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Ann Rodgers to receive 2018 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award

Monday, August 6, 2018   (0 Comments)
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Ann Rodgers to receive 2018 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award

By Ken Chitwood  //  RNA Treasurer  // University of Florida

 

When the Vatican ordered the bishop of Pittsburgh to reinstate a pedophile priest, then Pittsburgh religion reporter Ann Rodgers received the decision even before the bishop himself.

When an evangelist was making false claims about miracles in a Houston hospital, Rodgers did the hard yards of investigation and spotted the fake.

And when she was invited to join Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday procession in St. Peter’s Square, Rodgers waved a palm and reported back to Pennsylvania on the experience.

In addition to serving as president of the Religion News Association during a time of significant transition and growth, Rodgers faithfully served on the religion beat in New Hampshire, Florida, and finally in Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than three decades. 

For her many years of work in religion newswriting and service to RNA, Rodgers will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 69th Annual RNA Conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 15.

The William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001 and is presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion newswriting.

After receiving her journalism degree from Northwestern University in 1978 and earning a master’s in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1980, Rodgers went on to report on religion for various publications including the Concord Monitor, the News-Press in Ft. Myers, Fla., the Pittsburgh Press, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There, she enjoyed an award-winning career on the religion beat for more than 20 years.

She served on the RNA board from 2005 to 2013, finishing her years as president. She is now the director of the department of communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“The day Ann Rodgers called me to tell me she was leaving the board and the profession, I shed not a few tears,” said Manya Brachear Pashman, president of the RNA board. “She has always been a legend among us, not to mention a leader. As it turns out, she didn't go anywhere. Her generosity, sage advice and encouragement have continued even while she serves in her new role.”

Her former editors agree that Rodgers has served in both positions with integrity and skill.

"On either side of the tracks — whether as a religion reporter for the Post-Gazette or as the spokeswoman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh — Ann has exemplified the finest values of the institutions she represents and the topic she masters," said David Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It’s rare to excel at one. To excel at both is, well, divine."

Rodgers’ career in religion journalism started with the story of three U.S. Catholic missionaries murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Rodgers received a phone call from a woman who was best friends with one of the murdered nuns and reported on the life and character of woman who lost her life. Rodgers’ story received positive feedback from readers, accolades from her peers, and earned her third place honors behind two major newspapers in a national competition.

“It was surprising that the little Concord Monitor came right behind these major papers,” said Rodgers. Soon after she was offered an official assignment covering religion in 1981. She has not looked back since.

Rodgers believes that reporting on religion “is the most interesting beat there is.” She said, “religion journalism lets you ask the why” behind the surveys, polls, squabbles, crimes and surprising news stories that hit the front page.

“There are no better questions, no more meaningful questions than the ones you ask covering religion on a regular basis,” she said. She learned that lesson in a profound way with a painful story that left an impact on her for years.

In 1993, a psychotic Amishman named Edward Gingerich killed his wife, Katie. He was found guilty but mentally ill and remains the only Amish person to be convicted of homicide.

Rodgers was only peripherally involved with the police and court coverage, but in 1996 discovered that some Amish communities were trying to get Gingerich out of the psychiatric care of the state to monitor him at home.

“These people were fighting to make this dangerous, paranoid schizophrenic man, their neighbor,” Rodgers said.

She worked to gain the confidence of the Amish communities, making acquaintances at quilt auctions and letting it be known that she took their spiritual concerns seriously.

“For them this whole story turned on the question of what it means to forgive,” she said. “They felt that if they believed things about forgiveness and repentance, they needed to put it into action.”

Gingerich ended up committing suicide and was buried next to the wife he murdered. Still the burial was, as Rodgers wrote in 2011, “a gesture of conciliation that remains as bitterly disputed as his life had been.”

For Rodgers, the tragic story highlighted the importance of understanding the role of religion even when covering a true crime story. The narrative of a community seeking forgiveness in a situation wrought with anger, pain and justice also illustrated how much the specialty of religion newswriting matters.

Tom Birdsong, senior assistant managing editor at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette credits Rodgers with teaching him that lesson too. At one time, the paper had three people assigned to the beat.

“We expanded the beat to not only get her some help but to give other people expertise in covering religion,” he said. “We realized through her that it was important.”

“It was great having a reporter like Ann working for you because you didn’t have to worry about that piece of the news,” he added. “You knew she was on top of everything, not just locally, but nationally and internationally.”

As more media outlets shift to digital platforms, Rodgers believes that “great religion journalism is continuing to be done.”

“It is critical for our society to have significant and trusted sources of news that people read together, debate together, and use as a basis for making decisions about their lives and society,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers said the future of religion journalism rests with the members of RNA. Individual members inspired and mentored her along the way — Richard Ostling, John Dart and the late Billie Cheney Speed. But above all, Rodgers credits the organization for showing her the way.

Rodgers said RNA always has been “the universe you lived in for getting information — not just the subject, but the means of accessing it.”

That is just one reason she is honored and excited to accept the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award in September.

“This is the highest professional honor that I could ever receive,” she said. “It is an affirmation of a 30-year career that I sometimes had to fight to hang on to.”

“Almost everybody who is on this beat feels it is so hard to explain what you do for a living,” she said. “To have that affirmation that what you did was significant from your peers — the only people who really understand what you do — that means the world.”

 

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