs help it can turn to reporters other than the religion specialists. Weldon Wallace of the Baltimore Sun, among others, argued against any involvements, locally or nationally. And David Meade of the Chicago Daily News said that reporters best serve the church by reporting on it objectively, from the outside.
Another R.N.A. debate over membership illustrated the low estate that religion reportage had to overcome in the years when the pioneers were establishing the association. As late as 1961, the R.N.A. decided it would have to prohibit membership to religion editors whose newspapers forced them to sell church advertising. That case involved not some backwater weekly but one of the big-city dailies, and the R.N.A.'s decision helped free the editor from that demeaning conflict of interest.
The first major project launched by the R.N.A. is still its most important one, the annual contests. The original award for reporting excellence in the field was named in honor of Chicago's Jim Supple, a Catholic layman who was well-respected in both journalistic and religious circles. Shortly after he had helped start the association, he was killed in the crash of a military plane en route to Korea, where he was on assignment as a special war correspondent. Two later awards have been established by the James O. Supple Fund. One is named for the late Harold Schachern of the Detroit News, also a Catholic, and honors publications for excellence in religion sections. The other, for excellence among reporters on smaller dailies and weeklies, was named at the 25th anniversary convention in honor of U.P.I.'s Louis Cassels, who had died earlier in the year.
Looking at some of the past cozy relationships between churchmen and reporters, those swept up in current disputes between church officialdom and the press might suppose that some sort of era-of good-feeling has dissolved. Just after the Louisville convention of the R.N.A., the report by outgoing United Presbyterian Moderator Clinton Marsh blamed some of the church's woes on distortions by elements of the general circulation news media, which he linked with extremists like Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire.
The fervor of attacks may have increased, but the attacks themselves are nothing new. One of the events that escalated North American religion coverage was the second assembly of the World Council of Churches, held in Evanston, Illinois, in 1954. In the R.N.A. history published for the anniversary, Richard Philbrick recalls that reporters filed 1,250,000 words on the assembly through Western Union alone and made the W.C.C. a widely-known organization for the first time. But President Henry Van Dusen of Union Theological Seminary in New York complained that the reporters underplayed the "real business" of the meeting because of the "American press' apparently incurable preoccupation, not with what is important or relevant, but with what is claimed to be 'newsworthy,' and its insatiable partiality for the sensational."
Even stronger criticism surfaced three years later when the R.N.A. met in Cleveland in conjunction with the United Church of Christ merger. A local auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Church, John J. Krol, spoke to the press meeting and accused reporters of often missing important aspects of religious events, pretending to have knowledge that they lacked, and of occasional sins of bias and sloppiness. Ironically enough, it was Krol, as cardinal-archbishop of Philadelphia and president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who presided over the first meeting of the hierarchy open to the press. The April, 1972, session in Atlanta was the first time that the Catholic bishops of any nation had met under a policy admitting public observers. The R.N.A. had pressed for this wholesome development, as did Catholic editors and the astute members of the bishops' own communications staff.
The Catholic Church figured in the R.N.A.'s most important internal struggle and most controversial project of recent years. In October of 1971, Janice Law was dismissed as religion editor of the Houston Chronicle because of alleged insubordination toward city editor Zarko Franks while she was following his orders to write a correction on a story about how many men had left the Catholic priesthood locally. It turned out that the pressure for the retraction, and the information that Franks provided for it, came from diocesan chancellor (now bishop) Bernard Ganter. At its previous convention the R.N.A. had approved a grievance procedure, never suspecting that it would be needed so quickly. Mrs. Law requested an investigation, and R.N.A. President Hiley Ward of the Detroit Free Press named a panel of two Houston clergymen and a Dallas reporter to look into the dispute. When the panel's report proved inconclusive and a member of the panel appealed to the R.N.A. for a more thorough investigation, a special committee was set up, headed by Willmar Thorkelson. Many members thought Ward had erred in putting religious figures on the committee. The Thorkelson committee designated a former Texas journalist, Stanford University communications professor William Rivers, to fly to Houston to prepare a definitive report. The Rivers report held that Catholic pressure was the "determining factor" in the firing. He also discovered that the "corrections" pressed by Monsignor Ganter and run by the city editor were themselves incorrect. In addition, he said that Franks contended that Mrs. Law had been fired for inadequate writing ability, an opinion not shared by Franks' own boss (who had backed him up in the firing) or by almost anyone else familiar with Mrs. Law's award-winning work.
After the Rivers report became part of the public record, there was some unfinished business in the inner sanctum of the R.N.A. itself. Some members of the association were convinced that the association had no business meddling in such disputes. The leader of these traditionalists was Bob Bell of the Nashville Banner. Bell was also the R.N.A. treasurer and he refused to sign checks to pay Rivers' expenses, which forced Thorkelson to raise hundreds of dollars independently from R.N.A. members within a matter of days. At the subsequent R.N.A. convention the members gave a strong endorsement to the new style of professional activism, and made the grievance procedure a permanent part of the R.N.A. program.
But along with conflict of interest and conflict with churchmen, conflict with editors is often part of the religion beat. A number of reporters are currently struggling to sustain the legitimacy of religion coverage, and a few big newspapers have virtually eliminated religion as a regular beat for specialists. Others have noticeably expanded their coverage, which indicates that the whims of news executives may be the cause. The fight for status that was won by the R.N.A. pioneers was accompanied by the so-called religion boom of the 1950s. By 1957 the R.N.A. had 88 members, not far below the 1974 figure. With Vatican Council II, the ecumenical excitements, and the social crusades of the 1960s, even the most isolated editors realized that religion was news. Today the nature of religious news is in transition. There are more downbeat pieces on the church establishment, more offbeat developments and new faiths. Old city-desk definitions of religious news no longer apply. Religion specialists themselves often admit confusion about where things are heading. Such a period, of course, requires more and better coverage of religion, not less.
As the R.N.A. enters its second quarter-century, religious leaders can look for at least three trends in general circulation media coverage of their field:
1. Independence. Following the trend set by the R.N.A., today's religion reporters are anxious to establish their independence from the organizations and personalities they cover. As is indicated above, this is not an easy issue. In political and other types of reporting, such friendships and ties develop, but reporters must always be careful about them. Ken Briggs of Newsday has raised within R.N.A. the question of whether members should accept awards from the Religious Public Relations Council, and Ben Kaufman of the Cincinnati Enquirer has aired the problem of propriety in subsidized tours of Israel.
This independent, critical stance naturally leads to conflicts with religious officials. There was a time when R.N.A. meetings spent lots of time discussing how to field the attacks from the likes of Carl McIntire. McIntire once crusaded to get Lou Cassels fired at U.P.I., but shortly before he died Cassels wrote an article in which he apologized for labeling McIntire an "ultra-Fundamentalist," and even sent a contribution to McIntire's offshore radio station, in the cause of free speech. With the controversies and institutional decline of "Establishment" churches since the late 1960s, reporters are taking noticeable flak from mainstream churchmen. This give-and-take is as it should be when religious leaders are doing things, and when reporters are doing their job.
2. Investigation. As a result of increasing independence, religion reporters are devoting more effort to the expensive, time-consuming art of investigation. This, of course, follows a trend in the press in general. Some noteworthy examples are the first report on Garner Ted Armstrong's exile from the super-secret Worldwide Church of God, by Earl Hansen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; a later story on allegations of adultery and money mismanagement at church headquarters, by the Los Angeles Times; a series on Scientology that earned the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a king-sized libel suit; the first thorough report on Ted Patrick's religious abduction ring, by William Willoughby of the Washington Star-News; the "leak" of the big under-wraps survey on U.S. Catholic priests, to Edward Fiske of The New York Times; the Washington Post's detailed description of Korean messiah Sun Myung Moon.
3. Interpretation. There was a day when treacly devotional fare and preachments were commonplace on the nation's religion pages. Now the opinions come from newspapermen. Even "hard news" stories contain more interpretation these days, because TV competition has made daily newspapers become more like magazines. But much more subjective coverage is practiced by such skilled writers as William Wineke of the Wisconsin State Journal of Madison. Willoughby plays it straight in the news stories but writes one of the most individualistic and opinionated local columns for the Star-News. And Lester Kinsolving, an Episcopal priest and widely syndicated columnist, has introduced a highly polemical style to the field.
Whatever the future of these trends, religious Americans can expect that general circulation media coverage of the spiritual kingdoms will be as fascinating as the kingdoms themselves.
Richard N. Ostling, former religion correspondent for Time, is a past president of the Religion Newswriters Association. Formerly a newspaperman and the News Editor of Christianity Today, he is also the author of the "Secrecy in the Church: A Reporter's Case for the Christian's Right to Know" (1974). He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, holding master's degrees in both journalism and religion.